Saddam's terms

November 25, 1997|By George F. Will

LONDON -- The most recent crisis with Iraq was foreshadowed in the tent where Iraqi officers came to receive the truce terms nearly seven years ago.

In ''Desert Warrior: A Personal View of the Gulf War by the Joint Forces Commander,'' Gen. Khaled bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia writes that he and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf worried that the Iraqi officers might bring weapons -- might even be killers on a suicide mission: ''So, in order to search them without causing them undue humiliation, we had agreed that we would all submit to being searched -- by our own guards, of course.''

Well. The Iraqi regime had lost a war of aggression, had been spared from destruction by the allies, and the allies were worried about seeming rude to the regime's representatives. With the world's fourth largest army a smoldering ruin but the regime that wielded it still breathing, Americans were practicing therapeutic politeness.

Before that tent was struck, the victors granted permission to FTC the Iraqis to fly armed helicopters. The Iraqis said the helicopters would be used only for purposes of internal administration. Soon there were widespread insurrections that U.S. policy-makers hoped would do what Desert Storm stopped short of doing -- topple Saddam. Fighting erupted in all but three Iraqi provinces. And the helicopters were used for suppressing it.

Now, after nearly seven years of Saddam's implacable obstruction of the inspection system the victors imposed, he has tried to rewrite the terms as they apply to U.N. inspectors seeking to destroy his weapons of mass destruction. Officially, U.S. policy has been to refuse to negotiate about the United Nations' rights. Actually, the U.S. signal about possibly expanding Iraq's rights to sell oil under the ''oil for food'' program, in exchange for Iraqi compliance with existing agreements, was negotiation.

The 1991 decision not to use the victorious coalition's forces to destroy Saddam now looks like a mistake. However, George Robertson, minister of defense of America's most reliable ally, defends that decision. He has no illusions about Saddam -- he has seen victims of Saddam's gas attacks -- but insists that going beyond the U.N. mandate, which spoke just of liberating Kuwait, ''would have stretched the tolerance of the world.'' Those who live by multilateralism can be inhibited by it.

A tiger slips his leash

As inhibited as the United States is today as it tries to cope with the falsity of Bush's 1991 declaration that Saddam's ''ability to threaten mass destruction is itself destroyed.'' Despite the recent agreement, Saddam has all but slipped the slender leash that U.N. inspection put on his development of weapons of mass destruction. In the process, he has delivered a severe blow to the idea that the United Nations is competent to tame such a tiger, a blow comparable to that inflicted on the League of Nations' sense of competence by Mussolini's 1935 invasion of Ethiopia.

Even if the status quo ante -- the inspection regime as it was a month ago -- is unconditionally re-established, Saddam has demonstrated that he can disrupt that regime without suffering any penalty other than the continuation of the sanctions, which he apparently considers an acceptable cost of creating weapons of mass destruction. And now he has demonstrated that when he needs to maneuver -- to move or otherwise obscure his ongoing development of weapons of mass destruction -- he can get time and space by causing a cost-free crisis that disrupts inspection.

Is there a military option? While not advocating one, Mr. Robertson notes that what the inspectors already have learned might make air strikes more effective against Iraq's most dangerous facilities than were the 88,000 tons of ordnance delivered during the 1991 air war. Perhaps.

However, there is bad news about the good news -- about reports that arms inspectors have destroyed more of Saddam's terrible weapons capabilities than Desert Storm did. This suggests that it is difficult to achieve disarmament by violence delivered from the air.

For all the facile talk about having Saddam in a ''box'' or ''corner,'' he seems as comfortable there as his minions may have been when so politely received at that tent.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 11/25/97

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