This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on September 16, 1996
Saddam Provokes US Attack
For a short while last week, it seemed as if the spirit of Desert Storm was alive and well. Once again, there were powerful images of cruise missiles launched in the dead of night from American warships and streaking towards targets in Iraq with what U.S. strategists inevitably described as "pinpoint accuracy." Once again, the President solemnly proclaimed from the White House that Saddam Hussein, the man Americans love to hate above all others, had been duly punished for his transgressions - this time, sending his troops to crush Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq. And once again, Saddam himself was back on the world stage with his own inimitable rhetoric. "The aggressors have come again with their cowardly and humiliating raid," he told his people. "It will be a glorious day the Iraqi people will write down. For the aggressors, it will be a day of cursing in history."
But the echoes of 1990 and 1991, when Saddam invaded Kuwait and was then expelled by a massive U.S.-led coalition, obscured more than they revealed. For while president George Bush's Desert Storm campaign successfully slapped Saddam down and secured Western oil supplies, the attacks launched last week by his successor, Bill Clinton, were much more sound than fury. At Clinton's order, American naval ships and B-52 bombers launched 44 cruise missiles at military targets in southern Iraq, and extended the so-called no-fly zone for Iraqi aircraft to the southern suburbs of the capital, Baghdad. But once the smoke had cleared and the rhetoric died down, there was a growing realization, even among some inside the U.S. administration, that it was Saddam who emerged from his latest confrontation with Washington as the clear winner.
That view was widespread among independent analysts as the fallout from Saddam's incursion into what is still officially known as the Kurds' "safe haven" in northern Iraq became better known. "Saddam won - we lost," Joshua Muravchik, a foreign policy specialist at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said bluntly. "He looked stronger than he's been, and we looked weaker." A state department official, who asked that his name not be used, told Maclean's that by attacking in southern Iraq rather than striking at the forces that Saddam used against the Kurds in the north, the United States sent him a clear signal that it is concerned only about the security of oil supplies from Kuwait and other Persian Gulf states, and does not care much about what he does inside his own borders. "We've not demonstrated a lot of courage," said the official. "Our actions have not left the region any more secure. Saddam has gotten away with it."
And a Pentagon official who specializes in Middle East policy made a similar point in even stronger language. "I'm ashamed," he told Maclean's flatly. "In the Middle East, you either get it done to you, or you do it to someone else. It's a male thing. We essentially did nothing to Saddam, nothing. We showed weakness. This will be seen in the region as shameful to Mr. Clinton."
Of course, Clinton and his officials put out an entirely different version of events last week. On Saturday, Aug. 31, while riding a campaign bus through Tennessee, the President gave the go-ahead for U.S. forces to strike Iraq in retaliation for Saddam's decision to send about 30,000 of his Republican Guard troops to help one Kurdish faction against its chief rivals. Tuesday morning, the first wave of 27 American cruise missiles struck Iraqi anti-aircraft batteries and radar installations at four sites in the southern part of the country, hundreds of miles from where Saddam's troops had attacked the Kurds, in the northern town of Irbil. Around 2 a.m. on Wednesday, three U.S. navy surface vessels and a submarine in the Persian Gulf launched a second wave of 17 missiles at the same targets. Most of the targets were destroyed, but Saddam's key command-and-control bunkers in the area were not affected. The Americans also extended the no-fly zone imposed on southern Iraq in 1991 from the 32nd parallel north to the 33rd parallel, denying Saddam's air force the use of two key bases. And the United Nations froze an agreement to let Iraq export $2.7 billion worth of oil in order to buy food and medicine.
Clinton's verdict on the U.S. action was unambiguous, and predictable. "Our mission has been achieved," he declared. Saddam, he added, is "strategically worse off," and he "knows there is a price to be paid for stepping over the line." But the President's growing chorus of critics quickly pointed to three things: the effect on what is left of the coalition put together by Bush to force Iraq out of Kuwait in 1991; the timing of the American action; and where it was aimed.
Strains among the onetime coalition partners were immediately evident. Five and a half years ago, the United States managed to unite an extraordinary array of countries against Saddam, including all Western nations, Russia, Turkey, many Arab states including such traditional American adversaries as Syria, and a host of others. This time, only Britain, Germany and Canada offered instant political support for Clinton's action. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, on a golf vacation in Florida, issued a statement calling the American action "a measured and clear response" to Iraq's move against the Kurds and later spoke to the President by phone.
