Anatomy of a Farce

Anatomy of a Farce

Mini Teaser: U.S. diplomacy in the Persian Gulf region has created a no-win proposition whose dangers far transcend the local security environment

by Author(s): Adam Garfinkle

America sees farther because America stands taller. . . . We are the indispensable nation.
--Madeleine Albright, Feb. 18, 1998

How is it that the indispensable nation had to rely twice in the space of four months on the likes of Yevgeny Primakov and Kofi Annan to save itself from serious embarrassment at the hands of the error-prone dictator of a middle-sized country? It took some doing. From October 29 to March 2, the Clinton administration's management of the most recent phase of the Iraq crisis fluctuated between mediocre and abysmal. Virtually no rule of diplomatic prudence and good sense escaped violation, including, one fears, the rule holding that the strategic misjudgments of great powers rarely go unpunished.

This did not have to happen. Being the only superpower does bring certain inescapable burdens, such as having to deal with the free-riding, envy, special pleadings, and financial entreaties of various states. But no law decrees that such burdens must in short order turn a position of substantial strength in a key region of the world into one of foundering weakness. Yet that is precisely what the Clinton administration has managed to do.

The administration, of course, does not see things this way. Nor does it seem to recognize the potential for serious damage that its fumbling has created. Aside from the consequences of letting Baathi Iraq escape the most inclusive non-proliferation regime ever created, the advent of even a rudimentary Iraqi weapons-of-mass-destruction capability will make the U.S. deterrent function in the oil-rich Persian Gulf far more costly and difficult in every way. It may render that function so politically fragile in the region's host countries as to be unsustainable in the long run. Given that the balance of interests and attention often trumps the raw balance of power, it may not be so clear even a year hence just who is deterring whom in the Gulf--with all that implies for the vitality of the present liberal international order.

Recent U.S. policy toward Iraq may be summed up in one word: disconnected. With six years of supine behavior, the Clinton administration disconnected itself from its own allies and emboldened the Iraqi leadership. Then this past autumn came the serial mishandling of the Iraqi portfolio. As the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) got close--much too close for Baghdad's purposes--to deciphering Iraq's means of concealment, the administration should have expected another Iraqi gambit to upset the process. But it wasn't paying attention. The administration's near simultaneous hesitancy to implement the D'Amato sanctions legislation against the Franco-Russian-Malaysian Total S.A. deal with Iran led Saddam to suppose that, if the United States were reluctant to contain Iran, then a deft push from Baghdad might weaken strictures against Iraq too. Then came a maladroit American maneuver in the Security Council: when a U.S. proposal to add symbolic sanctions against Iraq because of its uncooperative behavior toward UNSCOM revealed fissures in the Gulf War coalition, Saddam saw an opportunity to deepen those fissures and end the sanctions regime.

Once the crisis erupted on October 29, contemplated U.S. military means grew disconnected from sensible political ends, with pernicious impact both on Iraqi behavior and allied cohesion. If, as virtually everyone understood, the problem was not simply Saddam's weapons but the combination of those weapons and the basic character of his regime, then how could the administration's limited air war option--which was manifestly unable to eliminate the weapons and did not even aspire to eliminate the regime--possibly do more good than harm?

This disconnection first arose in November, and the anxiety it produced contributed to the collapse of the U.S. diplomatic position in a heap of excuses and Russian disingenuity via the Primakov "solution." UNSCOM was sidetracked, Saddam got to watch his old Russian friend humiliate Secretary of State Madeleine Albright by making her fly to Geneva in the middle of the night, President Clinton backed away conspicuously from his "no negotiation" stance, and the whole affair bought time to incubate germs and hide the evidence--in return for which Saddam was thanked merely for repeating promises that he had already broken.

