National security officials involved in past confrontations with Iraq are pressing President Clinton to go beyond the small-scale attacks of recent years and conduct sustained strikes if diplomacy fails to end the standoff with Baghdad.
Former officials, including those from top ranks of the State Department, CIA and National Security Council, are weighing in on a growing debate about how big - and potentially risky - a military approach the United States should consider.
The clamor for tougher action, coming particularly from members of former President Bush’s foreign policy team, is much stronger than during confrontations with Iraq in 1993, 1994 and 1996.
The officials are urging Clinton to move beyond the “pinprick” missile and air strikes of the past unless diplomacy and sanctions persuade Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to allow American weapons inspectors to return to their duties overseeing the dismantling of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.
In recent days, former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker has warned that “the only thing that (Hussein’s) going to understand is strength and resolve and force,” while former CIA chief Robert Gates has called for a “powerful” air and missile campaign against Iraq’s elite Republican Guard if talk doesn’t work.
Several of these former officials have argued publicly that Clinton’s past measures, such as the relatively mild missile strikes, could be worse than nothing at all because they would convince Hussein that he can defy the fragmented Persian Gulf War alliance.
Some of the advisers have been more outspoken than others, but their views are “pretty close” to one another, said Richard Haass, who was the top National Security Council adviser on the region during the war.
The advisers “have been part of the conversation” about what to do in Iraq, one White House official said.
Baker said he believes that Clinton must step up efforts to mend an alliance that Bush and his team worked furiously to hold together in 1990 and 1991. Clinton should not turn to a missile strike in Baghdad without allied approval, as the United States did in 1993 in an attack to punish Iraq for plotting to assassinate Bush, because such a move would split the allies, Baker said.
“That’s what got the coalition separated the last time,” Baker said. “We went out there and hit them on our own, and we didn’t go a good job of consultation.”
But he insisted that “we ought to take whatever forceful steps are required.”
Brent Scowcroft, Bush’s national security adviser during the war, believes the administration has exhausted almost all economic and diplomatic steps that might work with Hussein.
“I think it is unlikely that anything but military force will be sufficient for him,” Scowcroft said. The comments of Baker and Scowcroft were made in interviews with CNN.
Scowcroft said Clinton’s move should come quickly - “the sooner the better.”
Like Baker, Haass said the administration must move beyond “pinprick” cruise missile strikes. In an interview, Haass argued for an air campaign of not one but many attacks against military and political targets, designed to show Hussein that the allies will continue to hit him for as long as he holds out.
The goal is not to punish, he said, but to convince the Iraqi regime that it is futile to resist.
Winning U.N. Security Council support for such a campaign will be “extraordinarily hard to impossible,” Haass conceded. But if efforts to enlist the United Nations fail, he said, the United States may be able to line up an informal coalition, perhaps including Britain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Considering the damage Hussein can do with his weapons programs, “I don’t see how we can allow Saddam to continue without an effective weapons inspection,” he said.
Gates, the former CIA director, also weighed in last week with a warning that Hussein has absorbed U.S. cruise missile strikes in the past “and then boasted to his people and his neighbors that he can take whatever the Americans can dish out.”
He called for a sustained air campaign against military targets that would persuade Hussein to accept U.S. involvement in inspections.
Bush has been less outspoken. In an appearance earlier this month at the opening of his presidential library in Texas, Bush seemed to hint at how he believes Hussein should be treated.
The right approach is to be “firm with this man,” Bush said, adding that Clinton had been taking just that approach.