Remarks on Iraqi Regime, UNSCOM Indicate Policy Shift
By Barton Gellman
In what a senior adviser described as "an important policy statement" that the president intended to highlight, Clinton declared flatly that he not only hopes for a change of regime in Baghdad, but "will work for" it and "intensify that effort." If he is serious, it means nothing less than a shift from containment to overthrow as his ultimate objective, a decision neither President George Bush nor Clinton chose to make before.
This is an unusual and awkward ambition to speak aloud in the world of diplomacy -- "an overt covert operation" to overthrow a sovereign government, as one senior intelligence official put it -- and the announcement is driven in part by U.S. politics. But the underlying decision, three defense and foreign policy officials said, is genuine and goes beyond Clinton's public offer of "political support" for the regime's opponents.
"I'm not going to go into how we intend to go about this," said an official at the center of Iraq planning. "This needs to be done prudently, with care, and we don't want to encourage foolhardy ventures. We're cognizant of the history here. Obviously if you're really going to change this regime, most of the real action that counts is going to have to be behind the scenes."
Clinton's second rhetorical commitment, by contrast, will be tested for all to see in coming weeks. After nearly three months in which his subordinates almost wrote off U.N. arms inspectors, the president revived last winter's categorical demand for Iraq's "unconditional and complete" submission to the U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM). He announced, in effect, an intention to transform UNSCOM from the hapless victim of Iraqi obstruction -- as his subordinates have described it since August -- to a force capable of disarming Iraq of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and the missiles capable of carrying them.
It is far from clear that Clinton means to back that demand -- which many of his advisers said is certain to go unfulfilled -- with an early resort to force. He has other tactical reasons for emphasizing it, first among them his priority of keeping the stranglehold of an oil embargo on Iraq's economy.
By setting down five Iraqi obligations to UNSCOM, and securing the public endorsement of U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, Clinton hoped to reverse Iraq's effort, one official said, "to turn the table and make UNSCOM prove Iraq is guilty. We're trying to stress that the burden of proof is as it is laid out in the resolutions on Iraq."
The government officials who watch UNSCOM most closely have made clear for some time that they do not believe the inspectors are capable of disarming Iraq against its will. In an analogy used by two officials, a conquering army can dismantle a foreign military establishment, but an international panel of unarmed inspectors cannot. It was Bush, they noted, who chose not to occupy Baghdad.
When Clinton in August chose to play down Iraq's halt to nearly all of UNSCOM's work, officials explained Clinton's restraint by describing the U.N. panel as merely one tool among many for containing Iraq and one that had outlived much of its usefulness.
Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, in congressional testimony a month ago, urged senators not to "overstate" the capacities of international inspectors: "If you take a group of 20 or 30 people, and you put them in a country the size of all of New England, plus New York, plus Pennsylvania, plus New Jersey, and say, 'Go find evidence of chemical weapons,' you are asking a great deal of those inspectors."
UNSCOM's problem has not, in fact, been mainly that it is searching for needles in haystacks because it had a good deal of help from national intelligence services and developed strong leads on hidden stocks of forbidden arms. Its problem has been that the only doors Iraq would open to the inspectors were doors that led to no useful find.
Rolf Ekeus, the commission's first executive chairman, noted Iraq's regular use of armed force to block inspections in a lecture he gave just before resigning in June 1997. "We are nothing in Baghdad," he said. "We are at their complete mercy. They can just stop our work at any time."
American military threats, when backed by a strong U.N. Security Council consensus, sometimes reversed Iraqi interference with UNSCOM. But for more than a year, the council's consensus has turned against the inspectors. France, Russia and China in particular supported inspections only when they were not "confrontational," which amounted to meaning they were unobjectionable to Iraq, which in turn amounted to meaning inspectors would discover nothing.
There is little evidence that this diplomatic lineup has changed fundamentally, despite the annoyance expressed by all three of those governments with Iraqi tactics of late. The question is whether Clinton intends seriously to try to reinvigorate UNSCOM anyway.
"The purpose we have now set ourselves is to reverse that lack of tolerance for more assertive UNSCOM tactics," said a British official involved in Iraq policy. "We are not prepared to accept a hollow UNSCOM, and the UNSCOM we've had this last 12 months is not good enough."
That is a surprising statement because more than half the year in question transpired under the explicit threat -- by the Security Council and Clinton personally -- of "severest consequences" for Iraq in case of any interference with the arms inspectors. White House spokesman Joe Lockhart and State Department spokesman James P. Rubin have also described UNSCOM as unable to do its job for eight of the last 12 months. On one reading of their words, Washington and London therefore seem to be saying that Iraq did obstruct the inspections all this year, but this time the two governments really mean their threats.
One high-ranking defense official, acknowledging that "we're back to where we were last February," said nonetheless that "this should be the last straw. He either lives up to this one . . . or I don't see how anyone could help but say he deserves whatever he gets."
There are several early tests available if that is true. Last July 18, for example, an inspection team led by Gabriele Kraatz-Wadsack briefly put its hands on a document at Iraqi air force headquarters detailing how many chemical weapons bombs were used against Iran during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. It showed that Iraq dropped far fewer of the bombs than it claimed to UNSCOM, meaning that there are many yet unaccounted for. When Iraqi officers realized what Kraatz-Wadsack had, they snatched it back from her.
Clinton alluded to that episode yesterday, saying UNSCOM "uncovered a very important document giving the world community information about the quantity and nature of weapons stocks that had not been available before."
But a senior adviser to the president, when asked whether Iraq's continued refusal to return the document to UNSCOM would trigger a military response, replied, "I'm not going to speculate on a particular example."
U.N. inspectors, who will begin to return to Baghdad today and Tuesday, have a long list of unanswered questions. Iraq has persistently refused, for example, to turn over a document detailing its Scud missile fuel supplies, which is an important clue to remaining operational missiles. It still claims it never made VX nerve agent into a weapon despite American and French laboratory analyses to the contrary.
"We'll pursue our standing requests for documents and information from the Iraqis, such as the missile documents, such as an explanation that fits the facts on VX," said Charles Duelfer, the panel's deputy executive chairman. "We will not just go to declared monitoring sites, but we will want to go to nondeclared sites and we will continue our investigation of concealment."
Fresh Iraqi defiance, by all accounts, is therefore inevitable.
"I really believe that if you have a professional UNSCOM, free and unfettered and able to do its job, it can do what it is supposed to do in Iraq," Clinton said yesterday.
Close readers of the president's language, among those who work for him on Iraq, took note of the "if." The question remained open what Clinton would do if not.
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