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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

The whites of his eyes

How the White House struggle to box in Saddam Hussein with diplomacy and threats failed, forcing the U.S. to flex its muscle again

By Johanna Mcgeary

TIME magazine

All day National Security Adviser Sandy Berger had been rushing around, thinking detail. Checking off extra bombing options. Tweaking instructions to the U.N. envoys. Fine-tuning the perfect strike against the Iraqi leader who has bedeviled the U.S. for eight long years.

But always, at the back of his mind, lay the big question: What happens the day after? Ever since Oct. 31, Berger told TIME in a brief moment of calm Friday night, when Saddam Hussein abruptly tossed out all the U.N. inspectors who monitor his post-defeat disarmament, the most flagrant violation of cease-fire terms yet, the White House aide had pondered two things. "What happens the day after we do nothing? What happens the day after we use military force?"

The first is easy: if Saddam Hussein can halt U.N. inspections without a firm reaction, he gets a green light to rebuild his terror arsenal. "We know he'll threaten his neighbors again with reconstituted weapons of mass destruction," said Berger, and the U.S. would have ceded its power to stop him. R.I.P. to American global credibility. The second question is trickier: if the biggest air strike against Iraq since the end of the Gulf War doesn't bludgeon Saddam into resuming inspections, all formal restraints on his weapon building are still gone, and the U.S. is committed to an endless repetition of attacks to keep Iraq in check: arms control by bombing. Very expensive, politically formidable to sustain and tactically risky. Either way, Iraq will trouble the U.S., sighed Berger, "as long as Saddam Hussein is in power."

Faced with such choices last Saturday, the Clinton Administration was just about to pull the trigger on the least-bad option: a punishing raid. Navy Hawkeye radar-warning planes were surveying the skies as dusk fell over the Persian Gulf. Down below, ship crews donned combat helmets and gave final adjustments to Tomahawk cruise missiles and F-14 and F-18 warplanes readied to attack. Air Force F-16s lined up their high-speed antiradiation missiles to target Baghdad's air defenses. "We were cocked, loaded and ready," a top Pentagon official said. H hour was 60 minutes away.

But as it turned out, there was an additional crucial day-after question, one that nearly everyone in the Clinton Administration had tried to put out of their minds: What happens the day after Saddam offers a last-minute capitulation? And that is exactly what he did, again taking the international community to the edge of military conflict, then seeking to weasel out in a flurry of paper diplomacy. The U.S. had again massed a multibillion-dollar armada in the Persian Gulf only to have Saddam stall its war machine with a sudden change of heart.

When the Iraqi master of brinkmanship let it be known that he would "unconditionally" allow the U.N. inspectors to return to their work of prying into suspected stockpiles of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, he threw into confusion the best-laid American plans for military action against him. As Bill Clinton put off his scheduled Saturday departure for Asia, the White House struggled to figure out how to react to Saddam's gambit. On the surface, the letter dispatched to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan appeared to fulfill U.S. demands that Iraq let unfettered inspections resume immediately. But it came with a two-page annex listing nine items Iraq wanted in return, which Saddam dubbed "positions" but the U.S. called unacceptable "conditions." The approval--and global sigh of relief--that initially greeted Saddam's backdown soured into fresh anxiety. Annan, who had welcomed the missive as a "positive step" that "in my opinion" met U.N. demands, was forced to call for "clarifications."

An unsmiling Berger emerged at 5:30 p.m. from a five-hour meeting of the President's top security advisers to make no secret of how little the Administration liked this development. In stinging language, he soundly rejected Saddam's offer. "We have every reason to be skeptical," Berger said. "We have been more than patient." He told Saddam that the U.S. found the letter "neither unequivocal nor unconditional. It is unacceptable." The annex in particular, he added, "has more holes than Swiss cheese." The U.S. "was poised to take military action and is poised to take action. We will proceed on our own timetable."

But international opinion, which had shifted behind the U.S. and left Saddam isolated and open to attack, now swung in the other direction. Berger acknowledged that the Administration would have to consult with allies and Arab states to get them back into friendly formation. The tense see-sawing of the day produced a profound sense of deja vu. "Haven't we been here before?" sighed a Navy officer. "How many times are we going to let him do this to us?'

That, of course, is the question that has been vexing Clinton for six years. Since taking office, he has pursued a policy aides call "keeping Saddam in his box." But he refuses to stay put. Clinton tried peaceful diplomacy, but Saddam just signs and cheats. He tried Tomahawk diplomacy; Saddam just ducks and ignores 'em. Even as Clinton last week charted a sustained bombing campaign that one official likened to a "slow, soaking rain," no one suggested that it would rid the world of Saddam. The goal of the strikes was more modest and less satisfying: to "degrade" Iraq's ability to make and deploy weapons of mass destruction, temporarily at best. Maybe to club Saddam into some cooperation with the inspections regime. Certainly to punish him. But not to solve the Saddam problem for good.