More striking, though, was the number of countries that failed to offer support - or condemned the American strike outright. Russia strongly opposed it, saying openly that Clinton was motivated more by U.S. electoral politics than by any concern for the Kurds. France, which helps to patrol the southern no-fly zone, expressed a diplomatic "anxiety" about the situation, and said its warplanes will stay south of the 32nd parallel. Turkey, now headed by its first Islamic fundamentalist prime minister, denied permission for the Americans to use their airbase at Incirlik, in southern Turkey, for action against Iraq. Jordan, where King Hussein is under fire at home for raising bread prices, told the Americans that it would not allow them to station fighter aircraft there to help enforce the no-fly zone.
Even Saudi Arabia, whose ruling family is increasingly under pressure from fundamentalists opposed to all Western influence, including the continued presence of U.S. forces in the kingdom, stayed silent. Some of those countries, American officials insisted, quietly applaud action against Iraq - but 5 ½ years after Desert Storm, it does not pay them domestically to say so. At the United Nations, too, there was disquiet. Unlike in 1990, last week the United States acted unilaterally, and it invoked a dubious legal basis for its attack. UN Security Council Resolution 688, adopted in April, 1991, demands that Iraq end its repression of the Kurds - but gives no explicit authorization for any action if it does not.
The sequence of events leading up to Clinton's order to attack also speaks volumes. As the week wore on, American intelligence officials made clear they had issued repeated warnings that growing tension between the two main Kurdish groups in northern Iraq was building towards a crisis. One group, the Kurdish Democratic Party of Massoud Barzani, felt more and more pressured by the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, led by Jalal Talabani. The two groups have feuded for a generation over ideology, territory and money, and Talabani's group had seized control of Irbil from Barzani's forces. Worse, Talabani was accepting aid from Iraq's archenemy, Iran, and on Aug. 17 his fighters launched new attacks on Barzani's forces.
That prompted Barzani to do the previously unthinkable: he turned for help to Saddam Hussein, who in 1988 murdered at least 5,000 Kurds with poison gas in the town of Halabja, and in 1991 sent tens of thousands of Kurds fleeing into the mountains along the Turkish border. On Aug. 22, Barzani sent a message to Saddam, addressing him humbly as "your excellency" and asking for help to expel Talabani's supporters from Irbil. On Aug. 26, the CIA told the Clinton administration that it was "pretty convinced" that Saddam was moving troops north, towards Kurdistan. Two days later, on Wednesday, Aug. 28, the CIA repeated its warning - this time, according to an agency official, "unambiguously."
On that day, however, Clinton had many other things on his mind, and none of them involved the Middle East. He was approaching Chicago in his "21st Century Express" campaign train and putting the finishing touches on the acceptance speech he was to deliver the next evening to the Democratic Party's national convention. He was also receiving the first reports that his most important political adviser, Dick Morris, was about to be embroiled in a sex scandal (Morris resigned the next morning). Clinton's national security adviser, Anthony Lake, told the President that the building crisis in Iraq could be headed off only by decisive action. But, according to an official close to Lake, Clinton's political advisers wanted Iraq off the agenda - at least until the end of the Chicago convention.
As a result, the President authorized a diplomatic warning to Iraq, but did nothing else during those crucial days. It was only on Friday, Aug. 30, after the convention, that his chief Middle East envoy, Robert Pelletreau, intervened by inviting Barzani and Talabani to London for peace talks. By then it was too late. Saddam was only too happy to use Barzani's appeal as an excuse to re-enter the Kurds' safe haven. He sent 30,000 soldiers, who quickly threw the PUK out of Irbil. While they were at it, they executed an estimated 100 non-Kurdish Iraqi dissidents who used the town as a base for anti-Saddam activities, arrested 1,500 more and seized dissidents' files and computer records. "Saddam has managed to butcher his opposition," noted Laurie Mylroie, an Iraq specialist with the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. "And the United States has declared this a success."
Saddam withdrew his tanks and soldiers from Irbil last week, but he retains a strong new presence in the northern part of Iraq. As American officials acknowledged late last week, he left behind a massive security presence that will keep his opponents cowed and remind Iraqis that he intends eventually to take back control of his entire country. At the same time, Barzani's forces are now beholden to Saddam for their strengthened position. "He did not simply vanish into the night," said state department spokesman Glyn Davies. "Saddam Hussein's footprint remains very much indelibly placed over that region." For the United States, that is a bitter blow after pouring more than $1 billion into bolstering the Kurdish safe haven.
The site of the American attacks was just as crucial as their timing. The cruise missiles struck far from Kurdistan, and U.S. officials made clear why. "Our national interests are not tied to which [Kurdish] party prevails in this dispute," Defence Secretary William Perry said in Washington. Rather, he added, the "vital national security interests" of the United States lie to the south - in ensuring that Iraq does not threaten Western oil supplies from the Gulf, as it did in 1990.
