End of the road for Saddam

Richard H. Ullman

January 18, 1993|By Richard H. Ullman

SO THE coalition's bombers are at it again.

The measured strikes by the United States, France and Britain at air-defense targets in southern Iraq should have been no surprise to anyone, least of all Saddam Hussein.

It would be surprising, however, if the attacks achieved the stated goal of persuading Saddam to stop attempting to undermine the territorial and military terms imposed by the victors in the Persian Gulf War.

For him the benefits of showing the Arab world he can still thumb his nose at the West outweigh the costs of losing a few radar and missile sites.

Soon -- within a few months, at best -- Saddam will resume his nibbling. Then the allies, including the new team in Washington, will respond, as they must, with air strikes against targets that he values more.

Those responses are unlikely to be decisive and the round of move and countermove will continue.

Saddam and the coalition are locked in a ritual dance from which there is no easy exit.

The coalition will thus pay a price for failing to press the 1991 war to the point of toppling him.

But at that time carrying the ground war into Baghdad's streets seemed likely to cost too many coalition and Iraqi lives and to be unnecessary.

Surely, it was assumed, the Iraqi armed forces, with critical help from Washington, would purge the leader who had brought them so catastrophic a defeat.

That calculation did not reckon with Saddam's ability to coerce continued loyalty from an inner circle ruthless enough to suppress opposition.

The means of persuasion at the coalition's disposal today are far fewer than they were two years ago.

Renewing the ground war is not among them. Nor need it be: The available instruments are sufficient to get two clear messages across.

The first message is for the Iraqi military establishment. Deprived of modern air defenses, its forces are acutely vulnerable to air attack.

It should understand that the strikes will continue and be more and more costly, until the nibbling stops.

The second message is the same, but it is for the Iraqi people.

The coalition will not attack them directly. Nor does it want to attack military targets in their midst.

But the Iraqis should realize that the comfortable life they enjoyed before 1990 will be impossible so long as Saddam continues his provocations. That means maintaining the blockade, at least to the point where only essential medical supplies and foods can enter Iraq.

It means continuing the embargo on oil sales and thus denying Iraq the money needed to import anything of value.

For middle- and upper-class Iraqis it means no travel abroad. Such responses should lead the Iraqi military and people to realize that time is not on Saddam's side.

Obviously, the coalition cannot stop all embargo- and blockade-busting. But sufficient pressure can be maintained for a very long time, particularly if substantial oil sales are prevented.

Iraqis must realize that Saddam has reduced Iraq to the status of marginal actor in the Middle East; by continuing to exert steady military, political and economic pressure, the coalition can insure that it will remain one.

Saddam's posturing in the prison he has made of his country should not prevent the Clinton administration and its allies from focusing on the issue that will most affect the Middle East's future stability: the continuing effort to bring about peace between Israel and its neighbors.

Richard H. Ullman is professor of international affairs at Princeton University.

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