One might have thought that the rapid collapse of the Primakov solution, and increasing evidence of the Iraqi danger that soon followed, would by late January have finally ended the administration's wishful thinking and procrastination. But instead the President redoubled his seminal error of allowing a calculation about acceptable means to drive the definition of policy goals. This forced the administration to engage publicly in the credibility-destroying exercise of repeatedly ratcheting down its goals, ending up with the almost apologetic formula of doing "significant damage" to Iraq's weapons-of-mass-destruction capabilities.
This left the impression that force was contemplated as part punishment for Saddam, part political escape for the Clinton administration, but not as an element in a serious strategy for dealing with Iraq. Were strikes to be accompanied by declaring all of Iraq a no-fly zone? By declaring Republican Guard strongholds no-drive zones? Were strikes shaped to attack the core of Saddam's support to make it easier for other, much abused Sunnis to challenge him? Was releasing frozen Iraqi assets to opposition forces considered, or declaring de facto autonomous parts of Iraqi Kurdistan exempt from sanctions? No doubt such options were discussed in the administration's inner councils, but the point is that nothing was done with respect to any of them.

The administration's posture fit a familiar pattern of speaking grandly and deploying underwhelming force. The ultimate source of this pattern seems to be temperamental. Administration liberals, living testaments to the triumph of the therapeutic, accept no limit on the healing actions they can take on the world's behalf--hence the diplomatic prozac prescribed in marginal places like Haiti and Bosnia. But their reluctance to use force seriously where U.S. interests are at stake seems similarly without limit. In Iraq, the therapeutic impulse undermined resolution. An administration that feels everyone's pain worried to excess about Iraqi casualties and allowed to stand without comment ludicrous yet ultimately damaging Iraqi claims about the general effects of economic sanctions.

The disconnection between ends and means caused disconnections elsewhere, too. It deepened the fears of America's Arab allies and prompted them to speak in ways contrary to their private convictions. Publicly they decried the use of force because it threatened to further harm innocent Iraqis. In reality, Gulf Arab elites welcomed a use of force aimed at Saddam's jugular. What they really feared was not hurting innocent Iraqis or the reaction of their "street", which barely exists, but an attack on Saddam's capillaries, leaving him vengeful and still dangerous.

Other friendly Arab regimes--notably Egypt and Jordan--were genuinely concerned about the public reaction to U.S. bombing, and its effects on regime stability. But their problem was less Saddam than Saddamism: the Iraqi leader as an omnibus symbol of defiance against the varied frustrations of the disenfranchised and dispirited Arabs. The most public reason given for official Arab opposition to U.S. policy--that of a supposed double standard applied to Iraq and Israel--was mostly pretext for the Gulf Arabs; for the others it was more the fear of Saddamism than genuine indignation about double standards.

Nevertheless, the prospect of political upheaval in those Arab countries most friendly toward the United States was real, and it signals a major problem: the very things that we must do to protect these regimes from external threats open them up to internal threats. This is a sobering measure of how weak these regimes really are, and it is the supreme challenge to U.S. policy in the long run. In this respect, the Iraq crisis was not a good omen for the future, for while it is possible to get rid of Saddam if we are prepared to pay the price, it may be impossible to get rid of Saddamism, at least for several generations to come.
As the crisis dragged into February, several senior administration principals confessed to being in a genuinely tight spot. Critics agreed. But the critics realized something that seems not to have occurred to U.S. national security principals: it was the administration's own behavior that had let Saddam out of his proverbial box and put them into one. U.S. policymakers apparently saw no connection between their own half measures and half-heartedness and Saddam's multi-year string of diplomatic successes, and it led them to misread badly their own depleted leverage over Iraq.

Why, after all, should Saddam back down when the last time he challenged UNSCOM he was rewarded with the Primakov solution? Why, too, should he relent for fear of his own longevity when, Washington having ruled out a priori the use of ground forces, the worst prospect he faced would have removed neither his military trump nor his government? Indeed, of all the instances of the administration's disconnectedness the most vivid was its interpretation of Kofi Annan's late February mission to Baghdad. Saddam accepted Annan's terms on February 23 not mainly because he feared American military threats, but because, as with the Primakov solution, he could not bear to forgo the concessions put before him.

