A New Vow, An Order Rescinded
By John F. Harris
A potent U.S. military force arrayed in the Middle East was more than cocked -- Clinton had pulled the trigger before retiring to the White House residence Friday. Ships and bombers were to let loose a shower of cruise missiles by about 9 a.m. Saturday. Clinton, according to sources, had secretly instructed Vice President Gore to fill in for him at an Asian economic summit in Malaysia.
But by 8 a.m. EST yesterday, Clinton learned from national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger that events had taken an unexpected turn. A letter was on its way to United Nations headquarters in New York pledging that Iraq would allow a resumption of U.N. weapons inspections. Around 8:30 a.m., on word of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's ostensible retreat, Clinton put the attack on hold -- for the time being.
It was the second time in Clinton's presidency that U.S. warplanes were in the air for a military strike called off at the last moment. In 1994, a military invasion of Haiti to overthrow the military regime there was underway when a diplomatic breakthrough allowed the force to be reconfigured to execute a peaceful occupation that led to installation of an elected president in that Caribbean nation.
Within a couple of hours after calling off the air campaign against Iraq, as officials recounted yesterday's events, Clinton's national security team had seen the letter and accompanying annex from Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and concluded that the supposed retreat by Baghdad was much less than advertised, just as it had been during two similar crises over the past year. The annex put forward conditions for Iraqi cooperation that plainly fell short of the demands Clinton and his advisers had been making for immediate, no-strings-attached resumption of weapons inspections.
Yet at least for the moment, Saddam Hussein had apparently succeeded in altering the strategic balance. On Friday, even nations traditionally sympathetic to Iraq such as France and Russia maintained that Baghdad was responsible for the current crisis and, while not endorsing a military strike, were not seeking to avert it.
By yesterday, the diplomatic situation had returned to a more familiar state. Other nations, including Russia, were siding with Iraq's position that it was now ready to meet U.S. demands. Only Great Britain, Washington's most consistent ally on containing Iraq, was denouncing the letter as unacceptable.
Iraq had also succeeded in overtaking Clinton's agenda. After a discussion among advisers yesterday, he decided to stick with the decision to send Gore to Kuala Lumpur for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum -- a group that Clinton had promoted and elevated to head-of-state status during his first term.
"Given the situation in Iraq, the president has decided to remain in Washington to evaluate appropriate next steps," said White House press secretary Joseph Lockhart.
Lockhart said Clinton hopes to travel this week to Japan, South Korea and Guam for the balance of his Asia trip.
Even though the decision not to travel to Malaysia had been made Friday, to preserve operational security the White House did not announce that. As late as yesterday afternoon, reporters were gathered at Andrews Air Force Base to board a chartered plane that was to carry news media following Clinton's trip.
Administration officials acknowledged that Iraq may have diluted the international coalition arrayed against him, but said this would give him no advantage. "Appeasement is not an option for the United States," said an administration national security official. "While others may equivocate on the use of force, the United States will act alone if necessary."
After concluding the Aziz letter was unacceptable, Clinton's national security team met again in the White House situation room. Clinton, who during the afternoon spoke with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, then joined the group for another two hours.
The talks, an official said, focused in large measure on what to say publicly about Iraq's offer. Late in the afternoon, Berger appeared in the White House briefing room to deliver the official response.
"The Iraqi letter sent today to Secretary General Annan was neither unequivocal or unconditional. It is unacceptable," Berger said. He added that Iraq's insistence on a review of U.N. sanctions imposed on it at the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991 "will only set up a new crisis a few weeks down the road when the review does not meet Iraq's criteria.
"In short, instead of simply complying with the requirements of the Security Council, Saddam is saying that the council should comply with his requirements," Berger said. "This is the world turned upside-down."
A day that was supposed to begin with the emphatic impact of a military attack instead ended with watchful waiting. Hours after Berger spoke, as the Security Council continued to meet, the Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations, Nizar Hamdoon, insisted that his government's willingness to let inspections resume was in fact unconditional, and that the annex was in fact simply a recitation of Baghdad's wishes. Clinton and Berger, their eyes on the proceedings in New York, consulted into the evening about how to respond to the latest Iraqi statements.
In a low-key response, the White House dismissed last night's new statements as insufficient. "With all due respect to the Iraqi ambassador, what we've said we need is a clear authoritative statment of Iraqi compliance," an administration official said.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company