The Showdown With Saddam: How Bad A Blow For Washington?

With his power to shape domestic affairs ebbing, Bill Clinton--like many second-term Presidents before him--hoped to play a far more assertive role in global affairs. But his wobbly performance in his showdown with Saddam Hussein is raising fresh doubts about whether the President or his new foreign-policy team are up to the task.

After the Iraqi strongman ousted U.S. members of a U.N. weapons inspection team, Clinton stood firm. He demanded unconditional compliance with U.N. on-site inspections, threatening military action if Iraq balked. But now the Administration appears to be wavering. On the table are sweeteners to get inspectors back into Iraq, ranging from expanding a humanitarian food-for-oil program to possibly negotiating a timetable to end sanctions. Moreover, Washington has let Russia's most skillful Arabist, Foreign Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov, broker a deal that could save face for Saddam and enhance Moscow's Mideast clout.

Clinton's desire to exhaust all diplomatic avenues may be laudable. But his execution has unsettled critics at home. Some State Dept. Mideast specialists worry that Clinton may cave in to Saddam. Outside experts are assailing the Administration for a policy of appeasement that could encourage other regional despots to test U.S. resolve. "If Saddam comes out of this thinking he got something, he will do it again," warns Kenneth M. Pollack, a Persian Gulf analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Saddam won't be the only one to make that calculation. "Around the world, people will now decide that it's worth testing Mr. Clinton," says Karl D. Jackson, a former Bush Administration national security official.

ALLIED DISUNITY. It is far from clear that the latest round of diplomacy will defuse the crisis. The Pentagon is continuing the biggest buildup of troops in the region since the 1991 gulf war. If Saddam overplays his hand, armed conflict is still a possibility. But this time, U.S. allies have little stomach for military action. To avoid a deeper rift in the alliance, Clinton is going to extraordinary lengths to negotiate. "We could be talking for several weeks," says a top White House official.

Clinton's room to maneuver is slim because of the collapse of the U.S.-led Mideast peace process. American influence in the region has receded to the point that Arab leaders are boycotting a Washington-backed economic conference in Qatar but will attend an Islamic summit that Iran is hosting.

U.S. weakness has created the void that is allowing Russia to step in with a peace initiative and renew old ties to Baghdad. Russia has a big financial stake in any deal that leads to the end of economic sanctions. Iraq owes Russia $7 billion, which it can only repay by selling oil again. Besides, Moscow is a major oil customer, eager to invest in Iraqi energy projects. "We have an interest in rebuilding our position there," says Sergei Karaganov, chairman of Russia's Council on Foreign & Defense Policy.

This view underscores the most serious split between the U.S. and its allies. The White House wants the economic stranglehold on Iraq to remain in place as long as Saddam is in power. The Europeans, like the Russians, have a strong interest in commercial ties to Iraq. Beyond that, most believe that indefinite sanctions give Saddam no incentive to mend his ways. "Sanctions aren't effective," insists a senior French official, "You have to give Saddam not only a stick, but a carrot."

Allied disunity makes finding a way out of the mess much tougher. But self-inflicted fumbles haven't helped. The U.S. botched an Oct. 23 U.N. Security Council vote on a travel ban on Iraqi officials. France and Russia wanted more time to tweak the proposal, but the U.S. and other countries resisted. France, Russia, and others abstained, creating divisions that Saddam could exploit. "It would have been very easy to get a positive result and to preserve the unity of the Security Council," says one European diplomat.

In the end, Clinton may accept an easing of sanctions that would let Iraq sell a bit more oil to raise cash for food and humanitarian aid. And Baghdad may ultimately gain its main diplomatic goal: a timetable to phase out sanctions. In return, Saddam has to do only what he already was obligated to do--allow inspections of suspected weapons sites. "We're essentially playing his game on his turf," gripes Arnold Kanter, a former State Dept. official.

The Administration is trying to put the best face on the standoff, insisting the U.S. isn't making significant concessions. And should the inspections resume without launching a single cruise missile, the President certainly could declare a victory.

Still, if Saddam is emboldened to plot new confrontations, that victory would be fleeting. And the President no doubt would wind up wishing he had struck to his guns--and maybe even used them.

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