When the Cuban missile crisis suddenly ended with Jack Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev dancing on the cliff of nuclear war, Adlai Stevenson flashed an exultant quote:
“We were eyeball to eyeball and the other side just blinked.”
But there was no such White House jubilation, no wild hosannas of relief, 35 years later when the standoff with Saddam Hussein ended with a whimper, not a bang.
No champagne glasses clinked, nobody used the word “victory.”
From muted Bill Clinton to F-16 pilots in their flight suits aboard Gulf carriers, nobody thought it was really over.
So long as there is oil to protect and Saddam to plot mischief, there’ll be Iraq Crisis No. 1,001.
As Clinton’s skeptical foreign policy adviser, Sandy Berger, sighed, “I’d rather read the last chapter of this book to decide whether I like it or not.”
Saddam ducked a haymaker he saw coming at him fast.
He must have known Clinton had given a green light to the heaviest aerial whacking of Iraq since the ‘91 Gulf War - not merely Cruise-missile pin pricks but bombs blowing holes in Saddam’s palaces.
Saddam grabbed a face-saving deal from the Russians, let U.N. inspectors back on his turf and declared himself winner.
No wonder Clinton & Co. wore somber frowns instead of celebratory grins. They had to tolerate Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov, a wily operative they do not trust, chortling, “Russia, without force, violence or weapons, achieved this by diplomacy.”
Worse, no matter how Clinton and his cohort spun the story, there was grudging realization that survivor Saddam had pulled off another Houdini act.
Bluntly, I’d say Saddam won this round.
Reason? He’d manufactured a crisis - maybe with a nudge from the Russians - that showed starkly how isolated is the United States as policeman of Gulf oil fields.
Unlike Bush, who could ring up plenty of help in 1990-91 when Iraq barged into Kuwait, Clinton got busy signals from the old gang. Sorry, Mr. President, we haven’t got a dog in that fight. Clinton’s New World Order consisted of Britian’s Tony Blair, period.
Even the Kuwaitis balked - hey, the oil fires were out, they’ve got their Mercedes and gold plumbing back, thanks to Schwarzkopf’s tanks, so why worry?
“Saddam was clever. He showed the coalition is badly split,” said ex-Secretary of State James Baker. “Russia and the French have commercial interests in Iraq. China’s against using force. The Arab countries no longer see us as an honest Middle East broker. They’d like sanctions ended so business can go on.”
Translation: The United States is a lonely cop walking the Gulf patrol.
Clinton’s message that inspections must bottle up Saddam’s hide-and-cheat, poisonous weaponry draws a blank. “We must do it for the world’s children,” preached Clinton. Iraq’s appeasers retort: Fine, you’ve got aircraft carriers, Tomahawks and bombers - you supply the muscle.
Show them the money. Russia brokered this deal because it wants Iraq free to pay old weapons debts. The French? It’s the cynical underpinning of every Persian Gulf crisis: Cherchez la oil.
Sure, the Clinton team, wary of Republican hawks howling it had kowtowed to Saddam in a 1997 Munich, was loudly adamant: We made no secret deals.
“No carrot, no wink, no blink,” insisted U.N. chief delegate Bill Richardon.
“We made no concessions,” said foreign adviser Berger. “Whatever Russia did was on its own. I have a hard time computing this as anything but a setback for Saddam.”
Maybe Berger should recheck his computer. Any way you add the score, Saddam emerged ahead on points:
With U.N. inspectors blinded, he got a 10-day window to mix chemical and biological horrors he might someday bristle at neighbors, mainly Israel. Now, more deceptions, denials and doubletalk.
He can strut as hero on “Day of the People” for again tweaking the beard of The Great Satan.
He has Russia’s vow to play advocate, pushing the lifting of trade sanctions against Iraq, in a U.N. Security Council stormily divided.
“He’s shown he can defy the power of the United States and will of the U.N., and get away with it,” said Ahmad Chalabi, Iraqi exile who wants to replace Saddam.
The losers are U.S. taxpayers who foot the tab for the military pressure.
How much? As the late Carl Sagan said of planets, “Bill-yuns and bill-yuns.” Even as Saddam backed down, B-52’s armed with Cruise missiles and F-117 Stealth fighters roared off U.S. soil for Gulf bases. Taking no chances on a Saddam mousetrap, Clinton is copying the Bush-Powell-Schwarzkopf play book: overwhelming force.
Think of it as dough invested to keep our Blazers, Cherokees and Expeditions guzzling down the interstates of America.
It’s not cheap, being lone cop on the oil beat.