Has Saddam Beaten Washington?

  • Share
  • Read Later
For an international pariah, Saddam Hussein suddenly seems to be getting a lot of visitors. In the last week alone, French, Russian and Yemeni aircraft have touched down in Baghdad on "humanitarian missions" without bothering to clear their flights with the U.N. Sanctions Committee. And more are expected in a development that has left Secretary of State Madeleine Albright "very concerned," she told Congress this week.

A senior Republican lawmaker responded by blasting the Clinton administration, slamming "the inadequacy our nation's response" to the threat posed by the Iraqi dictator, and asking, "Has Saddam won?"

He certainly seems to think so. Iraqi officials have been crowing all week about the imminent collapse of U.N. sanctions. The Iraqi dictator has also been moving military units around the country and this week issued more threats against neighboring Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. White House aides have been watching the military movements but so far see no sign that he's preparing to strike. Which is a relief for the Clinton administration, because at this point it has no stomach for a large military campaign against Iraq.

One reason may be that the high price of oil gives a powerful weapon with which to fight back — if the bombs start falling, he can simply stanch the flow of Iraqi oil. Iraq currently sells some 2.3 million barrels of oil daily under U.N. programs, and turning off the spigot could cause chaos in the international oil market — and even in the U.S. election. White House aides, however, believe they could counter such a move by drawing enough oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and convincing Gulf allies to increase production to offset an Iraqi shutdown. What's more, cutting off the supply would most directly effect European customers, whose support Saddam will need if he's ever going to get sanctions lifted. "I don't think that it would be a productive move on his part," Albright told TIME.

Still, Washington isn't exactly eager to test its contingency plans. For now, it's simply trying to avoid a confrontation with Saddam while struggling to keep the economic sanctions from unraveling. "There are problems with the sanctions regime in terms of how it is fully lived up to," says Albright.

Wobbly though its policy may be, Washington may have little by way of alternatives. The former commander of U.S. forces in the Gulf, retired general Anthony Zinni, this week told the Senate Armed Services Committee that his biggest fear is that Iraq will implode, destabilizing a region that provides 40 percent of the world's oil supply. "Removing Saddam is not the issue," said Zinni. "The issue is what kind of Iraq and what kind of region do we end up with. What's important is that what comes out of this is a stable Iraq, one that's intact, territorially intact, politically intact, and still a major influence in the region."

But not all of Washington agrees. Richard Perle, a Reagan-era Pentagon official, testified told the hearing that "the American policy of containing a belligerent Iraq with intrusive inspections and economic sanctions —punctuated by episodic bombing and the occasional half-hearted coup attempt — has failed." He added, "It is increasingly clear that the only solution to the danger posed by Saddam Hussein is a sustained, determined plan to remove him from power."

Perle favors U.S. support for a rebellion in Iraq, providing Saddam's opponents with arms, training and U.S. air cover to occupy pieces of Iraqi territory. He suggested this goal could be achieved with a "small number" of U.S. special forces troops.

The Pentagon finds such proposals laughable. The Iraqi opposition, disorganized with factions constantly squabbling among themselves, offers no credible threat to the regime. A brigade of U.S. Army Green Berets on the ground would be chewed up in an instant. "We were left with Saddam and I think that we probably will pass him on" to the next administration, admits Albright. "But what we have managed to do is to keep him in his box for almost 10 years."

But Saddam's "box" is one only a dictator could hope for. He lives in palaces fit for a billionaire and keeps the cronies who protect him well stocked. Albright says the regime imports 12,000 cases of whiskey a month. And Iraqi graveyards are full of dissidents who've tried to oust him.