0 Consequences of backtracking on Iraq

September 11, 1998|By Andrew J. Glass

WASHINGTON -- When the Iraqis pulled the plug on U.N. weapons inspections in January, President Clinton threatened a missile shower unless Saddam Hussein backed down. When the Iraqis did it again last month, Mr. Clinton belched some dragon smoke while showing he had no fire left in his belly.

Why the turnabout?

Petulant claims that policy over Iraq hasn't changed in the intervening months suggests Mr. Clinton doesn't restrict his fibs to sex scandals. Could it be that internal threats of survival in office have so weakened presidential resolve that he can no longer make good on this external threat?

And yet possible impeachment or resignation were also in the air back in January, when the Iraqi crisis shared the headlines with Monica Lewinsky. Both topics receded after U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan cut a deal with Mr. Saddam.

For her part, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has formed her own mantra: Mr. Saddam is being "kept safely in his box." What that really means is Washington won't allow lifting the oil embargo against Iraq so long as Mr. Saddam remains in power.

Saddam's oil

Despite the embargo, oil is leaking out of Iraq and into Turkey and Iran. In the West, such sales deepen an oil glut that has driven inflation-adjusted prices to record lows. In Baghdad, they underwrite Mr. Saddam's unsated appetite for weapons, power and land -- the very reason why an American-led coalition fought the gulf war in 1991.

A more confident secretary of state wouldn't have felt constrained to attack Scott Ritter, the former U.N. arms inspector who resigned last month after charging that Washington had blocked his efforts to perform his job in Iraq.

TTC To be sure, it isn't possible to know what Iraq is hiding because the Iraqis never accurately reported what they had to start with. But a recent talk with Mr. Ritter reveals that Iraq is hiding all the key parts -- save only the uranium core -- of three nuclear weapons.

Mr. Ritter also says there's evidence that Iraq tested biological weapons on human guinea pigs in 1995. And there's further evidence, he adds, that the Iraqis have been testing chemical weapons in Sudan.

Defector reports, Mr. Ritter says, suggest that Mr. Saddam is now in a position to make al-Husayn ballistic missiles -- within six months of a final "go to production" order -- that could strike any Middle East target.

Since Iraq changes its concealment mechanism every 30 days, rapid collection of data and rapid action are vitally needed to keep Mr. Saddam penned "in his box."

Mr. Ritter asserts pressure from on high to cut corners and stop probing concealment techniques frustrated the inspectors and led him to quit as a team leader.

Ms. Albright's claims

If the underlying reasons for backtracking on Iraq are above Mr. Ritter's pay grade, as Ms. Albright maintains, that does not serve to legitimize them.

There's no stomach in either Arab palaces or in the Arab street to take on Mr. Saddam. Sadly, Mr. Clinton feels powerless to change that reality without incurring costs that, at this point, he's unwilling to pay.

Andrew J. Glass is a Washington-based columnist for Cox Newspapers. His e-mail address is aglasoxnews.com.

Pub Date: 9/11/98

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