The Magazine

Who Really Won the Gulf War?

With the collapse of our Iraq policy, Saddam Hussein is up to his old tricks

Dec 27, 1999, Vol. 5, No. 15 • By JOHN R. BOLTON
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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.