What next

Leslie H. Gelb

January 15, 1993|By Leslie H. Gelb

GOOD! The U.S. and friends finally rebuked Saddam Hussein in language he seems to comprehend. But Bill Clinton should not expect that the joint air attack -- a rather modest one at that -- will end the Iraqi bad man's insults and evasions of U.N. resolutions. Nor will these rare rebukes dissuade Saddam from continuing cat and mouse games, thus diddling and distracting the new president as he has the outgoing one.

Worse, Saddam may now be ready to go beyond marginal provocations and present Mr. Clinton with a fiendishly tough and intricate choice between another war and "peace."

Saddam's next military challenge might be far more audacious than the mosquito bites he has been taking from President Bush's hide, but far less threatening than his conquest of Kuwait. Mr. Clinton would have to choose between doing nothing, which would be politically unthinkable, and hitting back with an attack smaller than Desert Storm, yet much larger than Wednesday's slap and therefore much harder to orchestrate.

Or, more likely, Saddam could concoct a "peace and disarmament package," pledging concessions deeper than anything he ever offered to Mr. Bush if the United States accepts his authority over all Iraq. Mr. Clinton could resist the bait, but that would anger allies now searching to escape the present box. Or he could bite and negotiate, which would restore Saddam's legitimacy.

Maybe these scenarios give Saddam too much credit. Perhaps he is just a megalomaniacal jerk whose only purpose in violating U.N. restrictions in recent weeks has been to irritate his departing archnemesis, George Bush -- even at the cost of a U.S. retaliatory blow.

Administration experts, however, see domestic political reasons for Saddam's madness. They say he has been tweaking Mr. Bush recently to show Iraqis he is still boss and to keep his military busy with external threats. But how does Saddam look strong when the U.S. bombs his forces with impunity?

Others in the administration say that Saddam knew what was in store for him, but elected to take the punishment anyway to test Bill Clinton's mettle and chip away at U.N. authority in Iraq. This makes little sense; if he wanted to test Clinton, why did he provoke George Bush? And as Saddam surely knew, Mr. Bush had to respond with force. Saddam must also appreciate that the Bush action established a benchmark that Mr. Clinton must equal or watch his presidency dwindle.

All of which suggests that Saddam may be setting the stage for bigger challenges that, paradoxically, could be less risky for him. Two and a half years ago he grabbed all of Kuwait. Perhaps he has learned that had he simply settled for the northern Kuwaiti oilfields, the West might merely have grumbled and looked away.

So next time he might pose a lesser challenge. He could launch a ground attack against the Kurds in the north or the Shiites in the south.Western airpower alone would be unable to stop these attacks. Western ground troops would be needed. And that might prove very difficult to arrange, as Saddam well knows.

If force seems too risky -- as it probably does -- Saddam could float a sweetened peace proposal. He could accept U.N. demands to freely inspect and dismantle his weapons of mass destruction, and to earmark most Iraqi oil proceeds for war reparations and pledge greater autonomy for Kurds and Shiites. In return, he could ask "only" for U.N. recognition of Baghdad's authority over all Iraq. The Clinton team has already gotten such feelers.

Saddam may reckon even now that such war or peace games could prove good gambles. Western will to fight a second major war against Iraq is eroding. Not only Bill Clinton, but every other Western leader wants to concentrate on domestic problems. The resistance of Western and Arab leaders to a "peace" with Iraq is also waning.

Increasingly, they see Iran as the greater future threat and are more willing to contemplate Iraq's reconstruction as a buffer to Iran.

Whatever Saddam chooses, new bold moves or the piddling old ones, Mr. Clinton must not permit him to retain the initiative. To take it away, the new president must forge a policy that anticipates and heads off trouble.

Compared with Mr. Bush's, it must promise swifter and firmer punishment, a tighter economic embargo and a diplomatic track with imagination.

Leslie H. Gelb is a columnist for the New York Times.

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