The Magazine


Sep 7, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 49 • By JOHN R. BOLTON
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IN THE MOST STINGING INDICTMENT YET of the Clinton administration's Iraq policy, United Nations weapons inspector Scott Ritter resigned last week. He wrote that Washington's unwillingness to hold Iraq to the letter of numerous Security Council resolutions "makes a mockery of the [U.N. weapons-inspection] mission." In an interview, Ritter was even more emphatic: "I've poured my heart and soul into disarming Iraq, and this means I was wasting my time. It means we lost the Gulf War. . . . The whole world should be shamed by this."

And particularly the Clinton administration. It has been worse than incompetent regarding Iraq: It has been duplicitous. In early August, faced with renewed defiance by Saddam Hussein, the administration radically altered longstanding American policy. Instead of threatening -- and if necessary using -- force to compel Iraqi compliance with U.N. mandates, the administration is backing down. Worst of all, the president's agents stead-fastly maintain they haven't changed a thing.

There have always been three broad approaches to handling post-Gulf War Iraq. First, containment: Some strategists believe that simply deterring Iraq's use of weapons of mass destruction will protect our interests and that intrusive U.N. inspections intended to eliminate such weapons are unnecessary. Second is the administration's policy, which one official calls Whack-a-Mole: Support the weapons-inspection mission (UNSCOM) and continued economic sanctions, and whenever Saddam acts up intolerably, whack him with military force. Third is the policy I support: Admit that the administration's middle-ground approach is not sustainable, will not achieve its objectives, and will fritter away America's position of strength. Only overthrowing Saddam Hussein can eliminate the Iraqi threat to peace.

The administration has now clearly adopted the first policy, while continuing to give lip service to the second. Had the policy been changed because the administration concluded that sanctions and inspections had failed, or that the containment model was superior for reasons of either cost or benefit, it could (and should) have said so. It could have explained why its calculus had changed and defended its new approach. Some would have applauded. Others would have objected vigorously to reneging on the vow to eliminate Iraq's weapons-of-mass-destruction capability and shifting to a policy of containment. And the debate would have been on.

But instead of announcing the change of policy forthrightly, the secretary of state has chosen to mislead. Hailed at the time of her swearing-in as one who could explain foreign policy to the American people, Madeleine Albright has apparently decided to spin them instead. She asserts in public that our policy is to "keep Saddam in his cage," but she does something quite different behind the scenes. Consider just one aspect of the deception. NBC, then the Washington Post, reported that for several months the Department of State had discouraged UNSCOM from mounting aggressive "challenge" inspections of Iraqi sites suspected of involvement with weapons of mass destruction. The Post said that Albright herself had telephoned chief U.N. inspector Richard Butler on August 4 to cancel two inspections poised to be launched from Baghdad.

Confronted with this report, Secretary Albright denied it: "I have never told Ambassador Butler how to do his job." Pressed for details, according to the Post, "she and those speaking for her declined to answer further questions about her August 4" conversation. Just days later, however, the secretary not only acknowledged speaking with Butler, but she argued that UNSCOM should not muddy the waters by proceeding "with intrusive inspections [the Iraqis] would have blocked anyway." "In this context," writes Secretary Albright, Butler "came to his own conclusion that it was wiser" not to proceed with the UNSCOM inspections. This is too cute by half. The press has reported overwhelming evidence that the administration made comprehensive efforts to rein in UNSCOM over a period of several months, even using the CIA to hamper UNSCOM's work. Butler is saying publicly, "I will not preside over an empty shell," and speculation about his own resignation is now inevitable, fueled by leaks from the U.N. secretary general's aides.