The next move is Saddam Hussein’s, following the U.N. Security Council’s condemnation of Iraq on Wednesday for barring international weapons inspectors. But if the Iraqi leader refuses to back down, as his lieutenants promised Wednesday, the focus will return quickly to the United Nations and the White House, where the Clinton administration vows to punish Saddam even if the United States must act alone.
“Our resolve on this is unwavering,” declared Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, invoking the former British prime minister known as the Iron Lady. “This is not, to borrow Margaret Thatcher’s phrase, the time to go wobbly towards Iraq.”
With the unanimous vote of the 15-member Security Council, the Clinton administration won its battle to notify the Iraqis that world opinion opposes Baghdad’s attempts to rebuild its most destructive weapons.
In practical terms, the U.N. resolution only seeks to deny Iraqi leaders the ability to travel abroad until they permit U.N. inspectors - including Americans who have been ordered to leave Iraq - to search the country for poison gas and other deadly armaments. It does not authorize the use of force, which several Security Council members oppose.
Now what? Foreign Minister Saeed al-Sahhaf said Iraq will “definitely” expel U.S. inspectors as planned, while Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz repeated the U.N. measure will not frighten Saddam.
The Clinton administration is not talking publicly about its timetable or its plans, except to remind the Iraqis that 18,500 U.S. troops and 17 ships are prowling nearby. Bill Richardson, the United States’ chief delegate to the United Nations, said, “The deadline for Iraq is very clear: Comply immediately.”
And if not? Further diplomatic steps are one option. An idea circulating among Washington thinkers is to bar Iraq from participating in the United Nations until it honors U.N. resolutions.
“It would be a huge slap in the face,” said Kenneth Pollack, a Persian Gulf specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It would say to Saddam: ‘You are beyond the pale. You will not be a member of the community of nations until you act right. Don’t show your face around here.”’
The difficulty in convincing the Security Council to impose anything harsher than the new travel restrictions indicates the challenges the United States would face if it tried to win U.N. approval for dramatic action.
History, on the other hand, suggests Saddam responds most often to force.
“Saddam understands strong but simple gestures,” said Judith Yaphe, a Middle East expert at the National Defense University. “Anything that is ambiguous, he can turn around to say that he got a victory or that it is unresolved. He only understands a direct and clear response.”
Such a view, widely shared among Iraq watchers, suggests that if Saddam continues to challenge the United Nations, only a military assault might stop him.
But what sort of assault?
“What’s important is to hit targets that would be painful to Saddam,” Pollack said. “That’s been the problem in the past. We picked bad targets.” Last year, U.S. forces targeted Iraqi missile sites. In 1993, U.S. cruise missiles destroyed part of Iraq’s intelligence headquarters.
“So, he loses a few missile batteries. He has more. And, yeah, we blew up a lot of records. I’m sure it angered the Iraqis because a lot of files were incinerated,” said Pollack, tongue-in-cheek. He recommends five potential targets:
Sites where U.N. inspectors suspect the Iraqis are hiding banned weapons;
Barracks housing the Republican Guard forces most loyal to Saddam;
Targets important to the intelligence and security services; Key buildings in Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit or his palaces.
Would a strong military strike work? Saddam chose to endure weeks of fearsome bombing in 1991 rather than surrender Kuwait, even with more than 500,000 foreign soldiers poised to invade. Some analysts speculate he is again spoiling for a fight.
“The problem with Saddam is he’s almost inviting an attack,” Yaphe said. “He almost wants to make the United States attack, to say: ‘See? See what they did? They hit me! They hit me!’ You know how children react. It makes him the underdog, and we’re ‘bullying’ him again.”
The Iraqis already are saying just that. Foreign Minister Sahhaf charged the Americans are “trying to push the region to a crisis.” He appealed to Iraq’s Arab neighbors for solidarity, even as U.S. military leaders worked to gain the support of Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf states and others in the region.