President Clinton declared Tuesday night that the United States would do whatever is necessary to force Saddam Hussein to cooperate with United Nations inspectors seeking to eliminate Iraq’s arsenal of chemical and biological weapons.
“I know I speak for everyone in this chamber, Republicans and Democrats, when I say to Saddam Hussein: ‘You cannot defy the will of the world. You have used weapons of mass destruction before. We are determined to deny you the capacity to use them again,”’ Clinton said in his State of the Union address.
In political terms, President Clinton is battling charges that he had a sexual relationship with a White House intern, then coached her to deny it under oath. Does he have the credibility to launch an effective military assault?
In diplomatic terms, there is not nearly the international consensus for military action against Saddam that there was in the wake of Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Can America persuade Russia, skeptical Arab nations, and its own reluctant allies that an attack will be fruitful?
Although Iraq’s military has never fully recovered from defeat in the Gulf War, Pentagon planners say Saddam has dispersed his forces, his weapons facilities and his command centers, and also buried more of them deeper underground, making them harder to find and destroy.
United Nations inspectors in Iraq had a difficult time keeping tabs on all of Iraq’s weapons and facilities; the job is much harder for reconnaissance planes and satellites.
“We have seen U.N. inspectors waiting to come in one door. And we have seen Iraqis going out the back door with boxes,” said a senior defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “What we can’t see is inside the buildings.”
Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon listed “a range of targets” important to Baghdad’s arms program or to the security of Saddam. These include suspected weapons production facilities, warehouses, and military sites where Iraq may be working on missiles that can deliver poison gas.
Other potential targets include Iraq’s elite Republican Guard units, which help keep the regime in power, as well as command and communication centers, Bacon said.
The United States has 325 aircraft in the area at desert bases and aboard two aircraft carriers, the USS Nimitz and the USS George Washington. A third carrier, the USS Independence, is due in the Persian Gulf early next month. A British carrier, the HMS Invincible, also has been ordered to the Gulf.
The administration’s efforts to muster support for an attack have so far been overshadowed by the crisis in the White House. Despite Clinton’s troubles, a bipartisan consensus is developing in Congress in favor of an attack, should Saddam continue to block U.N. inspections.
“I will strongly defend the president if he takes military action because I believe we’ve pretty well exhausted every other option,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Tuesday. “I think we’re getting to a point where it’s not a question of whether, it’s a question of when and how.”
Overseas, however, there is considerable reluctance to support renewed military action against Iraq.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will visit Europe and the Middle East to solidify the anti-Iraq alliance and plan strategy. She will see British and French leaders in their capitals and meet Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov, probably in Madrid.
Primakov is a central player in the United Nations’ dance with Saddam. He tried unsuccessfully to find a way to avoid the 1991 Gulf War and, in November, negotiated an end to a crisis over U.N. weapons inspections. One of Primakov’s deputies arrived in Baghdad on Tuesday to meet with the Iraqi leadership.
The president’s political troubles will make even harder the difficult task of rallying foreign opinion behind a military strike, said Leslie Gelb, president of the Council on Foreign Relations.
While Saddam needs to worry that Clinton will turn to force to prove his mettle, said Gelb, the scandal has weakened the president’s hand: “Our friends and allies are less likely to go along with strong military action now because they’re uncertain about his future. They would wonder about his longevity and in that sense, he’s weakened.”
The greatest hurdle may be convincing allies and adversaries alike that even a sustained air attack will achieve the desired results. Even a massive U.S.-led strike against Iraq is unlikely to change Saddam’s behavior, said Philip Gold, a defense analyst for the conservative Discovery Institute in Seattle.
“If our objective is to knock stuff down for the objective of knocking stuff down, then we can do that forever,” Gold said. “But I cannot see anything that can be done here by air power alone that can make the difference. I do not see how air power will make this man change.”