September 2, 1996 in Nation/World

Clinton Between Politics, Pragmatics

R.W. Apple Jr. New York Times

Presidents find it politically useful to stand up to bullies - especially in campaign season. And most especially when their opponents have distinguished war records and they have none.

So it should have come as no surprise that President Clinton responded Saturday to Iraqi moves against the Kurdish-controlled city of Irbil by putting U.S. forces in the region on alert and reinforcing them.

If President Saddam Hussein of Iraq, who permanently was demonized in the West by the Persian Gulf War, continues to press his advantage and if extensive diplomatic efforts produce no satisfactory result, it should come as no surprise to see American warplanes back in action against Baghdad.

Purely in terms of domestic politics, the call is a no-brainer.

But in military and diplomatic terms, Clinton’s decision is much less simple.

The United States can hardly bomb Irbil without inflicting heavy damage on Kurds as well as the Iraqi armored columns that captured the city, and bombing raids of any kind would risk drawing the United States more deeply into a region whose feuds and betrayals make the Balkans look benign.

And Saddam is in a far more credible position than he was when he sent his army racing into Kuwait, an independent country, or even when he stormed into northern Iraq five years ago to put down a rebellion. At that time, the Kurds were more or less united; now, they are split into two factions, one allied with Baghdad and the other with Baghdad’s mortal enemy, Iran.

That split represents a significant failure for American policy, which had sought to promote Kurdish unity through sporadic mediation efforts.

With Kurdish forces fighting on both sides, with and against the Iraqis, the situation becomes far more complex, which is one reason, senior U.S. officials say, that Clinton was careful to specify Saturday that “it is entirely premature to speculate on any response we might have.”

“That means not today and probably not tomorrow,” one of the officials said Sunday. “But it doesn’t mean never. We have to do something.”

The reason is that Saddam has crossed a line that the United States repeatedly told him he dare not cross. Irbil, the unofficial Kurdish capital, lies 12 miles north of the 36th parallel, inside the territory that the United States and its allies declared a Kurdish safe haven after the 1991 war.

Inevitably, the Clilnton administration will contend that the credibility of the United States is threatened.

Equally inevitably, it will be harder now for the United States to rally international support for any action it wants to take. Not only are the Kurds divided, but Saddam apparently also has been careful not to send aircraft into the Irbil area in violation of the allied “no-flight” zone.

But the administration will argue that by taking Irbil, Saddam has violated U.N. Security Council Resolution 688 demanding that the Iraqi leader respect the human rights of all Iraqi citizens, which was the main underpinning for the zone.

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