Case for Strike Against Iraq
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 18, 1998; Page A01
President Clinton offered his most detailed public explanation to date yesterday for why curtailing Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs is worth going to war, while the administration blessed an effort by the U.N. leader to travel to Baghdad to seek a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
In a noontime address to the military at the Pentagon broadcast live by television networks, Clinton said Iraq's history of "delay and deception" over weapons inspections since its surrender in the 1991 Persian Gulf War has created an impasse in which a U.S. military strike may be "the only answer."
Speaking in stern and subdued tones, Clinton insisted that a diplomatic solution remains "by far our preference." But he also laid down what he called inflexible U.S. terms for a negotiated pact to avert military action and allow weapons inspections to continue.
"We have no business agreeing to any resolution of this that does not include free, unfettered access to the remaining sites by people who have integrity and proven competence in the inspection business," Clinton said.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan confirmed last night that he plans to visit Baghdad on Saturday and Sunday. His trip follows an agreement by the United States and the Security Council's four other permanent members on a potential compromise that Annan can offer Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Under this plan, administration officials said, the U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM) teams that conduct inspections would be accompanied by what in effect would be diplomatic chaperones, chosen by Annan, when visiting Saddam Hussein's presidential palaces. U.S. officials said the UNSCOM inspectors would be allowed to go where they want, when they want, and would be accompanied by diplomats only when visiting presidential residences.
Earlier yesterday, Clinton administration officials described themselves as unenthusiastic about the prospects for successful diplomacy by Annan. But after a telephone conversation between Clinton and Annan, as well as a meeting between Annan and diplomats for the permanent Security Council members, White House officials said his trip held promise.
If Annan's mission fails to produce an Iraqi compliance with weapons inspections, administration officials said yesterday an extended air bombardment campaign will become a virtual certainty. Whereas the administration's old line was that military force could come "within weeks not months," by next week the new slogan will be "days not weeks," officials said.
"The United States is supportive of his trip, and we wish him well," said U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson. "But we reserve the right to disagree if the conclusion of his trip is not consistent with U.N. resolutions and our own national interest."
At the Pentagon, Clinton was joined by Vice President Gore, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and nearly all the senior members of his national security team except Richardson, who was in New York negotiating over the allied "advice" Annan would take with him to Baghdad.
The speech, carried live by television networks, came on the eve of a broad effort by the administration to build public support for confronting Iraq. Today, Cohen, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger will appear at a televised "town meeting" at Ohio State University to explain why military force may be justified.
Clinton portrayed the crisis in a broad historical context, drawing an implicit parallel between the challenge facing the United States and its allies today and the crisis that resulted in the appeasement of Nazi Germany that was later blamed for the onset of World War II.
"In this century we learned through harsh experience that the only answer to aggression and illegal behavior is firmness, determination and, when necessary, action," Clinton said. "In the next century, the community of nations may see more and more the very kind of threat Iraq poses now: a rogue state with weapons of mass destruction, ready to use them or provide them to terrorists, drug traffickers, or organized criminals, who travel the world among us unnoticed.
"If we fail to respond today, Saddam and all those who would follow in his footsteps will be emboldened tomorrow by the knowledge that they can act with impunity," he said.
But Clinton's speech was notable also for what it did not contain. He did not set any precise deadline about when Baghdad must back down or face an air bombardment campaign, saying only that a resolution must come "soon." Moreover, his remarks seemed purposely subdued. While Clinton had just received a briefing from his senior military commanders and a potent air and naval arsenal is stationed off Iraq, he did not dwell at any length on what this force is prepared to do. The president made only passing reference to the 30,000 U.S. troops poised off Iraq with an armada of ships and planes.
A senior administration official said it was important for Clinton not to appear to be "bloodthirsty" for war at a time when diplomacy still holds at least some promise -- especially because France, Russia and other U.S. partners on the Security Council have expressed varying degrees of opposition to military action.
But other officials involved in preparing the speech said Clinton always intended to be measured in tone. More bellicose pronouncements will come in the future if needed, they said. "He doesn't want to be seen as overhyping," said one administration official. "This is an important way station, a way of getting the American people ready for what may come."
Clinton devoted much of his time to documenting what he called a long history of Iraqi evasion of the terms of its surrender in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. As President George Bush did in that earlier conflict, Clinton personalized the conflict -- making plain that U.S. grievances are aimed directly at Saddam Hussein.
Under the surrender, Clinton said, Saddam Hussein agreed to "make a total declaration" of his biological, chemical and nuclear weapons programs, as well as the missiles that would carry these weapons.
"Now, instead of playing by the very rules he agreed to at the end of the Gulf War, Saddam has spent the better part of the past decade trying to cheat on this solemn commitment," Clinton said. He noted that Iraq has filed false reports about what programs it has and that UNSCOM learned the truth about extensive biological weapons programs only after Saddam Hussein's son-in-law, Hussein Kamel, defected in 1995. Kamel later returned to Iraq and was executed.
And Clinton ridiculed Saddam Hussein's claims that he is merely asserting legitimate national pride and sovereignty by restricting access to personal residences. While the White House complex is 18 acres, Clinton said, one site Saddam Hussein is claiming off-limits is 40,000 acres -- roughly the size of Washington, D.C.
If Saddam Hussein refused to back down and let inspectors go where they want, Clinton said, "he, and he alone, will be to blame for the consequences."
Clinton stood by the more limited mission he has outlined lately if a military strike comes. While in the past he has said it is the U.S. goal to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, Clinton last week acknowledged, and repeated yesterday, that the most that is possible is to "seriously diminish the threat posed" by such weapons.
"Let me be clear: A military operation cannot destroy all the weapons of mass destruction capacity," Clinton said. "But it can, and will, leave him significantly worse off than he is now in terms of the ability to threaten the world with these weapons. . . . And he will know that the international community continues to have the will to act if and when he threatens again."
On Capitol Hill, reaction among the Republican majority to Clinton's speech was mixed.
Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), an important GOP voice on military matters, said Clinton made a "compelling case" for forcing Saddam Hussein to abide by terms of the Gulf War cease-fire but "did not make clear his intention . . . to attack the sources of Saddam's power" or spell out a "long-term strategy to undermine Saddam's regime by supporting those Iraqis who wish to liberate Iraq from his tyranny."
For the administration, the risk of a negotiated settlement is the appearance that Saddam Hussein is dictating terms to UNSCOM.
France, Russia and China, which favor a flexible approach to dealing with Iraq, have talked in terms of putting the inspections of presidential palaces under Annan's direct control rather than that of UNSCOM. But U.N. sources said the United States has underscored to Annan that it will not agree to such a plan unless Iraq accepts in writing that UNSCOM remains the operational "core" of such inspections, that the diplomats are to be there only as observers and that full inspections must be allowed without time limits or other constraints.
Harris reported from Washington, Goshko from the United Nations. Staff writer Helen Dewar contributed to this report.
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