PARIS -- In wake of the bombing of Iraq, the question once again is: What has it accomplished, other than adding to the large number of Iraqis who have been killed by U.S. forces since Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990.
That invasion brought an end to what until then had been a tacit alliance between Saddam Hussein's Iraq and the United States, to contain the influence of their mutual enemy, Iran.
Since then, Hussein has been Washington's enemy, and there has been an emotional and even obsessional quality to this enmity that is not easily explained, but has undoubtedly been a source of certain unreasonable elements and unanswered questions in U.S. policy towards Iraq.
It is, for example, evident that the attacks of the past few days are most unlikely to force the Iraqi regime to submit to the weapons inspection system that Washington thinks indispensable. It would be a waste of time for Baghdad to say that it would submit, since President Clinton and Congress have already indicated that they will not be satisfied until the Hussein government itself has been removed from power.
As long as Hussein's government remains in power, and U.S. policy remains what it is, there is little chance that the United States would agree to end the U.N. Security Council's oil and economic sanctions on Iraq, imposed in 1991 and strengthened in October 1997.
This being so, the Iraqi dictator, who has amply demonstrated his indifference to the suffering of his people, may conclude that he has nothing further to lose from ending the U.N. and International Atomic Energy Agency inspections.
His government could, if it chose, close the country to those parties, and turn to the international arms and technology black markets to reconstitute the military forces it wants and can afford.
It is true that maintained international sanctions would obstruct this, and some in Washington might even recommend continuing military attacks on Iraq's military, industry and infrastructure so as to keep the country on its knees. But such a course of action would be unlikely to prove palatable to the international community, which already has shown itself uneasy with existing sanctions.
The general thrust of Washington's policy rationale, that Iraq is a menace to global security as well as to its neighbors, is a familiar theme by now. The argument remains difficult to justify in practical terms, since thanks to the U.N. inspections that already have taken place, the country possesses little capacity for air or rocket delivery of any kind of strategic weapon, even one as indiscriminate in whom it infects as a biological agent.
Mr. Clinton and his advisers are not under the illusion that bombing is an effective way to deal with easily concealed research and development concerning biological warfare weapons.
Chemical weapons were employed by the Hussein government both in the war with Iran and in domestic political repression, but again they are not easily manipulated, and scarcely provide a convincing global threat. That is why no major nation has used them in warfare since the trenches of the western front in 1915-1918.
Can these U.S. and British attacks on Iraq promote a change of government? There seems general agreement that Hussein's multiple and overlapping security forces are effective domestically.
Congress has recently provided $100 million in new funds for CIA-supported Iraqi opposition groups outside the country, which until now have proven conspicuously unsuccessful. An opposition paid for and controlled by the country or countries attacking Iraq is in a poor position to appeal to Iraqi patriots and democrats.
In short, the political expectations motivating the American offensive of the last few days are hard to understand. The attacks "teach Saddam a lesson," which he already knew. To do this may reassure Washington officials, but is likely to leave the country with unforeseen consequences. This has not been an operation that promotes respect for the United States in allied circles, or at the United Nations. But that is no longer a very serious consideration in Washington.
As for the Washington political context of the attack on Iraq, it is irrelevant to the issue itself. But I believe that, in its timing, Mr. Clinton's was a cynical decision.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 12/21/98