Air Strikes Are a Reminder that Saddam Still Dictates the Game

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The latest air strikes on Iraqi air defenses are part of a U.S. "strategy," President Bush assured us last Friday, although he may have been stretching the definition of the term beyond its elasticity. After all, strategy, as the great military theorist Carl Von Clausewitz defined it, "is the use of the engagement for the purpose of the war." Clausewitz, whose "On War" remains a standard textbook in military academies, continues: "The strategist must therefore define an aim for the entire war... In other words, he will draft the plan of the war, and the aim will determine the series of actions intended to achieve it." As dramatic as Friday's strikes may have been for anyone watching CNN's breathless coverage, it remains rather difficult to connect them with any clearly defined strategic aim on Washington's part.

If the administration is to be taken at its word — and there's no reason to doubt it — this particular engagement was initiated by Baghdad rather than by Washington. U.S. commanders reportedly approached the White House to recommend destroying air defense command-and-control centers close to Baghdad after a dramatic increase last month of Iraqi air defenses aiming missiles and radar at allied planes policing the "no-fly zone" over southern Iraq. There's no surprise there: Baghdad doesn't recognize the zones decreed by the U.S. and Britain, and Saddam clearly wanted to test the resolve of the new man in the White House.

A policy that hasn't worked

So Saddam tested Bush the Younger, and got the same response he got from Bill Clinton. Indeed, the new administration was at pains to point out that the raids were, in fact a continuation of the policy that had gone before, a policy that hasn't exactly worked. Ten years after the Gulf War, Saddam is still in power — more in control than ever, in fact — and he's even managed to get rid of those meddlesome weapons inspectors. The fact that his people are dying like flies is not of much concern to a man who bombed whole towns with chemical weapons when they rebelled against him.

And while Bush managed to look tough, it was hard even for some of his supporters to muster much enthusiasm for the "strategy" underlying the action. Britain's defense minister, Geoff Hoon, explained his country's decision to join the U.S. raiding party thus: Sanctions and bombing may be an unsatisfactory policy, but it's the only policy we have.

Some conservative Republicans, of course, chose to spin the raids as the onset of a more aggressive U.S. policy to overthrow Saddam — encouraged, perhaps by the administration's meetings the same day with members of the opposition Iraqi National Congress to discuss their efforts to overthrow the strongman. But beyond the ranks of the gung-ho conservatives who fell in love with "proxy" wars during the heady days of the Nicaraguan contras and the Afghan mujahedeen, most observers concur that the INC is, at best, capable of minor harassment of the Baghdad regime, rather than delivering a knockout punch. And of course the U.S. military is acutely aware that even if the motley coalition of some 92 organizations whose members range from Islamic fundamentalists to Marxist-Leninists did manage by some epic stroke of luck to overthrow Saddam, the resulting mayhem would likely create an Afghanistan-type unraveling in the heart of a region that supplies almost half of the world's oil. And that, in turn, would force the U.S. to deploy tens of thousands of troops in a situation that would make Vietnam look like a clambake. Indeed, it may be that the fascination with the Iraqi opposition in some corners of Capitol Hill is little more than an expression of frustration at the fact that Saddam continues to taunt the West.

Colin Powell's job just got harder

Dropping a few bombs on Iraq has become a rite of passage for untested U.S. presidents looking to establish their authority. And Saddam Hussein is only too happy to provide the pretext — after all, the air strikes work in his favor by provoking Arab anger and European concern that helps him pursue his primary objective of ending sanctions on his own terms. Secretary of State Colin Powell leaves for a previously scheduled tour of Middle Eastern capitals this Friday, his primary mission being to secure Arab support for a modified sanctions package. The new administration seems to recognize that Saddam appears to have won the propaganda war over comprehensive economic sanctions — Iraq two weeks ago signed free trade agreements with key U.S. allies Egypt and Jordan, and has been hosting companies from all over Europe at trade fairs — and is therefore looking to salvage a sanctions package designed to stop Iraq restoring its military capability. A sensible policy shift, although Powell was always going to have to do a lot of damage control in light of Arab hostility to the U.S. over Israeli-Palestinian violence. The latest air strikes against Baghdad are only going to make the new secretary of state's tasks that much more difficult.

It is worth remembering that these air strikes, according to those who carried them out, were provoked by Iraq's raising its own level of engagement with U.S. and British warplanes. In other words, this particular battle was picked by Baghdad. So President Bush may actually be correct that the air strikes form part of a strategy — but it's Saddam's strategy, not Washington's.