Steady Pressure on Iraq

November 03, 1994

The definitive verdict on American policy toward Iraq depends on what happens next -- or what doesn't happen next. If Saddam Hussein keeps his elite troops above the 32nd parallel and does not again threaten Kuwait, President Clinton comes out a winner in facing down the Baghdad dictator through swift redeployment of U.S. forces to the Persian Gulf. If the U.N. Security Council does not lift the oil embargo strangling the Iraqi economy until all U.S. demands are met, including some add-ons, this too can be interpreted as a triumph in the use of U.S. military might.

For the Clinton administration, the end-goal of U.S. policy, though never quite stated so bluntly, is the overthrow of Mr. Hussein under circumstances that do not lead to the dismemberment of Iraq. The overthrow aim puts the United States at odds with Russia, which is quite willing to work with the present regime in order to expedite repayment of a $6 billion debt owed Moscow, and with France, whose international oil companies are eager to revive the Iraqi oil and gas industry.

France and Russia, in the course of some very tough exchanges with Washington, succeeded in blocking any U.S. moves to have the region between the 32nd parallel and the Kuwaiti border declared off-limits to Iraqi ground troops. But Defense Secretary William Perry has made it clear a de facto exclusion zone against Iraqi heavy armor already exists and will continue. The implication is that the U.S. will act unilaterally, while invoking vaguely worded U.N. resolutions, if Mr. Hussein should again shift his main forces to the south.

The rationale for the U.S. military posture is readily apparent: This country cannot afford to allow Baghdad to pull its chain at will. Once was enough, because it gave the Pentagon an opportunity to try out its post-Gulf War prowess to speeding thousands of troops halfway around the world to "marry up" with pre-positioned tanks and other heavy equipment. But with a stretched defense budget, any repetition on Baghdad's part cannot be permitted; it should be countered by military strikes of a kind the U.S. avoided in this instance.

Six months down the road U.S. policy again will be tested if a new U.N. surveillance program does not detect any Iraqi violations of restrictions on its military and, especially, if Baghdad does the unlikely and gives diplomatic recognition to Kuwait. But this is no time for hypotheticals. The important thing is to keep on the pressure so that Saddam Hussein never again destabilizes his oil-rich region.

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