There has never been anything mysterious about the Iraqi's strategy. Saddam has pinned his dreams of glory on possession of the world's most sinister weapons and seems prepared to sacrifice everything else to keep them. He is tired of the tight international embargo that has savaged Iraq's economy and its people. But he wants to get rid of the sanctions without giving up the weapons. So he maneuvers endlessly to subvert the U.N.-mandated disarmament program while manipulating international opinion into lifting the sanctions. Short of full-scale war, Washington has few effective means to make him behave.

So far, in one showdown after another, it was the U.S. that usually ended up isolated and forced to back away, yielding to compromises rather than following through on military threats. Several weeks ago, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told Clinton, "Up to now we've had diplomacy backed by force. Now we need to shift to force backed up by diplomacy."

The Clinton Administration found its chance to do that in the two-page pledge to Annan that Saddam signed last February to close a previous crisis, granting unfettered U.N. access to the presidential compounds. Washington considered it a suspicious document that had only been useful to stave off the bombers. The one good thing U.S. officials thought they got was an unwritten provision from the reluctant trio in the Security Council--France, Russia and China--to "snap back" with military force if Saddam broke the new promises.

But Saddam thought he had won something more significant: an agreement that the U.N. would review Iraq's record of compliance, judge it kindly and begin to lift the sanctions. He could see that Washington wanted to avoid more huff-and-puff crises, and he thought his friends on the Security Council had grown sufficiently weary of the inconclusive inspections.

In a sense, he was right. Albright was worried about U.S. credibility. She doubted that Washington could hold sanctions together much longer. But what Saddam did not know was that the Clinton Administration had decided to change tactics. While the U.S. continued to talk tough about the sanctity of disarmament, Albright began secretly pushing Richard Butler, chief of UNSCOM, the Security Council's inspection team, to step back from the inspections that had worked best to uncover Iraq's secret stockpiles.

The reason: early in August the CIA told Albright that Saddam would soon stop cooperating with the spot inspections. Scott Ritter, the hard-charging ex-Marine leading these drop-ins, had a new challenge planned, but Albright decided it would be better to let Iraq move first. She persuaded Butler to block Ritter's operation. On Aug. 5, as the CIA had predicted, Baghdad shut down all new inspections. Albright thought she had outfoxed Saddam by putting the blame for the breakdown on him. The tactic backfired: Ritter and his inspectors, furious that Washington had undercut their best efforts, leaked complaints to the press, and Ritter resigned in protest. It was a p.r. fiasco. And Baghdad noticed.

Saddam, intelligence agents reported, read a simple message into the chaos. Clinton had lost his nerve for military action. The signs of U.S. isolation and impotence looked unmistakable as Saddam added them up. Since February, Washington had significantly drawn down its gulf forces. The U.S. was mired in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Clinton faced possible impeachment. And when the U.S. responded with none of its customary saber rattling to Saddam's August restriction, the Iraqi leader saw it as a further sign of weakness. It seemed the perfect time to drive the wedge deeper between the bellicose U.S. and its flagging allies.

Saddam also developed real grievances. He was intensely frustrated when Paragraph 22 of a key U.N. resolution was not mentioned in a document outlining the promised "comprehensive review" of Iraq's compliance with U.N. dictates. Iraqi diplomats were sure that the section--which says once UNSCOM declared that Baghdad no longer had terror weapons, the embargo on oil sales would be lifted--was part of the February agreement with Annan. But when the Security Council drafted its paper, the U.S. ensured that it did not mention Paragraph 22.

That was enough to set off Saddam. "We saw that the U.S. is not going to let the U.N. ease sanctions, regardless of what we do," said Nizar Hamdoon, Iraq's ambassador to the U.N. Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz put it more bleakly: "We don't see any light at the end of the tunnel. We see a tunnel at the end of the tunnel." On Oct. 31 Saddam announced he would no longer permit any U.N. inspections or monitoring whatsoever.

But he had badly misread the signs. This time, said a U.S. official, "the terrain had changed." Saddam's defiance was so blatant that no Security Council members could condone it. Russia, China and France joined the vote for Iraq's "immediate and full compliance" in resuming the inspection program and stayed mum on the use of force. U.S. diplomats won support--or at least silence--from Arab nations, less resentful since Washington pushed Israel into a new peace accord. Eight of them issued a stark warning that Iraq bore responsibility for any military response. When the U.S. cocked the trigger, the world stood back, and Iraq found itself alone.

