Iraq: Would The U.S. Be Bombing Itself In The Foot?

The Clinton Administration is rapidly painting itself into a corner over Iraq. Daily, U.S. officials are making thinly veiled threats to mount massive bombing raids to force strongman Saddam Hussein to relent and allow unimpeded access to U.N. weapons inspectors. Already, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and Defense Secretary William S. Cohen are due to confer with foreign leaders as though air strikes were inevitable. "[Saddam] cannot defy the will of the world," said President Clinton in his Jan. 27 State of the Union address.

The U.S. has overwhelming military superiority compared with a weakened Iraq. But diplomatically, President Clinton may find it hard to punch this full weight. The gulf war coalition, already sapped by the ineffective verbal face-off, could easily snap. So far, only Britain is ready to have a go at Saddam. France and Russia have flatly rejected the use of force.

Some countries in the region, say analysts, fear internal upheavals much more than an attack by Iraq. The Saudis and Kuwait, for example, worry that a strike "would get them into more trouble with the Islamic extremists," says Sharif Ghalib, chief economist at Kuwait's Gulf Investment Corp. All the same, Administration officials insist that although they won't say it out loud, many U.S. allies would like to see Saddam humiliated.

IMPOSSIBLE TASK? The trouble is, anything less than a knockout blow to Saddam could leave the U.S. and its friends worse off than before. The situation could revert back to pre-gulf war days, when countries such as Saudi Arabia balked at allowing U.S. forces onto their territory. With the stakes so high, says Richard W. Murphy, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations: "They don't want to see another feckless pinprick operation."

Israeli officials, for their part, are keeping a low profile but are increasingly concerned about delays in the destruction of Iraqi weapons. They doubt, however, that there's a big risk that Saddam would retaliate for an American raid by hitting Israel with chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons. If he were to, he'd be admitting that Iraq still has hidden arms caches and would provide justification for both the raids and the need for U.N. inspections.

Even if the Pentagon goes ahead with a substantial air campaign, it's far from clear what that would achieve on the ground. Administration officials concede that even heavy raids wouldn't eliminate all weapons of mass destruction. That would take an invasion and occupation, which the American public wouldn't stomach.

Other alternatives look just as flawed. Some policy experts say the U.S. should take a completely different diplomatic tack. For instance, the Council's Murphy argues that complete elimination of Iraqi chemical and biological weapons is an impossible task. Nor is it necessary. During Desert Storm, the Bush Administration deterred Saddam from using chemical and biological weapons by threatening massive retaliation. Besides, the world is living with similar arsenals in rogue states such as Iran and Syria. So, Murphy argues, the U.S. should aim to slow down Saddam's programs, monitor Iraq's military operations, and put tough restraints on how it spends its money. "Those goals are clear and achievable," he says.

OUT OF TIME. But the Administration has rejected this approach. Whatever its merits, that option is now out of time. This late in the fast-moving crisis, it would look like capitulation to Saddam by the U.S. and its allies.

In trying to mobilize the allies, the Administration faces a mountain of credibility problems. Bill Clinton's Presidency is besieged by tawdry scandals that are still unfolding. As a result and however wrongly, says William B. Quandt, a professor at the University of Virginia, even U.S. allies may suspect that "this is just American domestic politics playing itself out."

The use of force may still be averted, of course. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Viktor Posuvalyuk is making a last-ditch effort to persuade Saddam to comply with U.N. demands. Saddam could cave, as he has in the past. But his recent demands for an end to economic sanctions make that prospect remote.

The White House insists it wants mainly to diminish Iraq's ability to make weapons and threaten its neighbors. Engineering Saddam's downfall would be a plus. But if--when the dust settles either after accentuated diplomacy or a shooting war--Saddam and some fertilizer plants that can make horrific weapons remain intact, the U.S. and its allies may look weaker than they ever dreamed possible.

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