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Iraq Special Report

  Accord Leaves U.S. Officials Uneasy

By John F. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 24, 1998; Page A17

In the wake of U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan's apparently successful diplomatic mission to Iraq, President Clinton was asked a simple question that yesterday seemed to lack a simple answer.

"Mr. President, has Saddam Hussein capitulated?" a reporter asked.

"Well," Clinton responded cautiously, "I think he has."

Skepticism, not jubilation, was the dominant mood yesterday at the White House. For weeks, Clinton and his team have said over and again that they preferred diplomacy to war as a way of forcing Iraq to back down from the restrictions it was placing on U.N. weapons inspectors. Now that a diplomatic solution is at hand, the president and his advisers were frank in acknowledging their doubts that the achievement will prove lasting.

Clinton said he remains ready to use military force if Iraq reneges on the accord to give U.N. weapons inspectors free access, including to presidential palaces that Saddam Hussein had declared off-limits.

"What happened over the last four days is less critical than what happens over the next four months," said a senior administration official.

In the meantime, the lesson of the latest conflict -- the second time Clinton has marched to the brink of military action against Iraq -- remains unclear. Had it proven the success of Clinton's policy of containing Iraq, since Saddam Hussein apparently chose to retreat at the last moment? Or had it proven the long-term futility of this policy, highlighting anew Saddam Hussein's ability to provoke crises and survive whenever he chooses?

No sooner had Annan made his announcement of a breakthrough than Republican critics began questioning whether Clinton had a sound long-term strategy to thwart Saddam Hussein.

"I think this is still very much a dicey and an unresolved issue and we're going to have to give some serious thoughts to how we're going to deal with a continuing problem," said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.).

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), an important GOP voice on national security issues, predicted "some new crisis, occasioned by yet another Iraqi violation of its international commitments [that will] arise in the weeks and months ahead."

But most congressional critics have not articulated with any specificity what alternatives they would pursue to thwarting Saddam Hussein.

"The criticism that this does not solve all our problems with Saddam Hussein is true -- and it would have been true if we had bombed," said William B. Quandt, a Middle East policy specialist at the University of Virginia and a veteran of the Nixon and Carter administrations. "This is an achievement. We got a major objective without having to go to war."

War will come far more quickly if Iraq again tries to impede inspectors, several administration officials said. "There will be no patience next time," said one senior administration official.

According to the latest White House line, assembling international support to confront Iraq will be easier in the future, since even nations sympathetic to Baghdad, such as Russia and France, have lost tolerance for Saddam Hussein's brinkmanship over weapons inspections.

But the widespread misgivings among other nations about Clinton's Iraq policy have plainly limited the administration's maneuvering room. Clinton has repeatedly said that Iraq, by denying access to weapons inspectors, was defying the will of the United Nations, not only the United States.

But by resting so much of his case on the authority of the United Nations, administration officials acknowledged, Clinton would have been hard-pressed to repudiate any accord that Annan negotiated in Baghdad. Recognizing this political reality, Clinton worked hard to narrowly define the limits of Annan's negotiating room before the secretary general left for Baghdad.

Lott accused Clinton of putting himself "in a box" by having "subcontracted" the nation's foreign policy to Annan and others.

While the agreement had the effect of suspending plans for a Senate debate later this week on a resolution backing use of military force against Iraq, skeptical comments by Lott and others assured an inquiry by Congress into details of the inspections plan and a continuing debate over the administration's long-term strategy.

Asked to respond to Lott's criticism, Clinton struck a mild tone.

"Well, since 1991 our strategy has been to keep the sanctions on, keep Iraq from rebuilding its military might and threatening its neighbors, but to pursue this inspection system to end what is the biggest threat both to its neighbors and to others by indirection, which is the chemical, the biological and the nuclear weapons program," Clinton told reporters in a brief Oval Office session. "Whether that should continue to be our strategy depends in no small measure, I believe, on whether this agreement is honored."

For now, the administration is responding so tentatively to the Annan mission that White House press secretary Michael McCurry refused to say whether Clinton or Saddam Hussein had come out better under the accord.

"I know that in your business, you like to tote up the scoreboard quickly and declare winners and losers even before that is apparent," McCurry scolded reporters. "I think the president has made it quite clear to you that there's more work to do in this situation, and I think it'll be some time before we would attempt to make any final analysis of that kind of nature."

Staff writer Helen Dewar contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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