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Full Coverage:
Iraq Special Report

  ANALYSIS
Is Mission 'Pinpricks' or Punitive?

By Rick Atkinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 18, 1998; Page A55

Seven years, nine months and 20 days after then-President George Bush ordered a cease-fire in the Persian Gulf War, a fresh volley of missiles detonating across Iraq last night served as a reminder that the war never really ended.

The enduring conundrum of how to handle Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has now bedeviled two successive U.S. administrations through most of the 1990s, part of a larger, enduring puzzle of how to preserve security and stability in the post-Cold War era.

In the 2,850 days since the cease-fire of February 1991, the United States has launched extensive airstrikes against Iraq four times and engaged in a half-dozen other smaller skirmishes and confrontations. Virtually no one in the Clinton administration appears persuaded that Operation Desert Fox – the latest iteration of containment by cruise missile – will be the last armed encounter.

One striking feature about this week's events is how history, however imperfectly, repeats itself. The profusion of rationales from the Clinton administration justifying Desert Fox follows the Bush administration's long list of reasons for dispatching an enormous army into battle against Iraq: redeeming Kuwait's right to self-determination, thwarting Saddam Hussein's quest for nuclear weapons, preserving jobs in Western democracies.

Bush ultimately found his voice in casting the war as a moral crusade of right against wrong, conjuring a prospective vision of "a new world order where diverse nations are drawn together in common cause to achieve the universal aspirations of mankind." That "new world order" remains manifestly unachieved, and the more prosaic legacy of the Gulf War is a brutish battle of containment against a dictator who prefers not to be contained.

How the United States got to this point is a lesson in latter-day geopolitics, as the world's sole remaining superpower finds itself alternately muscle-bound and omnipotent. The line between the Bush administration's policy toward Iraq and that of the Clinton administration may not be straight, but it is unbroken – and it underscores the new challenges of foreign and military policy after the collapse of the Soviet Union and dissolution of the Warsaw Pact.

The animating military principle behind Operation Desert Storm was a use-of-force philosophy often associated with Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Gulf War. Powell was an ardent advocate of ensuring that enough force was employed to guarantee achievement of U.S. objectives. Hence the allied deployment of some 700,000 troops and 2,700 aircraft to eject Iraq from Kuwait, badly battering the Iraqi army in the process.

But by the end of the Bush administration, when Baghdad remained obstreperous, military force was used more in the realm of political message-sending and punitive counterpunches. To curb Iraq's appetite for weapons of mass destruction, Bush opted to rely on sanctions and a regime of U.N. inspections to accomplish what all-out war had not. In January 1993, as Bush prepared to leave office, he ordered limited attacks against Iraqi missile sites and a nuclear facility near Baghdad. Pentagon officials at the time conceded that Saddam Hussein was unlikely to permanently kowtow to modest military pressure after resisting one of the most devastating attacks in modern history two years earlier.

Clinton took office in the midst of this skirmishing, the first president since Richard Nixon in 1969 to come to power with American forces in battle. The first decision for the new commander in chief was whether the strategic judgments of his predecessor justified keeping U.S. military forces in combat.

Clinton effectively accepted the Bush legacy, including the presumptions that Iraq had to be contained; that the imprimatur of U.N. authority provided moral leverage; that active allied support was important but not paramount; that military force should be used as needed to keep Saddam Hussein in his box but not topple his regime; that keeping Iraq intact – avoiding "Lebanonization" – was vital as a counterbalance to Iran.

In June 1993, five months after taking office, Clinton launched two dozen cruise missiles at an intelligence headquarters in Baghdad after the United States said it had uncovered a plot to assassinate Bush during a visit to Kuwait. The Bush policy of proportionate escalation, in which bombs and missiles were used to send warning signals to an adversary who long seemed deaf to such messages, was employed by Clinton, ironically, in a physical defense of his predecessor.

Yet Saddam Hussein had his own brand of consistency, which included a refusal to bow to bombs and missiles except for short, expedient periods. "Direct military confrontation is something Saddam Hussein will absorb to any limit," retired Lt. Gen. John Yeosock, the senior U.S. Army commander in the Gulf War, observed at a conference last March.

An Air Force officer involved in planning the attacks of 1991 added, "There's a presumption that if you punish Saddam he will change his ways. That doesn't always work with my kids, and I'm not sure that would work with Saddam Hussein."

The gradual erosion of U.N. weapons inspections for more than a year, which nearly led to blows in February and again last month, ultimately resulted this week in Gulf War II. Some analysts see it as a further weakening of the resolve that characterized Gulf War I, especially since the United States appears to be shedding many of its allies.

"What you end up with is a more permissive form of containment here. What the administration clearly rejected was a policy of coercion, a policy of bombing until Saddam complied," said Richard Haass, a former Bush administration senior adviser who now directs foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution. "It looks to me like 'pinprick-plus' or 'containment-minus.'"

But others suspect the Clinton administration is in fact slowly shedding the guiding principles that have shaped Iraq policy for nearly eight years.

"I think we're into a new game here," said Phebe Marr, a specialist on Iraq at the Woodrow Wilson International Center. "The president has stated we want to see a change in regimes. You can say this is no surprise because we've always wanted one. But my sense is that as containment has become more difficult, we're inching forward in the direction not just of containing Saddam but of getting rid of him."

Parsing administration rhetoric in the past two days offers limited insight. Some statements not only have echoed those of eight years ago but have been identical, such as Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright's assertion on Wednesday that "our quarrel is not with the Iraqi people" – first uttered by Bush. Albright also referred to this week's attacks as "a very strong message" intended to "get compliance" from Saddam Hussein to "let UNSCOM get back in and work again."

National security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger said the return of the U.N. inspectors would be "a welcome development," but also noted that "a Potemkin UNSCOM in Iraq doesn't make much sense."

Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen suggested that the course of Gulf War II "depends upon Saddam Hussein, in term of his own activities during this period of time" – although the administration has not laid out a particular prescription for Iraqi behavior that would avert further pummeling.

Cohen also seemed to support containment ad infinitum in stating "we will remain at the ready for an indefinite period of time," while Clinton called for "a new Iraqi government."

In any event, as 1998 winds to a close few can claim to have predicted in 1991 that overwhelming victory would lead to such tattered laurels.

"Rarely do even the most satisfactory battlefield victories lead to a satisfying peace," military historian Russell Weigley observed earlier this year. "You really can't afford to regard war as an extension of policy. It must be regarded as a bankruptcy of policy."

Staff researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.


© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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