THE oft-discussed and endlessly postponed strike against Saddam Hussein has finally happened: Hussein had proved once again -- as if there were any doubters -- that he has every intention of keeping his war-fighting machine intact, including weapons of mass destruction. Now he is paying the penalty for his endless flagrant violations of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
The attack is unquestionably deserved. But it is imperative that this current military campaign go well beyond the tactical military goal of destroying suspected sites of missiles or weapons of mass destruction, or even of punishing Hussein for "noncompliance."
It must be political and strategic in nature, serious enough to destroy major portions of his infrastructure of power and repression. Even if it is not possible to eliminate Hussein physically, if he loses his intelligence eyes and ears and his key loyalist Republican Guard units, there is just a chance that in the chaos a successful coup by key disaffected military commanders under him could take place.
If this campaign does not open at least that much of a window of opportunity, then it will accomplish little more than past such campaigns: temporary tactical punitive action devoid of lasting strategic significance.
One big thing is different this time. President Clinton's visit this week to Gaza and the Palestinian Authority just barely fell short of a state visit to a sovereign state in the eyes of most Arabs. Mr. Clinton's rhetoric was breathtakingly balanced, perhaps unprecedented from any U.S. president yet, and especially from one who has had the reputation of the most pro-Israeli U.S. president in memory.
He gave the Palestinians something very simple but deeply meaningful, what this battered people has always craved: dignity, recognition of their own sufferings and clear indicators of a coming state.
While Palestinians know they still have a way to go before their sovereign state is achieved -- and some Palestinians are still deeply skeptical it can ever happen -- the goal is in sight, recognized by all realists in America and Israel as the only true solution to the problem.
Never mind that Mr. Clinton didn't really get the peace talks back on track. Vastly more important is the major impact upon Palestinians of this warmly received act of graciousness from a U.S. president. Palestinians this time around are far less likely to be craving a hero -- any Arab hero -- which led them during the Gulf War to cheer on Hussein. The president's visit will markedly quiet the major source of Arab anger toward Washington and make it easier for other Arab regimes to at least tacitly support the military action without fear of major reaction from their own populations.
No 'Wag the Dog' scenario
Many in the United States and the Middle East will, of course, see this campaign as the president's cynical response to a pending impeachment process. Maybe, but anybody who has followed the tortuous negotiation game with Hussein over the years will hardly find the present military response at all out of step with past patterns of action against Hussein.
Furthermore, Mr. Clinton knows, even if most Americans do not, that he has a special window of opportunity here before Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting that begins on Sunday. Ideally, military action should cease by that date, unless some unexpected turn of events should emerge during the bombing campaign.
If there is any question to be raised about the timing of major military action against Hussein, it is that the president and Congress had just begun ratcheting up a new infrastructure to overthrow Hussein: a Radio Free Iraq, $97 million for an armed opposition force and a CIA covert action program to help build political opposition to Hussein.
But these parts of the infrastructure designed to topple Hussein aren't in place yet.
If the past is any indicator, this campaign, too, will not be the endgame. It may take the full panoply of instruments -- radios, organized political opposition, war crimes tribunals against Hussein, even a provisional government in exile -- all implemented simultaneously some time down the road before one can speak seriously of ousting Hussein.
In that sense, this bombing campaign may well be premature, unless it is seen strictly as a holding operation. Hussein may be growing increasingly isolated -- with luck, even from his own commanders.
Graham E. Fuller is a former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.
Pub Date: 12/18/98