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Facing Down A Despot

As diplomacy falters and his allies balk, Clinton may have to go it alone with an air strike against Saddam

By Eric Pooley

Time cover

(TIME, November 24) -- Ever had a nightmare that you're back in school taking the big exam? Bill Clinton is having one of those right now: he's trying to pass a test in which every possible answer seems wrong. But the President's bad dream is all too real. And it has a name: Saddam Hussein. When the Iraqi nemesis bared his fangs at Clinton and the U.N. last week--expelling American weapons inspectors from Iraq, threatening to shoot down U-2 surveillance planes and daring the world to do something about it--he precipitated the gravest international crisis of Clinton's presidency. American and U.N. officials believe Saddam blocked the Special Commission inspection teams because they were closing in on his secret stores of biological weapons, some held by the elite Republican Guard. For example, Iraq reportedly has some 900 lbs. of the anthrax bacterium, a single gram of which can kill millions. Clinton's mission is clear: get the inspectors back into Iraq. But no policy available to him--either diplomacy or war--can readily achieve that goal.

With the exception of Britain, America's key Gulf War allies--notably France, Russia and Egypt--all oppose the use of force this time around. They urge Clinton to pursue an ill-defined diplomatic solution, ratcheting up the pressure until Saddam blinks. Clinton would love to prevail in that fashion, but he's not holding his breath. He knows that Saddam responds to diplomatic wrist slaps the way a tank does to toy guns. The watered-down resolution passed last week by the U.N. Security Council, which hit Iraq with a ban on official travel, must be laughable to a dictator who rarely leaves his country.

If Clinton can't persuade the Security Council to back the idea of military action, he may have to go it almost alone, with just a few allies--Britain, Kuwait, perhaps Saudi Arabia and Turkey--by his side. Aides say the President is comfortable with the idea. "He has understood for some time that we have to do the hard work of boxing [Saddam] in," says spokesman Mike McCurry. "He is clearly prepared to do it."

Clinton's choice would be simplified the moment Iraq launched a missile at a U-2 on a U.N. surveillance mission--or merely locked the plane in its radar-tracking sights. "If he lights up a plane with radar or takes a shot, that'll open the door to attack," a senior Pentagon official told Time. "We're just waiting for him to do something stupid so we can whack him." But as long as Saddam avoids that rash move, the President's options will remain less than perfect.

Even massive air strikes might not achieve Clinton's objective. Biological weapons are so small and concealable that no air campaign could be sure of getting rid of them, even if the Pentagon knew what Saddam was hiding and where. (It does not.) Bombing Saddam into submission is no sure thing either, because the Iraqi President, who builds palaces while his people starve, seems willing to let his country hunker down and absorb almost limitless punishment. Such an attack would involve bomber squadrons as well as missiles, endangering American lives. It would also convulse the Arab world, which fears a destabilized Iraq--"Beirut with ballistic missiles," as a Gulf Defense Minister describes it--as much as it fears Saddam. The region is already roiled by the U.S. failure to push Israel into meaningful peace negotiations with the Palestinians. Those looking for a symbol of the fractious, anti-American climate that has emboldened Saddam need look no further than Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's lonely visit to the Middle Eastern economic summit held last weekend in Doha, Qatar. Despite U.S. pressure on Arab states to attend, America's closest Arab allies--Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Morocco--all refused to show up. So embittered was the atmosphere that in the end Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy declined to attend.

These overseas tests and humiliations are coming at a time when Clinton has been cast as a lame duck at home--spurned by his party, insulted by his opponents, dogged by scandal every day. He has never seemed so alone. All in a rush last week, the President was thwarted by congressional Democrats, who rejected his full-court press for "fast track" authority to negotiate trade deals, and embarrassed by Republicans, who refused to pay America's $926 million debt to the U.N.--at the precise moment Clinton was trying to put together a U.N.-backed coalition against Saddam. The G.O.P. also blocked $3.5 billion for the International Monetary Fund, which is trying to bolster quaking economies in Asia. If they collapse, the wreckage could puncture the American prosperity for which Clinton claims credit. On Capitol Hill "there are no die-hard Clinton people anymore," complains an Administration aide. "For each issue, the President has to build a different coalition from the ground up."

Though Congress will rally behind him should he unleash the military, many of the allies he wants beside him aren't likely to, because he neglected the Gulf War coalition he inherited from George Bush. "We knew the coalition was slipping away, but we kept saying, 'We can manage it,'" says a leading Iraq expert inside the government. "There was complacency. And there's not much excuse for not having a strategy to deal with what's happened because we've been talking about it for years."

