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  •   A Real Target

    By Jim Hoagland
    Sunday, January 18 1998; Page C09

    If Iraq's defiance of U.N. arms inspections forces President Clinton to order U.S. military strikes, America's top soldier will not waste time trying to bomb Saddam Hussein into resuming inspections or making other political gestures. Gen. Henry H. Shelton will instead probably go after the chemical, biological or nuclear facilities that Iraq has sought to conceal.

    Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, outlined that sensible but historic proposition during a Dec. 19 meeting with editors and reporters at The Washington Post. I had asked Shelton if he really thought air strikes could inflict enough pain to make the Iraqi dictator change goals and accept a publicly humiliating retreat on inspections.

    Shelton later made clear that he heard the echoes of Vietnam that I intended in the question: Massive U.S. bombing did not force Hanoi to change its goals, or even to postpone them substantially.

    No, Shelton responded in his calm, soldierly way. He would not inflict pain to try to shape an adversary's political goals. The United States would instead set out out destroy the facilities Saddam is trying to protect:

    "If you cannot inspect, then in fact you have to look at what other means you have to ensure that weapons of mass destruction do not remain as a bigger tool in his hands than they are right now." That was as far as Shelton would go in discussing options.

    The Shelton approach represents not just a shift from Vietnam-era thinking that the military long ago absorbed. It also reflects a still coalescing change in the way the United States will now respond to the spread to hostile or irresponsible nations of chemical, biological and nuclear arms -- weapons of mass destruction, or WMD in the jargon of doomsday thinkers.

    American policy has long been based on nonproliferation, on active resistance to other nations' acquiring the most deadly armaments mankind has yet developed. But increasingly American planners are thinking in terms of counterproliferation, of figuring out how to contain, destroy or defend against a genie that cannot in fact be kept in the lamp.

    America's deep military and diplomatic involvement in the Persian Gulf, and the separate challenges that Iraq and Iran represent for that involvement, bring the shift to counterproliferation to a head and into public view. Until now the existence and meaning of this change have largely been a matter for the expert community and the Pentagon to debate.

    The continuing confrontation with Iraq is not just about Iraq or Saddam Hussein's villainies. The world has caught a glimpse of the worst-case scenario of the future and despite enormous effort has not succeeded in keeping weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of an outlaw state subject to history's most intrusive and hostile inspections and embargo.

    While under normal international nonproliferation controls, Saddam Hussein's agents were able to begin work on a secret nuclear bomb, develop an extensive chemical and biological arsenal and produce warheads to deliver those weapons by missile.

    The U.N. inspections since 1991 have been courageous and superbly managed, and have destroyed much of Saddam's terror trove. But even after this effort, Secretary of Defense William Cohen recently acknowledged that Iraq retains the ability to make chemical and biological weapons in a matter of hours or days, and ordered all U.S. military personnel immunized against anthrax attack.

    The orchestration of the administration's response to the Iraqi crisis has been designed to prepare the American public for a shift to counterproliferation as a fact of life and strategy on the bridge into the 21st century.

    Face it, Cohen's unspoken subtext was saying. We cannot prevent the Iraqs and Libyas of the world from getting or building these nasty things. We have to build up our defenses against them and be prepared -- as Shelton says we are in Iraq -- to destroy what we can when we can.

    This is not said explicitly not only because it is grim news but also because it raises a question the administration seems not to have answered for itself yet: Who elected the United States and its armed forces as primary protector of the world against WMD?

    Clinton inherited that role in the case of Iraq because of George Bush's commitment to leadership in freeing Kuwait and protecting gulf oil access, goals (barely) endorsed by Congress. Americans have not yet pronounced themselves willing to take the lion's share of risks in the name of global counterproliferation. But the question is forcing itself on them as the abandonment of nonproliferation in the gulf and South Asia becomes more apparent.

    In neighboring Iran, the ayatollahs have shown beyond reasonable doubt that they are pursuing the capability to build nuclear weapons and long-range missiles to deliver them. Iran also has impressive stockpiles of chemical weapons.

    The United States now has 28,000 members of its armed forces on duty in the Persian Gulf, a region where, 25 years ago, U.S. troops numbered in the low hundreds and Washington let regional allies guard against strategic threats. This growing burden has been acquired more through drift and indirection than by clearly explained strategy and the involvement of the American public. The need for open counterproliferation action to protect our forces in the gulf will soon change that.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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