IRAQ IS BACK IN THE NEWS -- in a context that should pointedly remind us how completely American policy toward Saddam Hussein has collapsed. The immediate issue is U.N. Security Council debate over a resolution that would recreate some semblance of the old UNSCOM weapons inspection program in Iraq. The proposal's practical effectiveness is dubious at best, but it has been repeatedly held up, for eight long months, by explicit Russian (and tacit Chinese and French) veto threats. Meanwhile, not a single international weapons monitor has set foot in Iraq since last fall. By now all traces of UNSCOM's earlier work have been erased, and Saddam has doubtless been hard at work rebuilding his capabilities in weapons of mass destruction.
Following the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War, Saddam had two principal policy objectives: first, to break free of the U.N. weapons inspection regime created to discover and destroy Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile delivery systems; and, second, to escape the international economic sanctions that prevented him from funding a rearmament campaign. Before Saddam could achieve either of these objectives, of course, the U.S.-led Persian Gulf coalition would have to fragment politically. Which, unfortunately, is exactly what's happened. The Clinton administration has been inattentive to, and feckless about, foreign policy in general. As a particular consequence, no meaningful U.S.-led Persian Gulf coalition any longer exists.
The Security Council's failure to reinstitute weapons inspections in Iraq is one piece of painful evidence. The neutering of international economic sanctions is another. Saddam has cynically exploited the U.N.'s oil-for-food program with the help of sympathetic U.N. administrators on the ground in Iraq. At U.N. headquarters in New York, Secretary-General Kofi Annan recently underscored his continuing solicitude for Saddam by reappointing Hans von Sponeck as the chief U.N. official in Baghdad. He did so over unusually vehement American and British objections; State Department spokesman Jamie Rubin had publicly announced that "we do not have confidence in [von Sponeck's] leadership of this effort. [He] has undermined the role of the humanitarian coordinator in Iraq." Nonetheless, Annan, who owes his election as secretary-general to Madeleine Albright more than anyone else, felt free to ignore her wishes. More recently, he has implicitly criticized the United States, complaining about the Security Council's alleged tardiness in approving contracts under the oil-for-food program.
In short, Saddam Hussein has very nearly realized his postwar goals. Yes, Iraq is still subject to a desultory American air campaign (we now drop bombs filled with cement in order to minimize Iraqi casualties). Yes, Baghdad remains isolated in polite diplomatic circles. Still, Saddam is now poised to do what he loves to do most: threaten both his regional neighbors and the West. In late November, Iraq prompted a dollar-per-barrel spike in the global price of crude oil simply by cutting off its pipeline flows (to protest what it called an inadequate extension of the oil-for-food program). Oil prices haven't been so high since nine years ago, when coalition forces were making final preparations to liberate Kuwait and the petroleum market was in an understandable frenzy. In other words, Saddam sees no reason why he shouldn't now exercise the same international clout he had before he lost the war.
The Clinton administration won't admit it, but the downfall of Saddam's regime was an unspoken aim of every postwar program pushed through the U.N. by the Bush administration: weapons inspections, economic sanctions, and even the original oil-for-food program. By now it should be beyond debate that only Saddam's removal can realistically forestall Iraq's ability to produce weapons of mass destruction. We can argue whether the Bush administration should have finished this job in 1991, but the urgent question remains: How to get it done in the near-term future?
It is not a question the Clinton administration can be depended on adequately to address by itself; seven years of incompetence have left the White House and State Department with precious few options to reverse the downward drift of our Iraq policy. As already noted, any forthcoming Security Council weapons inspection regime will almost certainly be toothless. Secretary Albright appears to have lost significant influence over Secretary-General Annan on Iraq matters, leaving Saddam basically free to deploy his oil revenues as he sees fit.
The embarrassments and setbacks continue unabated. Last month the Iraqi resistance met in New York to coordinate its efforts; President Clinton had to be dragged into the effort, kicking and screaming, by Congress -- which appropriated funds for the resistance over administration objections. This month, the American U.N. delegation just barely eked out a Security Council extension of the oil-for-food program: France simply refused to vote, and Russia, China, and Malaysia abstained.
Who, then, if not our incumbent president and his aides, can finally refocus national attention on this crucial and dangerous corner of the world -- and thus help force new energy into a faltering and flaccid policy? The men who want to be our next president might do so if they choose. Few things reorder American political priorities like the high-profile debate of a presidential campaign. The current crop of candidates has a major opportunity to reinvigorate the U.S. response to Saddam Hussein. These candidates should make three clear and interrelated points.
First, instead of simply whispering hopefully about a post-Saddam Iraq, the United States must state publicly and unequivocally that his removal is our paramount objective. In the process, we must encourage resistance not only by the Iraqi diaspora, but also by whatever dissident elements exist within the military and Saddam's governing structures. Right now, no other country believes that we are serious about removing Saddam from Baghdad. The world must be made to believe it. Indeed, Saddam's fate should be the catalyst for a larger debate about the legitimate uses of American military force: Should force be employed not only to solve an immediate strategic problem, but also to eliminate the regime which has precipitated it?
Second, Saddam's elimination must become an international priority, not just an American one. Secretary Albright has now achieved passage of the Helms-Albright legislation on U.N. arrearages, one result of which, the bill's proponents suppose, will be revived American influence in U.N. circles. We should make Iraq the first test of their theory and insist that the oil-for-food program be run principally by U.N. Secretariat officials in New York, under the close supervision of the Security Council. Moreover, we should insist that economic sanctions against Iraq be restored to full effectiveness -- including armed enforcement by the members of a recreated Persian Gulf coalition. If we cannot have weapons inspectors operating effectively inside Iraq, we must do a far better job of ensuring that critical materials do not enter the country.
Third, we need a coherent policy on the use of force against Iraq, one that also has domestic American and international support. Estimates differ widely over the effect of the quiet bombing campaign we have been conducting for the past year, but few believe it really threatens Saddam. One thing is certain: The administration's failure to make a strong public case for the bombing leaves us diplomatically vulnerable should there be a mishap.
If, in fact, the air campaign is achieving important objectives, we should say so, and step it up. More boldly, we should say that, along with his immediate coterie of advisers, Saddam himself, as commander in chief of the Iraqi military, remains a legitimate target. And we should deal with him accordingly.
Iraq is an unhappy subject for the United States, which is one reason it has lately faded from both media and executive branch attention. Still, we cannot afford to continue on our current path, all but ignoring Saddam Hussein. He represents a serious and growing security threat which, left unchecked by American resolve, may soon make even the worst of our past frustrations and failures in Iraq seem very small indeed. Time is not our friend. The United States has an excellent chance, during the next year's presidential campaign, to actively reconsider its policy toward Iraq. If we miss the opportunity, there is little hope that we will ever get another.
John R. Bolton is senior vice president of the American Enterprise Institute. He served as assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs during the Bush administration.