Shift on Iraq May Signify Trade-Off
By Barton Gellman
There have been many such announcements over the years, each of them firmly rebuffed. Iraq may yet soften its latest stand, but the evidence of the past two weeks suggests that unrestricted inspections have had their day. For the first time, the United States has withdrawn the threat of force to open doors for inspectors that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein wishes to close.
After the Gulf War, American-led efforts built what officials like to call a "box" to contain Saddam Hussein. The policy has two parts. One was mandatory United Nations inspections to track down and destroy forbidden arms -- ballistic missiles and nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. The other was comprehensive economic sanctions to strangle Iraq's free access to funds until it met all U.N. cease-fire demands.
Washington may tolerate losing half the policy for fear of losing it all. Reinforcing sanctions at the expense of inspections, some officials now argue informally, may be the best deal the Clinton administration can get at a time of domestic and international fatigue with both.
Another shift appears to be based on the conclusion that it is more feasible to deter Iraqi action than to compel it. Instead of endless exertions to coerce obedience from Iraq, the officials said, the United States may reserve the threat or use of force for retaliation against cross-border aggression or the rebuilding of forbidden forms of weaponry.
These and other arguments have not been fully aired because President Clinton and his top advisers do not acknowledge a policy shift and therefore decline to explain it. What is clear is that the most explicit military threats of Clinton's presidency -- made on the record, repeatedly, and less than six months ago -- have dissipated.
The precise acts of Iraqi defiance that Washington vowed would bring automatic and immediate use of force are now described as a game the United States need not play. Tellingly, the administration's top officials -- including Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright -- have worked in secret to forestall surprise U.N. inspections that might push Washington toward confrontation against its intent.
Carefully worded denials on Friday from Albright, the White House and Richard Butler, executive chairman of the U.N. Special Commission, left the following points undisputed from a report in that day's Washington Post. With a specialized team standing by in Baghdad, Butler ordered no-notice inspections for Aug. 6. Albright telephoned Aug. 4 to counsel delay. Butler rescheduled for Aug. 9 but aborted the missions and brought his team home after a second American urging on Aug. 7.
"It's a turning point in U.S. policy, and consequently in Saddam's real aims," said David Kay, who was chief nuclear inspector in 1991 and 1992. "For the United States, the turning point is we're not willing to threaten military force, even if it means going back on absolutely unambiguous language by the president, the secretary of state and the secretary of defense. . . . For Saddam, it is the final signal to the Gulf region that he has survived, he has been able to outmaneuver the coalition and they are going to have to politically and militarily come to terms with his still being around."
The interests involved may or may not be as grave as the president's advisers suggested earlier this year, when national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger on Feb. 13 described "Saddam's reckless pursuit of weapons of mass destruction" as "one of the most dangerous security threats our people will face over the next generation."
But the voluminous body of work left by Butler's commission, known as UNSCOM, shows some of the concrete stakes. Among the forbidden weapons Iraq is known to have developed, and cannot show it destroyed, are home-produced Al Hussein ballistic missiles; biological agents including anthrax, botulinum, aflatoxin and wheat cover smut; chemical poisons including mustard, Sarin, Tabun and VX; and delivery systems including drop tanks, R-400 aerial bombs and a spray device known as the Zubaidi.
The most recent discovery -- from a document examined briefly at Iraqi air force headquarters July 18 -- showed that Iraq used far fewer chemical weapons than it claimed in the Iran-Iraq war of 1981-88. That matters because inspectors have good records of how many were manufactured. The discrepancy, according to one knowledgeable account, suggests that Iraq still has hidden about 6,300 air-dropped chemical bombs and 730 tons of chemical agents. Looking ahead, Butler and his counterpart at the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed Baradei, have given formal notice to the U.N. Security Council that Iraq's halt in cooperation prevents them from learning with assurance whether Iraq resumes new development of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.
"Not only are we not able to do our work of discovery" of past weapons, Butler said in an interview, "but they're chipping away quite seriously at our ability to monitor their future potentiality to reconstitute those weapons, and that's extraordinarily serious. The more time that goes by with an inadequate monitoring system, the greater the possibility of transgression. I've set out the facts to the council and urged them to give us guidance."