Just consider his haul. In a trice Annan and Saddam together turned Iraq's pariah status into a new respectability. Saddam diluted UNSCOM's authority with the befuddling apparatus of the Special Group, complete with a Sri Lankan go-between and diplomatic nannies acting potentially as an early warning system for the Iraqi weapons complex. He punctured the sanctions regime, too, thanks to the administration's agreeing to Security Council Resolution 1153, which allows Iraq to sell more oil than it is now capable of exporting and to import at about half the pre-war level. Seen together these concessions mean that Saddam can anticipate the complete demise of the sanctions regime when, working under its new limitations, UNSCOM fails to substantiate Iraqi misdeeds before its next mandated report to the Security Council in October. And he drove home the message to those Arab regimes that are still prospective Iraqi targets that they are unwise to trust the United States with their security.

The triumphalist claim, therefore, that the threat of American force caused Iraq to "back down" turned failure into farce. UN Ambassador Bill Richardson's assertion--"It was America's force and America's military presence that enabled the agreement and the full access to inspections to happen. I believe that . . . our influence since the agreement has increased in the region."--ranks as perhaps the most breathtakingly false statement ever uttered by a Clinton administration official, though admittedly there is much competition for the honor.

The ignominy continued even after February 23. Despite having failed to build an automatic response to Iraqi backsliding into the germane Security Council resolution passed on March 2, the President insisted that the United States would respond swiftly to any Iraqi violations, and that it need not go back to the Security Council before so doing. Annan quickly challenged him, and within days Mr. Clinton backed down again, saying, "Of course we would consult. It would be unthinkable that we wouldn't." Saddam celebrated this last American collapse in his usual manner--by ordering a group of political prisoners shot.
What happens when the indispensable nation screws up big time? We're bound to find out, and the experience will not be enjoyable.

After all that has happened, persuading Saddam that we are serious about using force against him when he again violates his commitments will be all but impossible. The new politico-legal context that the administration has accepted will not help either. If the United States abjured force when Iraq's violations were blatant and massive, will Saddam believe that America will go to war over the details of an ambiguously worded agreement, one whose judge (Mr. Annan) will be loath to proclaim a failure for fear of offending its creator (also Mr. Annan)? It doesn't seem so. Already in mid-April Iraqi officials began to probe for weakness, and it was not long before they found it in credible reports that U.S. policy was backing away from considering the Iraqi enfeeblement of UNSCOM to be an offense worthy of a military response.

If deterring Saddam will be hard, recruiting broad and reliable allied aid when Iraq next violates its commitments will be impossible. U.S. credibility in the region has tumbled off the edge. Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two biggest local losers from Iraq's having escaped punishment, are moving closer to each other. So, gingerly, are Iran and Iraq. Farther afield, the energy-rich states of the Caspian basin must be recalculating their strategies, having just watched a weak but wily Russia outmaneuver the United States in their backyard. As for the Europeans, only the British may still be of any help; like Saddam, both France and Russia have sensed U.S. weakness and are now ever more firmly dug in against U.S. policy in the Gulf.

This is not, alas, the indispensable administration. U.S. diplomacy has created a no-win proposition whose dangers far transcend the local security environment. It has gone from dual containment to incipient strategic collapse in the Persian Gulf. For Saddam Hussein, it would qualify as an unnatural act not to take advantage of the opportunity afforded by U.S. failures. The future depends on how he goes about it.

Our best hope is that the next time Saddam violates his promises, he will overreach to such an extent as to force the Clinton administration to pound the Baath into final submission. If that should also drive a stake through the heart of "assertive multilateralism", risen unexpectedly from its grave in Mogadishu in the form of Mr. Annan's mission to Baghdad, then so much the better. But if Saddam has gotten smarter and more patient, we are in trouble. The Clinton administration ignored Iraq as best it could for more than six years; given half a chance it will do so again. Then our situation will deteriorate slowly instead of at full tilt as it did last winter--slowly but not innocuously. As sanctions erode, Saddam will be building his bio-bombs, honing his means of delivering them, and, once UNSCOM is no longer his most proximate problem, picking out a neighborhood target for fun and profit, intimidation and terror.

One can hardly wait to hear administration officials propound their theories of diplomacy and force the next time we go round the block with Saddam, as, sooner or later, we surely will. If farce follows tragedy, then what follows farce?

Essay Types: Essay