Saddam can be remarkably nimble. As soon as he grasped the extent of his isolation and the depth of American resolve, he scrambled for a way to climb down. The Clinton Administration strove to make that impossible. Although the President said Wednesday that Iraq could forestall military action if Saddam agreed unconditionally to resume inspections, the White House had no intention of giving him a chance to do so. "There is nothing to negotiate here," declared White House spokesman Joe Lockhart.

The Administration especially wanted to muzzle the U.N. Secretary-General, the interlocutor to whom Saddam would most naturally turn. Clinton and Albright were on the phone to Annan all week to stop him from making a second visit to Baghdad. But on Friday night, encouraged by the pleadings of Iraqi and Russian diplomats, Annan disregarded Washington's private protests and sent an appeal on his personal stationery to Saddam. "He went completely off on his own," said a U.S. official. "We adamantly opposed the letter."

The letter, however, was all Saddam needed to rev diplomacy into high gear. His yes-but reply arrived in New York City just hours later, forcing the Pentagon to hit the hold button on its imminent air strike. Then Annan gave an early-morning "positive" appraisal to the letter, deflating the momentum for military action before Washington had time to react. "We did a remarkable job isolating Saddam, and the Secretary-General undermined that," lamented a U.S. official. "It was not helpful. And that's a massive understatement."

Russia, France and China were emboldened by Saddam's letter to pressure the U.S. to put the safety pin back in the Tomahawks. "They are arguing to take yes for an answer, and we're saying it's a fraudulent yes," said an American official. While the Pentagon told its senior officers to show up "bright and early" Sunday morning to prepare for an air assault, Clinton, Albright and Berger were telephoning leaders around the world to bring them back on board. "We'll be prepared to act alone if we have to," said a White House aide.

Attack or no attack, Saddam has succeeded again in one thing he wanted: to call attention to Iraq's complaint that eight years of inspections and sanctions are enough. He is not alone in the belief that Iraq's innocent civilians have suffered too much, too long. While the U.S. can brush aside his letter's nine points for now as so much Swiss cheese, the issues they raise lie at the heart of the tug-of-war. Iraq says it has largely complied with disarmament demands; the U.S. insists that Saddam is hiding stockpiles of germ weapons and the equipment to produce them. Saddam wants relief from the crippling sanctions; the U.S. says he hasn't earned it. Saddam says his word is good; the U.S. doesn't trust it.

So the day-after question still lacks a good answer. Missiles or paper promise, Saddam Hussein will bob back up, ready to start the game all over again.

--Reported by William Dowell/the U.N., Scott MacLeod/Amman and Mark Thompson and Douglas Waller/ Washington

The Persian Gulf yo-yo

In October 1997, in response to Iraqi interference with weapons inspections, the U.S. mission to the U.N. asked the Security Council to ban foreign travel by Iraqi military officials. France, Russia and China balked...

November 1997 Hoping to exploit the Security Council split, Saddam vowed to expel U.S. inspectors. But instead of placating him, Clinton deployed two carriers and 300 warplanes to make Iraq retreat from its threat

February 1998 Fearing inspectors might find hidden arms, Saddam refused to allow them into his "presidential complexes." Clinton again sent an armada (at a cost of $1.5 billion). But regional allies resisted giving the U.S. landing rights and logistical aid; Russia and France opposed air strikes. Meanwhile, Congress criticized the Administration for the limited goals envisioned for a whole week of planned bombings. U.S. public support for the war was lukewarm: Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger and Defense Secretary William Cohen were even jeered in a "town hall meeting" at the University of Ohio

February 1998 As the situation simmered, Washington allowed U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to fly to Baghdad to negotiate a diplomatic fig leaf. Saddam agreed to allow unfettered access to the forbidden facilities, provided that a team of international diplomats could accompany U.N. inspectors. Clinton avoided war and boasted that the deal allowed for an automatic "snapback" that would have France, Russia and other Security Council members supporting military strikes if Iraq broke its word. But the snapback proved to be hollow--and so, apparently, did the threat of U.S. force in Saddam's eyes

August 1998 With the CIA suggesting that Iraq planned to renounce inspections again, the U.S. decided to avoid provoking a conflict. But it never changed its tough public rhetoric. When Washington urged the U.N. to dial back the hard-charging inspections of ex-Marine Scott Ritter, he quit in disgust. The U.S. may have been guilty only of pragmatism--not confronting Iraq with a weak hand--but it sent a signal of indecision

November 1998 Buoyed by the low-key U.S. response in August, Saddam announced on Halloween that he was blocking all U.N. monitoring. Once again, the U.S. sent forces to the gulf and was within one hour of attacking when Baghdad delivered a message to Annan promising to let inspectors go back to work. But at a White House press conference Berger called the language of Iraq's message "unacceptable"


Cover Date: November 23, 1998

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