Bush vs. Saddam: The Sequel

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Baghdad skies erupted with anti-aircraft fire in January, 1991

It's easy to forget that the Gulf War isn't over. Since the mother of all battles ended in apparent success 10 years ago this month, the U.S. has been engaged in protracted low-intensity combat to bring the conflict to final victory. Washington has unloosed a raft of modern weapons — economic sanctions, an arms embargo, weapons inspections, money for opposition groups, no-fly zones and the occasional bombing — to unseat Saddam Hussein. To no avail. The vexing enemy left in position in 1991 by the first President Bush has managed ever since to keep the Iraqi threat alive.

Last week the second President Bush took his first whack at the problem: 24 U.S. and British warplanes slammed five Iraqi radar and communications centers that had become a danger to the planes patrolling the no-fly zones imposed on Iraq after Operation Desert Storm. The military objectives were easy enough to accomplish. Pentagon officials believe the target sites to the south of Baghdad were nicely "degraded," and all planes returned safely to base.

The U.S. has always been especially leery about losing a pilot, says a senior Pentagon officer. "Saddam is eventually going to get lucky. We just want to delay that day as long as possible." The wily boss of Baghdad had been pouring money into reconstructing his dated (but deadly) "Tall King" and "Volex" radars and linking them together with new underground fiber-optic cables. That would give the dishes much sharper eyes in the sky and antiaircraft shooters a faster bead on their targets. Pilots on no-fly patrol have lately noticed newly aggressive Iraqi tactics in picking up their aircraft, and they have complained that some surface-to-air missile operator might soon earn the $14,000 reward Saddam has offered for shooting down a U.S. plane. Because four out of five radars lay above the 33rd parallel that marks the edge of the southern no-fly zone, they had to ask Bush for permission to attack. Friday's two-hour assault was heavier and ran closer to Baghdad than was the norm over the past two years, but it was essentially just a stronger dose of the same old policy.

So Bush readily gave the mission his approval last Thursday. The needs of the military dovetailed neatly with his own: to show Saddam — and Americans and the world — that this Bush will be as tough on Iraq as the preceding one. Although he went off to Mexico while the raid took place (Pentagon officials say the date was chosen for operational reasons several weeks ago) and modestly labeled it "routine," his face and his tone delivered a different message. His administration regarded Saddam's stepped-up aggression since the first of the year as a test of the new commander in chief. Now Bush was answering. "We're going to watch very carefully as to whether or not he develops weapons of mass destruction," said the President. This bombing was a symbolic warning, he hinted, that "if we catch him doing so, we'll take appropriate action."

But potshots don't add up to effective policy when it comes to Iraq. Yes, they help remind Saddam: "You're weak." But they don't prevent him from dictating a troubling agenda. And they can't long stand in for the coherent "refocus" Bush promised to bring to an issue that has eluded satisfactory resolution for two administrations.

During the campaign, Bush was highly critical of Clinton's policy. But he takes office when most of the mechanisms applied against Saddam have worn out. The 10-year-old sanctions imposed by the U.N. have unraveled. Countries such as France and Russia prefer to do business with Iraq. Moderate Arab states don't like Saddam but can't stomach the deprivations suffered by ordinary Iraqis. Egypt has restored diplomatic relations. The U.N. weapons-inspections regime is dead. The Bush administration is pushing money to opposition groups that most analysts say are too weak, divided and unpopular to do much. Nor do the fresh sounds of U.S. bombs — which Baghdad claims killed one and injured nine — help Secretary of State Colin Powell as he sets off on his first tour of the Middle East on Friday.

Powell's mission is to take soundings as the administration wrestles to devise a new approach to the entire region. Unhappily, Iraq still figures at the center, complicating every other aspect. Saddam has played to the Arab street by embracing the Palestinian uprising, handing out money to families of those killed and portraying himself as the one Arab leader bold enough to take on Israel. More seriously, TIME has confirmed, he is banking unaudited cash by sneaking out oil through a pipeline to Syria. Unlike the revenues he gets from petroleum sales allowed under the U.N.'s oil-for-food program, this money can go straight into Saddam's military coffers. One of Powell's toughest days will come in Damascus, where he wants to persuade the Assad regime to shut off the pipeline.

While U.S. officials like Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld talk of aggressive new strategies to get rid of Saddam, Powell speaks mainly of reinvigorating the sanctions. To do that, he will need to convince Arab and European allies that Saddam is playing and winning a propaganda game by letting his people starve. And to bring the allies back aboard, Powell will need to draw up an approach that reduces civilian hardships while concentrating embargoes on things that count. Powell has taken to saying sanctions are really about ensuring that Iraq complies with 1991 cease-fire agreements limiting its weaponry of all kinds. So the U.S. will "refocus" on stopping sales of arms and weapons materials, shortening the list of controlled items and allowing more ordinary commerce.

Arriving at a fresh approach the entire administration supports and selling it abroad will be tough. Even if Powell does, the odds on successfully squelching Saddam still look awfully long. In the meantime, Bush has little alternative to the occasional raid. But it is hard to see that these lead to anything other than the same old policy of containment — unless Bush II is ready to finish the job the way Bush I started it.