Facing mounting Republican criticism, President Clinton said Saturday that U.S. air strikes against Iraq “tightened the strategic straitjacket” around President Saddam Hussein and “advanced America’s fundamental interests in the region.”
The president used his weekly radio address to spell out his policy goals in Iraq after a week in which the White House appeared to move to the brink of a new confrontation with Baghdad, then paused as the Iraqi government abruptly announced Friday that it would no longer shoot at U.S. jets enforcing no-flight zones in northern and southern Iraq.
Clinton said Saturday that when Saddam sent troops into the Kurdish regions of northern Iraq late last month and helped one of two competing Kurdish factions seize the city of Erbil, “we responded strongly, immediately and strategically” with air strikes.
“If we had failed to answer Saddam’s provocation, he would have been emboldened to act even more recklessly and in a manner more dangerous to our interests,” Clinton said.
He said the United States had responded by striking at air defenses in southern Iraq, instead of intervening in the north, because that is the region, nearer to Kuwaiti and Saudi Arabian oil fields, “where our interests are the most vital and where we had the capacity to increase the international community’s ability to deter aggression by Saddam against his neighbors.”
Clinton’s radio address came against the backdrop of increasing criticism by Republicans who have said that the president had failed to outline clear policy goals in his use of air strikes against Iraq, had not responded forcefully enough to Saddam’s incursion in the Kurdish regions and had allowed the Iraqi dictator to split the alliance that defeated him in the Persian Gulf war in 1991.
Republican vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp has been particularly outspoken in recent days, saying Clinton’s “vague and uncertain” policy had allowed Saddam to accomplish many of his aims, including extending his control over northern Iraq.
Some independent policy analysts have also questioned whether the air strikes were more of a symbolic show of force, because Saddam could still use his army, as he has in the past when he has wanted to threaten his neighbors to the south.
The confrontation with Baghdad began Aug. 31 when Saddam’s forces moved into the Kurdish region in northern Iraq and helped one Kurd faction seize the city of Irbil and rout its Iranian-backed rivals.
Clinton responded by ordering air strikes in which 44 cruise missiles were launched against Saddam’s air defenses.