The other side of that statement, the administration's critics point out, is that it implicitly weakens American commitment to the Kurds and to maintaining their safe haven. "I'm not sure we've given the right signals here," said William Quant, a onetime official at the U.S. National Security Council who now teaches foreign policy at the University of Virginia. "We should have worked harder at making the Kurdish safe haven a better place, and bringing the factions together. If they felt they could get real support from us, they wouldn't have felt tempted to make dirty deals with Saddam. Let's face it, it's not easy to be a Kurd. They can't escape their geography."
All that also sends out unfortunate messages to American, and Western, allies in the Middle East. Mylroie of the Foreign Policy Research Institute argues that one of Saddam's responses to last week's attack will be renewed terrorism. "Saddam is vengeful and vicious," she said. "He lets it be understood through the Middle East that he is behind terror attacks on the United States, and then his agents ask the Saudis and the Kuwaitis, 'The United States can't protect itself. How do you think it's going to protect you?' "
Inside Iraq, Saddam had already managed to strengthen his position, despite UN-sponsored sanctions that have impoverished his people. The expanded no-fly zone does nothing to weaken his grip at home: he relies little on his air force for that, looking instead to his Republican Guard ground troops. Signs of dissent at the top of his regime have turned out to be less significant than once thought. Last year, two sons-in-law defected to Jordan in a move that Western analysts welcomed as an indication of trouble in his inner circle. But they returned to Baghdad earlier this year and asked their father-in-law for forgiveness; instead, they were executed. And there are no signs that the Iraqi military, upon which Saddam lavishes resources that ordinary citizens seldom see, is anything but loyal to its leader.
In Baghdad last week, support for Saddam seemed as strong as ever - although the pervasive presence of his secret police makes any sign of dissent extremely risky. The Iraqi media stressed the tensions in the alliance once arrayed against their country, and ordinary Iraqis took some heart at that. "People feel that the mood in the outside world is no longer as anti-Iraq as it used to be, and that is encouraging," textile shop owner Walid Hinawi told Maclean's in Baghdad. "They are not happy, but this attack is peanuts to what we have seen. Iraqis will live through this assault as they have lived through all previous ones."
Regular bulletins on the crisis interrupted Iraqi television, including the past-midnight showing of, ironically, the American movie Beethoven on a youth channel run by Saddam's son Odai. On Wednesday night, Baghdad residents heard the rattle of Saddam's anti-aircraft artillery and looked out anxiously for incoming cruise missiles. Iraqi television claimed the city and two other locations outside the no-fly zone had been attacked by U.S. forces, and showed scenes of alleged damage and injuries. American officials immediately denied involvement. "It wasn't us," said one. International observers in Baghdad suggested that Saddam had deliberately put on the show, and the damage was caused by his own anti-aircraft artillery.
Many people in the capital showed quiet satisfaction that Kurds had invited Baghdad to defend them against another Kurdish group backed by Iraq's archrival, Iran. Soon after Iraqi television announced the troop movements in the north, it played Kurdish songs and music, and showed pictures of holiday resorts in the lush valleys of Irbil province - sending out the unmistakable message that Kurdistan would eventually be brought back under Baghdad's control. One political observer in the capital, sipping sweet tea in the sweltering 48° C heat, noted smugly: "I am satisfied that the Kurds have begun to re-enter the national fold of Iraq."
For Clinton, the political calculations involved in last week's attacks may well pay off. The American action was the minimum that the President could have ordered to stave off accusations that he was failing to stand up to aggression. Bob Dole, his faltering Republican challenger, began complaining before the crisis broke out that Clinton was not providing strong leadership in the Middle East. But once the missiles were flying, Dole lost even that line of attack. As tradition dictates, he quickly lined up behind the commander-in-chief, endorsing Clinton's actions. Still, it could not have been easy for Dole. He has made much of his Second World War service, and has not disguised his contempt for Clinton's manoeuvring in the late 1960s to avoid being drafted at the time of the Vietnam War. Hitting Saddam - however ineffectually - allowed Clinton to counter any lingering image he may have as a foreign policy lightweight only eight weeks before election day.
Not that he needs much help in that direction. The latest opinion polls last week gave him a lead of anywhere between 10 and 14 points over Dole, a gap that no challenger has ever been able to overcome so close to the vote. And the first soundings of public opinion after the Iraq attack found overwhelming support for the President's action. By slapping Saddam Hussein on the wrist, Clinton may not have done anything to diminish the dictator's chances of long-term survival. But he surely enhanced his own.
Maclean's September 16, 1996