DAVOS, Switzerland -- War overshadowed economics as the 1998 World Economic Forum closed last week in this Swiss resort. U.S. officials made a big effort to convince international business and government leaders that President Clinton has his mind on affairs of state, and is determined to settle the problem of Saddam Hussein.
The impression these officials left was that the cranked-up machinery of Iraq intimidation has now gathered such momentum that it won't easily be stopped. That was perhaps a calculated message, but a significant one.
Mr. Clinton is vulnerable to the Republican opposition on military and foreign policy issues. Mr. Hussein has shown great talent for provoking and exploiting Western opinion, dividing the Persian Gulf war coalition.
Mr. Hussein wants an end to United Nations inspections and sanctions.
An isolated leader
He is nonetheless an isolated leader who knows little about the world outside his own region. He could miscalculate his policy this time, and provoke the American juggernaut to roll over him. But even that could discomfit the United States. Even if Mr. Clinton had Iraq and the Iraqis at his mercy, what would he do with them? That question caused former President George Bush to stop the gulf war when he did.
Washington is driven by the momentum and extravagance of what the administration and Congress have said about the Iraqi president, and what they have threatened to do to him if further provoked.
Mr. Clinton insists that he truly wants a diplomatic solution. But it would be hard now for him to retreat from maximum demands, with some lawmakers and columnists whooping for war.
The message delivered here was that this time, the United States is serious, the decision is all but irreversible, U.S. attacks on Iraq will begin around the end of this month, and they will be more violent and go on longer than any since the end of the gulf war. Washington, it is said, has concluded that force is the only thing Mr. Hussein understands.
Actually, the record demonstrates something different, that the Iraqi president understands the political use of force better than does the U.S. government. It is suggested that the Iraqi president actually wants his country attacked, because this would reinforce his position as the Arab leader willing to defy the United States -- giving him a symbolic claim to leadership of all Arabs.
A U.S. attack would undoubtedly cause the Iraqi leader to denounce U.N. arms inspections and sanctions, and reclaim full sovereignty of action. His freedom of action would have been restored, at a great price to his nation's people, a price that has never before inhibited him.
Journalistic speculation has also suggested that a U.S. attack would, in some Arab eyes, justify an Iraqi missile attack on Israel, this time with more exotic munitions aboard than rocks, as in the gulf war. As Israel must be expected to retaliate this time, whatever Washington wants, this provides further evidence that the situation is slipping out of U.S. control.
Most of the folks in Washington who actually want a new gulf war, so as to finish Mr. Hussein off, are honest enough to acknowledge that this could only be accomplished with an invasion to seize control of Iraq.
There is little enthusiasm for this in administration circles. Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen has taken pains to say that there should be no "unreasonable expectations" about what can be done, while insisting that U.S. objectives can be achieved without using ground forces. This implies that the Iraqi president's ouster is not a U.S. objective.
In this respect as in others, there seems no endgame strategy. People nonetheless say otherwise. I have been assured that if an air attack does not change Iraq's conduct, and U.N. arms inspectors are not allowed back in, the United States has another plan for the longer term.
Possibly it is a quasi-permanent program of continuing attacks, directed -- as Mr. Cohen said last week -- "towards limiting,
curtailing, really preventing Saddam Hussein from reconstituting his capability in the near future at least."
Some in the administration give one the gloomy impression that they have heard this sort of thing before, possibly in connection with the Vietnam War. One official with whom I spoke struck me as afraid -- unable to believe that Iraq would be changed by what the United States plans to do, but frightened about where the effort might take the Clinton administration and the country.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 2/10/98