Clinton, Hussein both misstepped President grants another chance, Iraq buys more time


Who blinked? Both of them, Bill Clinton every bit as much as Saddam Hussein, in the weekend showdown over Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

Although many in his administration had decided that United Nations weapons inspections were highly unlikely to work, that they would always be hamstrung in one way or another by the Iraqis, Clinton has given them yet another chance. Having ordered air attacks, he has called them off.

The president acted a bit as his hero, John F. Kennedy, did during the Cuban missile crisis: Confronted with mixed signals, he chose the more favorable interpretation, acted upon it and will wait to see if that works.

As for Hussein, he felt obliged by the threat of American and British military action to reverse his decision last month to suspend cooperation with the United Nations. But few doubt that it was a ploy, like so many of his past moves, to buy time.

So not a great deal has been resolved in the last 48 hours, and the administration provided no clear blueprint of its future strategy.

Clinton said he had changed his mind overnight. After reading the first Iraqi letter on Saturday, the president's national security adviser, Samuel R. Berger, termed it "unacceptable" and said it had "more holes than Swiss cheese." Clinton said subsequent letters had closed the most gaping holes.

Perhaps. But the texts of the supplementary letters offered only very modest assurances that the inspectors could "resume all their activities." A reasonable person could conclude that they made matters clearer, or that the first letter was the definitive text and the others merely tactical wiggles.

Something else changed overnight. It became clear that only the United States and Britain were dissatisfied with the original Iraqi letter; a number of other countries that 24 hours earlier had backed American threats of air attacks suddenly started calling for further diplomacy.

Eager to resume full-scale purchases of oil from Iraq, several European and other countries had backed military action only reluctantly, and the letter gave them an out. That changed the political if not the military reality facing Clinton. With much of the world now willing to give Hussein the benefit of the doubt, and Secretary-General Kofi Annan describing the initial letter as a positive development, the president was backed into a corner.

He had no real choice but to test the Iraqi leader's intentions once more. To have sent the bombers and missiles in under those circumstances would have been to invite widespread criticism abroad and perhaps at home.

So Clinton put the best face on the matter. He attributed his change of course to the clarifications, accepting for the moment the Iraqi assurances that they attached no conditions to the inspectors' freedom to operate in an unfettered way. The best long-term solution, Clinton said, was to keep inspectors "in there working" to block weapons production.

It is up to Hussein to decide when and how the next crisis comes.

And when it does, what will the United States do? Presumably, launch the attack that was aborted Saturday. But neither Berger nor Defense Secretary William S. Cohen was willing, at a briefing yesterday, to discuss whether that would happen immediately after the next infraction by Hussein.

Nor is there any indication that the administration is ready to set a firm timetable, with deadlines for specific actions by Iraq.

The cycle can repeat itself -- violation, buildup, threats of attack, retreat from the brink -- as long as the United States chooses to let Hussein play that game. There is no easy remedy to a very complex situation, as administration officials constantly emphasize. But eventually there will be a loss of credibility unless Hussein is restrained or eliminated.

Clinton addressed that point, calling for change in Baghdad, "a new government that is committed to represent and respect its people, not repress them." That seemed to suggest a policy departure. But Cohen cautioned that the president "was not calling for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein," but rather promising to work with opposition groups to try to bring a more democratic government to power in Baghdad "in some future time."

Pub Date: 11/16/98

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