Clinton starts telling Congress about possible attacks on Iraq Security advisers brief ranking legislators

no launch decision made

November 10, 1998|By Mark Matthews and Tom Bowman | Mark Matthews and Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's top national security advisers began briefing the ranking members of key congressional committees about Iraq yesterday in a sign that Clinton was laying the groundwork for ordering military strikes.

While the White House said no decision had been made, officials and diplomats said that if Iraq continues its defiance, military action would be ordered as a way to diminish Baghdad's ability to develop weapons of mass destruction.

Iraq may be given a brief period to back down. But officials insist they have no intention to approve the kind of high-level mediation conducted in February by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

After the military strikes, the United States and its allies would impose a tighter containment of Iraq, combining sanctions and new military steps to keep Saddam Hussein's forces fenced in, according to a Western diplomat.

But a U.S. official cautioned that there were still "a lot of loose ends" in the planning for what would follow military action.

Soliciting views

The calls to congressional leaders were "part of an ongoing process of keeping Congress informed about the situation on the ground and where we see the international community," said David Leavy, a White House spokesman

"Obviously, we're in a very serious situation," Leavy said. "We want to solicit their views and give them a status report on how we see things unfolding."

Part of the message is that if Hussein doesn't back down, "further action will be required. [Hussein] doesn't seem to be getting the message," he said.

The White House is viewed as facing a credibility problem as a result of having backed away from threats of force in the past, against Iraq and other adversaries.

In contrast to how they handled previous crises, officials have avoided saber-rattling rhetoric, apart from saying that Clinton is considering military action.

R. James Woolsey, a former CIA director under Clinton, said the post-gulf war policy of the United States has been "flaccid and feckless" and amounts to "Teddy Roosevelt backwards -- speaking loudly and carrying a flimsy stick."

The calls to congressional leaders came after a meeting at Camp David on Sunday in which the president ordered top aides to refine military and diplomatic options.

Clinton's national security team, including Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and the president's national security adviser, Samuel R. Berger, met at the White House yesterday.

Inspectors leave Iraq

Meanwhile, U.N. inspectors reduced their staff in Iraq by more than 20 percent, to about 100 people, reasoning that Iraqi restrictions made it pointless to maintain a full team in the country.

For months, the administration has been awaiting an Iraqi provocation so flagrant that military action would be clearly justified. Now, that moment may be at hand.

On Oct. 31, Iraq halted even the pretense of letting U.N. inspectors uncover what remains of Hussein's chemical and biological weapons. After sympathizing with Iraq in the past, even France, Russia and China have supported a condemnation of Baghdad. They have not, however, publicly supported military force.

Administration officials said air strikes would target Iraqi facilities suspected of constructing chemical and biological weapons, military command and control centers and possibly units of Hussein's elite Republican Guard.

The stage began to be set for the current showdown in February, when Annan won a pledge of cooperation from Iraq that forestalled American airstrikes. At the time, the United States warned Iraq that it would face certain punishment if it tried to block U.N. weapons inspections.

In the months that followed, top administration officials sought to restrain the U.N. inspection teams and their hard-charging lead inspector, Scott Ritter, from getting into confrontations with Iraq. The administration wanted to bide its time, hoping to increase international support for the inspections and thereby isolate Iraq.

James P. Rubin, the State Department spokesman, said yesterday that there was a "clarion call from around the world that Saddam Hussein is to blame for this crisis."

But that "clarion call" does not mean there is broad international support for using military force. Apart from Britain, most of Washington's major allies have avoided talking about military action. And Clinton has yet to spell out a specific goal for the use of force.

Analysts say that to be effective, military strikes would have to be more powerful than anything used since the Persian Gulf war of 1991.

The result could be an end to the U.N. inspections altogether and a weakened anti-Iraq coalition. And the United States would still be left with the long-term challenge of preventing Iraq from threatening its neighbors.

Force vs. consequences

"Force is the surest way to break up the coalition," said Kenneth Pollack, a senior fellow at National Defense University.

For military action to succeed, it needs to be powerful enough "to convince the entire world that Iraq is a No. 1 priority, and we're willing to do whatever it took," Pollack said and also persuade Hussein "that there is no payoff for monkeying around."

Alternatively, a reliance on sanctions could be effective, Pollack said, provided the administration remained vigilant in enforcing it -- against Iraq and any other nation that might be tempted to circumvent the sanctions.

But if the United States, in avoiding military action, sends a signal that it's unwilling to enforce Security Council resolutions, then "you will start to get sanctions busting," said Pollack.

Annan, who is on a 10-day trip to North Africa, said yesterday that he has no immediate plans to go to Iraq to try to ease tensions, as he did in February.

Pub Date: 11/10/98

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