Though caught off guard by the crisis, Clinton has been resolute in dealing with it. He kept his public comments pointed but brief while lining up unanimous support for the Security Council resolution condemning Iraq, then turned to the harder task of enlisting allied support for military action. The President has never been one to rush into major military engagements. He prefers to wait until opportunities present themselves. In Bosnia he agonized and delayed for years until the warring sides were exhausted, then bombed the Serbs to the peace table. But he knows there's no time for that now. As he draws nearer to the brink, the President will have to do a better job of making his case to the American people and the world community. His strongest words last week came when he said he wanted to "wipe the prospect of chemical warfare off the face of the earth...I don't want a bunch of terrorists with laboratories in their briefcases going from airport to airport wreaking havoc in the world." That was the kind of rhetoric Americans will need to hear more of if Clinton is to muster opinion in favor of a sustained conflict. But Clinton wasn't addressing the American people when he said it. He was talking to big donors at a Democratic National Committee fund raiser.

Late on Saturday in the Persian Gulf, the U.S.S. Nimitz had received no attack order from the Pentagon, but everything was pointing to a confrontation. In contrast to last month, when intelligence information took days to reach the aircraft carrier, the CIA was rushing satellite-reconnaissance photos to the Nimitz's dimly lit combat center in just minutes. Out on the flight deck, pilots in F-14s and F-18s who were executing as many as six sorties a day over southern Iraq reported that Saddam was preparing for an American attack by dispersing his surface-to-air missile batteries and bunkering his jets. TIME has learned that fighters from the Nimitz planned to accompany the first U-2 reconnaissance flight on Sunday or Monday, flying at a much lower altitude than the spy plane, which cruises at 90,000 ft. An Iraqi missile attack on the U-2 or its fighter escorts could dissolve Russian, French and Chinese opposition to the use of force--and give America a reason to pull the trigger. To deliver that punch, a formidable armada was assembling: the carriers Nimitz and George Washington (which began steaming in from the Mediterranean last Friday), backed by more than a dozen cruisers, destroyers, guided-missile frigates and attack subs capable of delivering 100 strike planes and 600 cruise and air-to-air missiles. "This sends an unambiguous message that the power is here should the U.N. want to use it," says the commanding officer of the Nimitz, Captain Isaac Richardson. Clinton and his commanders have learned that Saddam isn't bothered by the kind of "pinprick" strikes the U.S. lobbed at Iraq in 1993 and 1996. This time, the idea is "to take a page out of Colin Powell's book and make sure that we really do have the capability to do a decisive job," says Robert Pelletreau, who served as Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs during Clinton's first term.

Pentagon officials have no plans to send troops to the region beyond the 2,100 Marines already there with an amphibious-assault group. That is why, when the Washington started for the Persian Gulf--it will arrive later this week, though its attack planes will be in range much sooner--13 of the 18 vessels in its battle group stayed behind. The Pentagon is planning to use air power alone--escalating waves of ship- and submarine-launched missiles and aircraft-based missiles and bombs--to shove Saddam back into compliance. "I don't think anybody's looking at days and days of B-52 strikes on Republican Guard barracks," a senior Navy official says. "But when the dust settles after each strike, we'll ask if he's ready to let the U.N. inspectors come back in. And if he says no, we'll hit him again." Pentagon officials liken the plan to Operation Deliberate Force, the 1995 air strikes on the Bosnian Serbs that finally pushed them to the negotiating table in Dayton, Ohio. "We'll keep hitting [Saddam] until he hurts," a planner on the Joint Staff predicts, "and hopefully after he's hit long enough, he'll say, 'O.K.'"

Since a serious bombing campaign requires heavy, land-based aircraft--not the sleek little F-18 Hornets and F-14 Tomcats that take off from carrier decks--the Pentagon wants to dispatch 50 warplanes to the region, including fierce, moveable-wing B-1 bombers (which would be making their first combat appearance) and F-15 and F-16 fighters. Marine General Anthony Zinni, the U.S. Central Commander (Norman Schwarzkopf's job during Desert Storm in 1991), spent much of last week in the Gulf region, starting the process of securing bases for the U.S. firepower. Since Saudi Arabia has the best airport facilities, a delicate dance has begun between American and Saudi officials: State and Defense department officials have been in contact with their Saudi counterparts, stressing the danger a re-emergent Saddam would pose to their country. Over the weekend, Albright scheduled visits to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait. U.S. officials offered TIME conflicting assessments of whether Riyadh would agree to harbor F-117 Stealth fighters and other attack planes. Pentagon sources considered it likely; State Department officials weren't so sanguine. Heavy B-52 bombers will be based on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, a British territory on loan to the U.S., and B-1s will probably fly out of Bahrain, Qatar or the United Arab Emirates. Says Army General Hugh Shelton, the new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: "We're confident that we have the capability to carry out whatever we are asked to do."

