In ordering cruise missile attacks against Iraq the past two days, the Clinton administration said its provocation was Iraq’s weekend military thrust into northern Kurdish havens.
But in choosing targets in southern Iraq for the U.S. military response, the administration made clear that its action is directed less at reversing Iraq’s military gains than at undermining and intimidating the longtime U.S. adversary, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
The seeming disconnect between the Iraqi action and the U.S. response, administration officials said, stemmed from two realities that guided Washington’s strategy. One was that geographical limitations and diplomatic problems made it awkward to carry out actions related directly to Saturday’s seizure by Iraqi troops of the northern city of Irbil.
The other is that the United States has a continuing desire to diminish any prospect of future Iraqi aggression south toward Persian Gulf oil fields. By striking Iraqi radar sites and extending a no-fly zone in the southern region of Iraq instead of undertaking military action in the northern Kurdish enclave, U.S. officials said, Washington was fulfilling broader goals of curbing Iraq’s forces and protecting its neighbors.
U.S. officials were loath to admit it Tuesday for fear of hinting at any dispute with allies in the region, including Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, but all those nations signaled over the weekend that they would not support U.S. military attacks on Iraq launched from their soil in response to the Irbil attack.
They closed this door even though Clinton said he was acting in part to deter future Iraqi aggression against them. As a result, the attacks that the United States launched seemed to have less of a geopolitical rationale than a personal one against Saddam.
“Hussein’s objectives may change, but his methods are always the same: violence and aggression,” Clinton said in his early morning, televised announcement of the first wave of missile strikes.
White House press secretary Michael McCurry later added that Washington hopes the expansion of the area in which Iraqi flights are barred would “humiliate” Saddam in front of his military.
McCurry and other administration officials asserted repeatedly Tuesday that domestic political considerations played no part in the administration’s calculations as it crafted a response.
The chronology they offered Tuesday, however, made it plain that Clinton was forced to make his judgments at a time of exquisite political sensitivity.
While U.S. intelligence agencies had been reporting signs of Iraqi military movement for several days, administration aides said it was not until last Wednesday that the gravity of the situation in the north first became sharply evident.
This was the day that Clinton approved a diplomatic “demarche” to Iraq, warning Saddam not to take aggressive action around Irbil. As it happened, this was the same day that Clinton was finishing a four-day train trip through the Midwest that would take him to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
It was also a day when he had two other big subjects on his mind. Aides said he was still immersed in making revisions to the acceptance speech he would deliver the next night. Also on the train that day, Clinton was first informed of the alleged sex scandal that hours later would force the resignation of his political consultant, Dick Morris.
Despite the disturbing intelligence reports, and despite the demarche to Iraq, it was not until two days later - one day after the speech and one day before the occupation of Irbil - that the administration raised the profile of the issue with dire public statements.
For the next several days, until Monday night, Clinton was juggling his domestic politics with a rapidly escalating confrontation overseas. After the administration’s national security team at the White House on Saturday recommended a military response, Clinton approved the recommendation that afternoon, on board a diesel-belching bus at a campaign stop in Tennessee.
Administration officials said the initial plan for punishing Iraq included not merely expanding the southern no-fly zone, but also creating a new corridor of restricted airspace in the west. But this option was rejected in part because of opposition from Saudi Arabia.
In order to work out this and other details, the initial plan to strike Iraq on Sunday was delayed by a day. Clinton authorized the final attack plan while campaigning in De Pere, Wis., on Monday afternoon.
But this flurry of last-minute activity came within a longer context of anxiety about Iraq.
U.S. policy-makers had been watching developments with concern throughout the summer, notably including Iraq’s refusal in June and July to allow United Nations inspections of some storage sites in Iraq under Saddam’s direct control where he was suspected of harboring documents or weaponry that should have been surrendered shortly after the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
These confrontations provoked the administration to begin preparing a list of measures that the U.N. Security Council might take to step up pressure on Iraq, topped by various economic penalties. U.S. officials even urged other nations on the council on several occasions to consider declaring Iraq in “material breach” of its obligation to allow the U.N. inspections, a legal turn of phrase that would have formally allowed the resumption of military action against Iraq by a coalition of nations.