Again, Iraq secures last-minute reprieve Crisis defused: Threats and diplomacy worked together

aggressive monitoring needed.

November 17, 1998

THE BUILDUP of forces to bomb Iraq had the desired effect at the last minute on dictator Saddam Hussein. He agreed to comply with United Nations' monitoring for weapons of mass destruction, on which he had reneged.

The good-cop, bad-cop routine of President Clinton, threatening destruction, and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, seeking reconciliation, worked. Neither had a chance without the other.

The outcome restores the U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM) and its relentless leader, Richard Butler of Australia. Washington had lost patience and reduced support of UNSCOM in August, emboldening the dictator to his October repudiation of obligations. Now UNSCOM and Mr. Butler are back in charge of events.

It is wrong to accuse President Clinton of wavering. Calling off the attack at the last minute, when the credibility of an attack had succeeded, is precisely what the leader of the only superpower should do in such circumstances.

The first job of the UNSCOM inspectors who returned to Iraq yesterday will be aggressive monitoring for concealed weapons of mass destruction and documents relating to them. This will immediately test whether Saddam Hussein intends to keep his word.

Sympathy is due Iraq's desire for an end to economic sanctions. But the only path to that must be certification by UNSCOM and the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iraq is free of the weapons they were assigned to monitor and destroy. Political influence from countries wishing to buy Iraq's oil should not be the way.

While the dictator's word has proved unreliable before, there should be no doubt that a recurrence would bring instant bombing without another window for negotiations. Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain and U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen each promised as much yesterday.

The only part of President Clinton's handling of this crisis that went wrong was his call for change -- by implication, a coup -- in Iraq. However desirable that would be, Washington has no right to overthrow nuisance regimes.

It also has a poor record in attempting to do so.

Either it announces the goal and fails (witness Fidel Castro and Muammar el Khadafi) or achieves it with successors it comes to regret (Mobutu Sese Seko and Suharto). Mr. Clinton should create no expectation that Washington will produce change in Baghdad, but rather should insist that Iraq's governance is for the Iraqi people to decide.

Tolerating an imperfect world is one of the burdens of leadership. Washington properly proclaimed limited and attainable goals, demanding concessions that could reasonably be met, and achieved what it set out to do. That is statesmanship.

Pub Date: 11/17/98

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