Iraq Air Strikes: Business as Usual

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MANNY CENETA/AFP

Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold briefs the press on the air strike against Iraq

The Pentagon spin on the latest air strikes against Iraq is that they’re militarily routine — which, of course, they are, even if they also serve to underline the authority of a new sheriff in the Gulf. But emphasizing the continuity of President Bush’s action with the practice followed under the Clinton administration is a double-edged sword: After all, it’s not as if that policy was ever hailed as any great success. Then again, options are few in the post-Gulf War impasse over Iraq.

Of course nobody's going to accuse President Bush of wagging the dog for ordering Friday’s air strike by 24 U.S. and British warplanes against five air-defense command centers near Baghdad. Not that President Clinton would have responded any differently to a request by the military to undertake what the Pentagon sees as a force-protection action. Probably as part of an effort to test the resolve the new administration in Washington, Iraqi air defenses had in recent weeks begun aggressively "painting" allied warplanes patrolling the "no-fly" zone with radar signals that enable surface-to-air missile strikes. The commanders advised the president to order the strikes, in order to avoid the potential for a U.S. pilot to be shot down. And that certainly provided President Bush a welcome opportunity to show Saddam that he would respond forcefully to any provocation from Baghdad.

But does it help Bush's Middle East goals?

The air strikes certainly project a get-tough image and give an early shove to Saddam, but they don't do much for the Bush administration's primary current objective in the Gulf region — halting the gradual collapse of sanctions against Iraq. Secretary of State Colin Powell heads for the Middle East next week, hoping to build Arab support for a more limited sanctions package targeted specifically at denying Baghdad access to military equipment and technology that could be used in developing weapons of mass destruction. The U.S. appears to have recognized that the current comprehensive sanctions package is bound to collapse because both European and Arab allies generally view it as a counterproductive policy that has hurt the Iraqi people but not their dictator. Powell plans to pitch a new sanctions regime designed to lighten the burden on the Iraqi people while maintaining a tight grip on anything that would enhance Iraq’s military capability.

Secretary Powell also has to contend with the decline of U.S. influence in the region as a result of the deteriorating Israeli-Palestinian situation, and the bombing of targets near Baghdad is unlikely to make his job any easier. Then again, as long as civilian casualties were avoided, the air strikes may not do much damage either. Washington will be working the phones Friday, ensuring that Arab allies understand that the U.S. sees the latest strikes simply as business-as-usual in the ongoing cat-and-mouse game over the "no fly" zones. Obviously, Saddam is well aware of the dangers that arise for U.S. policy when missiles are flying. Iraqi TV immediately announced Friday that three children had been killed in the air raids. And the dictator may even be tempted to actually escalate behavior that prompts the U.S. to attack — after all, a few surface-to-air missile systems may be a small price to pay for prompting an error by allied planes that may help him turn moderate Arab regimes against Washington's policies. Then again, Saddam is also notoriously prone to miscalculating.