At the end of January, the secretary of state emerged from a tense meeting with the French foreign minister and declared that "we've all but exhausted the diplomatic solutions, and the time is fast approaching for fundamental decisions." Administration officials adopted a mantra: Iraq, they repeated, had "weeks, not months" to comply with the United Nations' orders for disarmament.
In mid-February the president delivered a major speech on the crisis. Saddam Hussein, he said, had responded to repeated orders from the Security Council with "tactics of delay and deception." "What if he fails to comply and we fail to act?" the president asked. "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 build an arsenal of devastating destruction. And some day, some way, I guarantee you, he'll use the arsenal."
"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 among us unnoticed," the president concluded. He coined a name for this menace: the "unholy axis."
France, Germany and Russia all opposed the U.S. move toward military action. French President Jacques Chirac insisted that the Security Council would have to pass another resolution before any attack. But the United States and Britain said no further authority was necessary. "It's absolutely essential that we are not back in this position in a few weeks' or a few months' time," said British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
An elaborate ballet of U.N. inspections, Security Council meetings and eleventh-hour Iraqi concessions ensued. Public opinion in Europe ran against America, and thousands of antiwar demonstrators gathered outside the White House. In the end, the United States launched a military offensive, without further Security Council approval and with only Britain at its side. China angrily denounced the "unilateral action . . . violating the U.N. Charter." Russia withdrew its ambassador and accused the United States of "international terrorism." A front-page story in The Post reported that the Security Council had been "confronted gallingly with its irrelevance."
Here's how the president explained his decision: "The U.N. Security Council voted 15 to zero to condemn Saddam's actions and to demand that he immediately come into compliance. The international community gave Saddam one last chance to resume cooperation with the weapons inspectors. Saddam has failed to seize the chance. And so we had to act and act now."
France grumbled and Germany was unhappy -- on the eve of the attack a long phone call from the secretary of state failed to persuade German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. But once the campaign began, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder issued the following statement: "Saddam Hussein had to know that the international community could not tolerate his behavior. There is no question whatsoever about our solidarity with the international community, and with our alliance partners the United States and Britain."
The year, of course, was not 2003 but 1998, and the president was not George W. Bush but Bill Clinton. Madeleine Albright was the secretary of state. It's interesting to think about what else was different -- and how much was not.
Saddam Hussein was clearly the same, as, on the other side, was Tony Blair. More strikingly, the U.S. administration was driven to much the same conclusions by the same logic. There was no doctrine of preemption, no contempt for multilateralism, no Dick Cheney or Don Rumsfeld. But Clinton, too, perceived the evil -- or unholy -- axis, and the imperative that the United States stand up to the gathering threat.
So what is different? One Clinton veteran deeply involved in the events of 1998 answered that question for me in two words: "September 11th." Though it endorsed regime change in Iraq, the Clinton administration, which was fighting off impeachment, simply did not have the wherewithal to contemplate a ground invasion; it settled for a 70-hour air campaign. Five years later, with the country on a war footing and the president focused, decisive action is an option.
The Clinton team was also better at managing allies. After talking about a deadline of "weeks" in February, it didn't actually act until December, after it had managed -- in part by accepting various French- and Russian-sponsored postponements -- to neutralize much of the opposition.
Still, it's fair to ask where the more radical change lies -- in U.S. policy, or in the politics of Gerhard Schroeder and Jacques Chirac. In 1998 they ultimately were content to let the United States take on the Iraqi threat -- "like Gary Cooper's sheriff in 'High Noon,' " the German commentator Josef Joffee remarked at the time. Now they would stake the NATO alliance and the European Union on handcuffing the sheriff. Joffee had a theory: The Europeans knew all along that Clinton was too "wobbly" to fully act on his convictions about Saddam Hussein. No one thinks the same of his successor.