David Frum November 25th, 1997 at 12:00 am
The crisis in Iraq is over, for the time being, and the result is an astonishing U.S. defeat. Saddam Hussein tossed the United Nations’ weapons inspectors out of his country and suffered no punishment at all. To the contrary, he profited
immeasurably by his act.
First, he gained three weeks free from scrutiny to cover up his illegal weapons experiments. Many observers think the inspectors were tossed out because they were on the verge of discovering videotaped records of Saddam’s scientists’ poisoning of human subjects — records that would jolt the world into taking action against him. But whether it was videotapes or something else they were getting close to, we can be certain they are much farther away from it now.
Second, Saddam received an explicit commitment from the Russians that they would try to persuade the UN to lift the sanctions against his regime. The Russians brokered last week’s deal. The promise that they would endeavor to bring the sanctions to an end was the clincher. That means two of the five permanent members of the Security Council
— Russia and China – are now taking the pro-Saddam position. (Judging by last week’s disturbance at the University of Toronto ceremony honoring former U.S. president George Bush, so do 30 of our local profs. Fortunately, they don’t carry a lot of diplomatic weight.)
Third, Saddam seems to have obtained some sort of promise from the U.S. that it, too, will acquiesce in the ending of sanctions within a short period. The Clinton administration denies any promise has been made, but official spokesmen have said the administration would not be averse to lightening the sanctions later on. We don’t know yet whether any promises have been made. But even if there is nothing more to this than meets the eye, Saddam has been told that defiance of President Bill Clinton results not in punishment, but in at least potential rewards.
Fourth, Saddam has weakened the UN inspection effort. It seems the UN teams will be altered to include a higher
proportion of non-Americans. This is alarming because criminals should not have the right to tell the police which officers to assign to their cases, and also because the home governments of several of the policemen (not just Russia, but also France and Germany) take a worrisomely soft line on Iraq, in hopes of winning the dictator’s goodwill for future export sales to post-sanctions Iraq.
Fifth, Saddam has shown the Arab world that Clinton is afraid to fight him. What was most remarkable about the standoff of the past three weeks was Clinton’s extreme reluctance to risk a conflict with Saddam. When the U.S. inspectors were threatened and harassed, he could have parachuted 15,000 marines into Iraq to protect and escort them. When they were booted out, he could have bombed Iraq within 24 hours. Thanks to the tanks and guns pre-positioned in Kuwait, he could have landed army troops, based in the U.S., in the Middle East in two weeks. He flinched from all those things. Saddam’s Arab neighbors noticed. Last week, they took the measure of Clinton and learned — this is not a man to count on. Which means next week, they will be eagerly seeking to ingratiate themselves with the toughest man on the Gulf.
And what have the Americans got out of three weeks of frantic diplomacy? Only this: a postponement of the inevitable fight with Saddam Hussein. It probably isn’t a very lengthy delay, perhaps as little as two or three years. Some might say war later is better than war sooner. That view is not without merit. But this postponement shoves the coming conflict forward to a time when the U.S. will be weaker than now (as the reduction in U.S. military forces post-1990 continues) and when Saddam might well have become vastly stronger (if his research into chemical and biological warfare pays off). If Saddam ever develops the ability he seeks to poison thousands — or millions — of U.S. soldiers and civilians, rest assured, he will start the war himself. Isn’t it better to fight now, while the U.S. could still easily crush him?
War is always horrible. But peace can be costly too. And this peace is being purchased by gambling with the safety and security of the Western world and the pro-Western states in the Gulf. That is too high a price to pay to spare a weak-willed man from the necessity of, for once in his presidency, making a tough decision.
Originally published in The Financial Post