Foreign Policy Blinksmanship

Once again, the United States and Iraq marched to the edge of conflict. And once more, they pulled back at nearly the last minute.

It did not have to be this way. Indeed, there is good reason to feel frustrated with this outcome.

To the brink and back

How the situation reached this point is instructive. Aroused at long last by Iraq’s late-October decision to halt all inspections of known and suspected unconventional weapons sites, the Clinton administration moved to ready a military option. As a result of Saddam’s reaching too far, the diplomatic context hardly could have been better.

Arab governments were willing to countenance an American-led attack. France and Russia—Iraq’s traditional backers—were silent. The U.N. Security Council unanimously condemned Iraq’s behavior; U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan sat on his hands as Iraq violated the accord he had negotiated in February.

With everything in place, the administration refused to pull the trigger. President Bill Clinton and those around him lacked confidence that they could sustain their own plan: an open-ended bombing campaign designed to destroy Iraqi sites associated with missiles, as well as nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, and to attack the military forces Saddam requires for his rule.

Such a campaign might have forced Saddam into a humiliating retreat and allowed inspectors back inside the country. Failing that, it could have placed a ceiling on Iraq’s weapons capabilities by sending bombs where inspectors had been denied. The plan might have triggered some in the Iraqi military to turn against Saddam. By the time the Clinton administration discovered its resolve, it was too late. Now it was Iraq’s turn to blink.

Saddam had underestimated how much force was about to come upon him—and overestimated the degree of international support he had. Hence the flurry of letters and public statements promising to comply fully with U.N. resolutions and allow the inspectors to inspect.

With diplomacy “succeeding,” the moment when force could be used had passed. The time had come for the White House to take “yes” for an answer.

Square one revisited

So we are back where we began, only worse. Once more, Saddam is promising to meet his obligations. But the trail has gone cold—weapons surely have been moved and concealed—and the world has grown that much more tired of this seemingly endless and inconclusive game of cheat and retreat. It is doubtful whether we could revive such a coalition again.

Still the stakes remain enormous. An Iraq left free to develop weapons of mass destruction poses a threat to the oil-producing Arab states and to Israel. Such an Iraq—one that could become the Office Depot of terrorists—also poses a more direct threat to Americans and the United States.

Saddam may well cooperate for a while, and then press for the lifting of sanctions as a reward. Any such gambit should be resisted. Inspectors must be demanding but patient.

The onus must remain on Iraq to prove its compliance and not on inspectors to prove the contrary. In the meantime, sanctions should not be relaxed out of concern for the welfare of the Iraqi people, as Iraq can sell all the oil it needs to pay for all the food and medicine it requires.

Any Iraqi interference whatsoever with the inspections process ought to be met with massive military force. This requires keeping enough forces in the region to initiate and implement (until reinforcements could arrive) the sort of large campaign planned for this time. We should not repeat the mistake of giving Saddam time to escape severe punishment for acts of non-compliance.

This said, there is no telling when we once again might have clear grounds to attack Iraq and international support for so doing. The president and Congress thus are right to explore options for ousting Saddam.

But this avenue is unlikely to offer a panacea. To the contrary, history—including Hungary in 1956 and Cuba a few years later—suggests removing regimes is both difficult and dangerous to accomplish. And even if it one day succeeds (as it did in Afghanistan), that day will be a long time coming.

Regrets, we have a few

For now, the focus must be on containing Saddam, and hitting him long and hard if he again offers a pretext. There is no reason to despair. Containment, after all, worked in defeating and destroying what was the Soviet Union, and containment has limited Iraq’s revival as a threat.

But there are grounds for regret. We just squandered the best opportunity since the end of the Gulf War to weaken Saddam and possibly rid Iraq and the world of his rule.

Alas, even after six years in office, Clinton and his aides remain uncomfortable with the use of military force as an instrument of American foreign policy.