Last Feb. 17, having given conditional approval for the largest bombing campaign of his presidency, Clinton urged a Pentagon audience in a speech to "imagine the future":
"What if [Saddam Hussein] fails to comply and we fail to act, or we take some ambiguous third route which gives him yet more opportunities to develop this program of weapons of mass destruction and continue to press for the release of the sanctions and continue to ignore the solemn commitments that he made? Well, he will conclude that the international community has lost its will. He will then conclude that he can go right on and do more to rebuild an arsenal of devastating destruction. And someday, some way, I guarantee you, he'll use that arsenal."
Clinton called off the warplanes when Iraq agreed on Feb. 23 to give arms inspectors unconditional access to any site they chose. But now that Iraq has withdrawn from that agreement, Clinton has chosen the "ambiguous third route" he warned against. Albright said Friday the United States will use force "if necessary," "on our timetable," "in response to threats" and "at a time and place of our choosing."
That is the language of another conflict, the Cold War, in which ambiguity was integral to the governing strategies of containment and deterrence. Albright once rejected those strategies for Iraq, but the administration is shifting in that direction now.
The United States has built on Gulf War alliances to boost the defenses of Iraq's threatened neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar. And when it withdrew its $1.4 billion deployment from the Persian Gulf after the confrontation last winter, the U.S. military left behind 19 ships, 167 aircraft and -- according to sources -- more than 300 cruise missiles.
That is not a large enough force, senior military officers said, to conduct an air campaign with thousands of aim points, as contemplated last winter. Nor is it enough to accomplish what Berger threatened on Feb. 15 -- "to do through military action what we are denied in doing through the inspectors -- that is, significantly diminish his weapons of mass destruction threat and reduce his ability to threaten his neighbors."
But the residual U.S. force in the region is more than adequate to punish Iraqi misbehavior or slow any Iraqi offensive against a neighbor until reinforcements arrive from outside the region.
"Clearly after last winter's crisis, we did what everyone would expect us to do, which is study that," said a White House official. "I think we've reaffirmed the fundamentals of our policy, which are that Iraq under Saddam Hussein remains a threat that has to be contained."
The reasons for what another top official called "this evolution" include the unraveling of the domestic and international coalition that backed eight years of periodic bombing threats. Israeli academic Amatzia Baram, an expert on Iraq, described it as "an ironical situation in which the United States seems to be more isolated than Iraq."
No Security Council ally save Britain still favors the use of force, and a raucous crowd at Ohio State University -- a day after Clinton's February speech -- booed and cross-examined Albright and Berger, along with Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, in a "town meeting" they held to explain their policy.
"What we learned in the region and what we learned at Ohio State is that there are real limits to our support on this," said one national security official who concentrates on the Middle East.
In last winter's crisis, another official said, "we ramped up militarily very quickly and then had to backfill on the diplomatic front." This time "it makes more sense to ramp up diplomatically first so that it becomes clear that if we have to resort to force or to the threat of force, it comes after diplomatic efforts have been tried."
But with or without support, the threat of force deeply troubled the administration six months ago, another official said, because it never developed a satisfactory answer to this question: "What if, after three days of intensive bombing, he arose from the ashes and threw UNSCOM out?"
"We were trying to compel behavior," said a senior Air Force general, referring to Saddam Hussein. "We're not capable in this instance of compelling behavior. The ace is in his sleeve."
Administration officials argue that they are pursuing more productive lines of influence in Iraq: strangling the flow of funds that Saddam Hussein controls, and increasing practical support for his opposition.
But if unrestricted inspections are gone as a tool, former inspector Kay said, sanctions will follow suit.
"The whole point of sanctions, from the very origin, was so you would have effective inspections," he said. "Now if you're saying we'll give up on effective inspections, but we'll try to continue the sanction regime, the purpose is gone. And you're stuck with a means which is leaky and divisive. They have bought themselves into a political argument that they are not going to win in today's Middle East."
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