The Magazine


Dec 21, 1998, Vol. 4, No. 14 • By JOHN R. BOLTON
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President Clinton's embarrassing failure in November to punish Iraq militarily illuminates two broad and profoundly disturbing themes of his foreign policy. The first is his near-compulsive unwillingness to use decisive military force to achieve critical American objectives, even when conditions are nearly ideal. The second is his addictive adherence to multilateralism, reflected here in his continued preference for U.N. weapons inspections over the elimination of Saddam Hussein's regime. Like most of Clinton's policies, these themes are camouflaged, even contradicted, by rhetoric. Nevertheless, they will continue to be cause for concern during the remainder of his presidency. Accordingly, the Republican congressional leadership must develop a response.

Clinton has been at the brink of confronting Iraq militarily six or seven times, depending on how one counts, and each time he has shown the same lack of resolve he displays in other regions of the world. The administration will use military force if it is of the "pinprick" variety, as it did when it launched small numbers of cruise missiles against Iraq and against Osama bin Laden, and when it joined NATO military strikes in Bosnia. And Clinton will deploy military forces on the ground, but only in U.N. or post-U.N. peacekeeping missions, as he did in Haiti and the former Yugoslavia. The administration's one unambiguously successful deployment of military force -- during the 1996 crisis in the Straits of Taiwan -- did not actually require shooting. One wonders what Clinton might have done had China not quickly backed down.

During the November confrontation with Iraq, the United States enjoyed more publicly stated, international support for the use of punishing force than this administration had during any earlier confrontation. Eight Arab countries (the Gulf states, Egypt and Syria, all members of President Bush's coalition) said unambiguously that if force were used, Saddam alone would be responsible. "Iraq must heed U.N. Security Council resolutions and abide by them all to avoid military confrontation," they stated in a public declaration. United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan (the president's chosen instrument to bend the knee to Baghdad in February) said just before the November 14-15 weekend that "the rupture with the United Nations is a flagrant violation" of Iraq's commitments and obligations. Secretary of Defense Cohen took the trouble to emphasize international support when he said, "The Security Council's credibility is on the line. The U.N.'s credibility is on the line and, I think, U.S. credibility as well."

Even France and Russia were on board, or at least silent. British defense minister George Robertson exposed Saddam's charade by saying the Iraqi dictator was "dangerously underestimating the international community if he thinks he can go on playing cat and mouse with them." Secretary Cohen suggested too that the moment of truth was at hand: "Diplomacy always should have every opportunity to dance. But at some point a dance has a beginning and an end." Yet for President Clinton, the dance never ends.

What caused Clinton to back away from using the assembled and growing American military forces? Not the risks posed by Saddam's defense capability; not the threat of retaliatory use of weapons of mass destruction; not the threat of international terrorism; not the collapse of international support; not a pressing and unexpected domestic crisis. No, what convinced President Clinton not to use force was a series of letters from a regime that is one of world history's greatest serial liars. There was no more reason to believe these professions of Iraqi compliance than thousands of other Iraqi statements over the last eight years -- which is why the administration's capitulation so illuminates Clinton's unwillingness to use force.

One has to conclude that the president's unwillingness to execute a military strategy profoundly troubled his own top advisers since all of them, except national security adviser Samuel Berger, rushed to leak that they had favored proceeding with the attacks. We can be equally sure that in Moscow and Beijing, and in Belgrade and Pyongyang, the American failure to use force -- again -- received more than passing attention. The most startling reaction, however, was the general silence of Republicans once Clinton's failures of nerve and judgment were apparent. Congress was silent perhaps because it was in recess or because it was in the middle of the impeachment process. It doesn't matter, because Republicans cannot afford to be silent during the remainder of the Clinton presidency.