The Magazine


Aug 24, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 47 • By JOHN R. BOLTON
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IN AN ASTONISHING PAIR OF REPORTS at the end of last week, the Washington Post and NBC revealed that the Clinton administration has repeatedly sought to limit the work of United Nations weapons inspectors in Iraq. Administration officials -- led by secretary of state Madeleine Albright -- have, in the past few months, attempted to prevent the special commission responsible for Iraq's disarmament from conducting surprise inspections of sites the inspectors believed contained likely evidence of Iraqi development of weapons of mass destruction.

If true, these reports lay the foundation for a national-security scandal of immense proportions, reflecting an unprecedented level of duplicity that Congress must fully expose. If true, these reports show behavior by the Clinton administration that goes well beyond its normal incompetence and amounts to what can only be called malfeasance in office. Indeed, if true, these reports could create a domestic political crisis for the president that will make him long for the return of the Lewinsky scandal. At a minimum, the House and Senate foreign-affairs committees should return from recess to conduct immediate hearings.

Before this news broke, Iraq had nearly succeeded in throwing off both the economic sanctions imposed by the U.N. in 1990 and the U.N.'s weapons-inspection system. Yet Saddam Hussein was seeking Security Council legitimization of what he had essentially secured on the ground. His weapons program, although diminished by the U.N.'s seven-year effort, never altogether ceased, and Iraq is now poised to do openly what it has been doing furtively since its military defeat in 1991: develop, build, and deploy weapons of mass destruction.

In response to Saddam's last major act of defiance, in October 1997, the United States should have pledged to overthrow his regime and end its threat to the region. But by then, the Clinton administration had effectively ignored Iraq for almost five years. In January 1998, the Lewinsky scandal increased the risks to the White House of an assertive response, and the following month U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan made a deal with Saddam with Washington's full support. The Annan agreement allowed the Iraqis to pretend to cooperate with U.N. inspectors and the Clinton administration to pretend its policy had been vindicated.

As predicted in these pages, Annan's deal lasted only until Iraq decided the moment had come to challenge it. Even the administration's supporters never regarded it as a permanent solution. Instead, they argued for "containing" Iraq. They justified President Clinton's decision not to use military force in February as strengthening both our political position and our ability to use force "the next time."

Now, "the next time" is here, perhaps even precipitated by the administration's own blunders. The Security Council condemned Iraq's withdrawal of cooperation as "totally unacceptable" but did not threaten "the severest consequences" for Iraq -- as it had in its resolution endorsing the Annan deal in March -- or suggest the use of force if Iraq remained defiant. If the press reports noted above are true, of course, we now know why.

Secretary General Annan, faced with the collapse of the agreement he had negotiated, has called for a "comprehensive reassessment" of Iraq by the Security Council. This is a code phrase for normalization of Iraq's international status, giving Saddam Hussein what he has sought since 1991: an end to economic sanctions and weapons inspections. No one in New York was surprised by press reports that Annan's proposal came "just hours" after a telephone call with Iraqi deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz. Annan dispatched his personal envoy, Ambassador Prakash Shah of India, to Baghdad last week for further negotiations with Aziz, while Richard Butler, chief U.N. arms inspector, remained in New York cooling his heels. With the September opening of the U.N. General Assembly due to inundate Manhattan with heads of government, foreign ministers, and their retinues, there is every prospect that the secretary general soon will seek the full rehabilitation of the Baghdad regime.

The United States is completely unprepared for this challenge. The Clinton administration is doing all it can to divert public attention from the necessity of thwarting Saddam's gambit and what may be its own complicity. The "Persian Gulf coalition," long neglected by Washington, has almost disappeared. But time is depressingly short, and the potential damage for the United States, in the Gulf and around the world, is enormous.