Defense Secretary William S. Cohen sought Saturday to lower public expectations about the effect of possible new air strikes against Iraq, saying military action would not be aimed at toppling Iraqi President Saddam Hussein or devastating the country and would stand little chance even of obliterating Iraq’s capability to produce chemical and biological weapons.
Cohen said any U.S. bombing campaign would be “significant” and “something more than a pinprick,” targeted against not only sites used to store or produce weapons of mass destruction but also missile facilities and other military assets that enable Saddam “to threaten his neighbors.” But the Pentagon leader stressed that military action is “no adequate substitute” for having United Nations inspectors on the ground ferreting out Iraq’s hidden arsenal.
“If one has to resort to military options, we should not overestimate what they will in fact achieve,” Cohen told reporters. “Let’s not raise unreasonable expectations.”
His remarks represented a determined Clinton administration attempt, amid the increasing likelihood of air strikes, to spell out achievable objectives limited to curtailing Iraqi capabilities. While President Clinton last week repeatedly asserted his goal to deny Iraq the ability to make and use nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, his aides acknowledge a lack of military means to realize that end.
For one thing, U.S. authorities have only incomplete information about the location of Iraqi stockpiles and weapons production facilities. Additionally, Cohen said the Iraqis could rebuild facilities damaged by bombing “fairly quickly.”
“You can never have a complete elimination of weapons of mass destruction simply by attacking them from the air,” he said.
Nonetheless, in the face of Iraq’s continued defiance of U.N. inspectors, administration officials in recent days have conveyed a sense of growing momentum toward bombardment of Iraq. In London on a diplomatic mission to rally support for using force, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright presented herself at a news conference Saturday with her British counterpart, Robin Cook, as standing “shoulder to shoulder” in their assessment that the confrontation with Iraq has reached a “very grave” stage.
Cook said the next two weeks should be devoted to stepped-up efforts to persuade Iraq it has no choice but to fully comply with the terms of U.N. disarmament resolutions that ended the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
At the same time, Russia launched a fresh initiative to forestall U.S. and British air strikes, dispatching Deputy Foreign Minister Viktor Posuvalyuk to Baghdad.
This is Posuvalyuk’s second trip to Baghdad in a week. During his first visit he was unable to persuade the Iraqi leader to permit the inspections in return for altering the makeup of the inspection team and reducing American influence on it.
White House aides have said Clinton is prepared to order air strikes even if other nations object. The U.S. position is that existing U.N. resolutions provide sufficient authority for military action.
But British officials are said to be divided on this point, and there are political sensitivities in London to participating in a military campaign in which the United States would otherwise stand alone. For those reasons Albright and her team endorsed the British effort to craft a U.N. security council resolution on Iraq.