What will that turn out to be? The first target set is sure to include Saddam's command-and-control and air-defense systems--pulverized in 1991 but steadily rebuilt in the years since. Because the strategy is to make the targets "proportional"--that is, linked to the weapons of mass destruction that have precipitated this mess--the Pentagon is leaning against bombing Saddam's dozens of palaces or waging an all-out assault on his Republican Guard, although locations and Guard units thought to be harboring biological weapons will be hit. They won't target Saddam--"but if we get him by luck," says a ranking Air Force officer, "that's cool."

Air strikes are planned against the headquarters of the Iraqi officials who barred the U.N. inspectors from doing their job and against many of 200 suspected production centers for weapons of mass destruction--80 of them for chemical weapons, 100 for biological weapons and 20 for nuclear weapons, according to a Defense Department official. Unlike chemical and nuclear weapons, which require elaborate industrial facilities and make relatively easy targets, biological agents can be produced in a place the size of a two-room apartment. "There's no way we can find and bomb them all," says the source. But where it suspects the weapons of mass destruction are being produced or stored, the Pentagon will try out prototype weapons designed to "defeat nuclear-biological-chemical threats before they can be used," as a 1995 report phrased it. One penetrating warhead burrows through earth and concrete before detonating; an incendiary warhead burns up biological and chemical agents before they can spew poison into the atmosphere.

Washington believes it has all the authority it needs to attack Iraq under existing U.N. resolutions. Security Council sources believe it is unlikely that Washington will go back to the Council for authorization since France and Russia would probably exercise their veto power. In the next week Clinton will try to get those allies on board in some fashion by asking them to try to change Saddam's mind. Clinton planned to speak on the phone over the weekend with both Boris Yeltsin and Jacques Chirac; Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeni Primakov, who has been in frequent contact with Iraqi leaders, would like to play peace broker. If Clinton asked him to fly to Baghdad, he would happily do so. But Clinton isn't optimistic about diplomacy's chances, and there is no sign that either France or Russia is willing to budge on the issue of using force.

Both countries have been arguing for a year that because Iraq has made progress toward eliminating its arsenals of missiles and chemical weapons (though not its biological stores), it should receive some kind of carrot--a partial lifting of economic sanctions--to go with all the sticks. (The U.S. considers the "oil-for-food" swap it approved last December to be in this category; the plan allowed Iraq to sell $4 billion worth of oil, using the money for food and medicine.) The motives of the French and the Russians are suspect, however, because both countries stand to reap financial windfalls from a lifting of sanctions. Iraq owes Russia an estimated $10 billion in foreign-aid loans--money that can't be paid back so long as Iraqi funds are frozen--and Russian companies have some $20 billion in contracts with Iraq ready to kick in if sanctions are lifted. France's Elf Aquitaine and Total Petroleum companies are negotiating similar deals.

France and Russia contend that military action against Saddam could be self-defeating: if he refuses to budge, the Arab world could rise up against the spectacle of sustained bombing. "Surgical air strikes will not eliminate [U.S.] suspicions," says Russian Ambassador to the U.N. Sergei Lavrov, "and they will raise hell in the region. Blanket bombing will turn everyone in the Arab world against the U.S."

So is there a diplomatic way out? In an interview last week with TIME, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz claimed to see one. "If the American government would give the green light to the Secretary-General of the U.N. to consider Iraq's request [to modify the leadership of the U.N. inspection team], there will be no crisis," he said. "We will reciprocate in a reasonable and positive manner."

But the white-maned, wily Aziz--who has served as Saddam's kinder, gentler face for 18 years now--is a p.r. master. As he well knows, the apparently simple solution he prescribes is unacceptable to the U.S. because it would allow a renegade state to change the terms of an official U.N. commission. Saddam has shown no sign of wanting a deal to get the inspectors back in. He wants delays, and brinkmanship, and time to do whatever it is he's doing in those off-limits labs. In the end, his actions suggest, he is again willing to risk war.

"After seven years of sanctions, you get desperate," said Aziz, although his boss isn't desperate enough to let the inspectors back in. "Another wave of missiles makes no difference to the Iraqi people or the Iraqi government."

Aziz is half right. Saddam's regime has so far managed to survive and even thrive despite all the American assaults. But Saddam's people haven't fared so well. They deserve to be pitied for the miseries he is ready to bring upon them again.

--Reported by William Dowell/New York, Dean Fischer and Mark Thompson/Washington and Douglas Waller aboard the U.S.S. Nimitz

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