When it comes to U.S., Hussein knows how to punch all the enraging buttons

January 16, 1993|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The air strike against Iraq on Wednesday -- and the persistent expectation that there may be more -- highlight Saddam Hussein's unique role in the somewhat frazzled new world order: He has become the sole target of consistently applied, U.S.-led world punishment.

Mr. Hussein created the role for himself with a spectacular act of aggression followed by repeated attempts to flout or evade United Nations' mandates.

But the concentrated U.S.-led enforcement against Iraq contrasts sharply with world inaction in Bosnia -- where similar sanctions exist -- and elsewhere, undercutting the U.N. credibility in the Muslim world and casting the United States, rather than the Security Council itself, as world policeman.

"Iraq is a very special case," says Richard Gardner, a former U.S. diplomat and professor of international law at Columbia. Its "unambiguous" aggression against Kuwait, past use of weapons of mass destruction and threat to world oil combine to make it a unique target, he says.

Since the gulf war cease-fire, the United States, along with Britain and France, has been determined not to allow Iraq to regain by stealth what it lost in battle.

The April 1991 cease-fire resolution gave the U.N. broad authority to track down and demolish Iraq's nuclear, biological and chemical weapons capability, seen as a grave threat to the region.

No explicit authorization

A follow-up resolution demanded that Iraq stop repressing its population and empowered the United Nations to supply humanitarian relief throughout the country.

Wednesday's raid was not explicitly authorized by the United Nations. Rather, the three allies interpreted earlier resolutions as giving them authority to strike and nobody argued, except Iraq.

To keep Mr. Hussein's forces from bombarding his Kurdish subjects in northern Iraq and Shiites in the south, the three allies set up and patrolled no-fly zones closing Iraqi airspace to Iraq's own aircraft. The resolutions themselves don't mention the zones, but only Iraq has challenged them.

The military justification for Wednesday's raids took matters a step further by targeting the threat to allied air patrols over the southern zone from Iraqi missiles stationed on the ground.

Additionally, it could be argued that Iraq's ban on U.N. aircraft carrying weapons inspectors and its incursions over the Kuwaiti border to reclaim munitions amounted to violations of the ceasefire resolutions.

The Balkan difference

In the case of the former Yugoslavia, the authority for military action to help civilians is more explicit, but the enforcement has been less forceful.

A resolution adopted in August authorizes "all necessary measures" to assure that relief supplies get through to starving -- and now freezing -- Bosnians besieged in Sarajevo and other parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina. This resolution contained the same language that gave a U.S.-led coalition authority to launch Operation Desert Storm, which drove Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

Another resolution specifically bans military flights over Bosnia-Herzegovina, and says that if violations occur, the council would "urgently" consider enforcement measures. Under European pressure, however, the resolution was drafted so as to prevent strong military enforcement without further council action.

Months afterward, with the toll of casualties and atrocities mounting in the Balkans, the the United Nations continues to rely on negotiation and persuasion to get aid through and to try to put an end to the fighting.

While they do so, it's lately been discovered that U.N. forces have allowed the Serbs to skim off a significant amount of the relief supplies, putting the world body in the position of aiding militiamen widely viewed as the aggressors in the conflict.

And despite hundreds of violations of the no-fly zone, the Security Council is unlikely to enforce it at least until after Bill Clinton, who has pushed for tougher action, takes office.

Even then, Mr. Clinton's more aggressive inclinations may be stayed. Diplomats trying to negotiate a peaceful settlement of the Balkans war argue that the use of military force would only make their task more difficult and endanger U.N. peacekeeping forces on the ground.

Moreover, any attempt to enforce U.N. resolutions militarily could be met with a much more lethal reaction from Serbian forces than the raids on Iraq have encountered.

Need a consensus

"Enforcement always is a political decision," says Donald F. McHenry, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and now a professor of diplomacy and international politics at Georgetown University.

"It's always nice to try and say, 'Do the same thing in every case,' but that's not the way the world works."

In the case of Bosnia, he said, "You don't have a political consensus for the exercise of force. . . . You can never carry an action beyond the consensus."

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