Baghdad bombing: The right move, the wrong time

A foreign policy expert says Clinton should have struck sooner -- and argues that U.S. sanctions are propping up Saddam by allowing him to line the pockets of his cronies.

Topics: Ramadan,

On Wednesday, Americans awoke to morning newspapers awash in impeachment headlines. By afternoon they were watching the darkened skies of Baghdad illuminated by the orange glow of U.S. bombs. As the bombs were landing, the House decided to delay Thursday’s vote on the president’s future — although Republicans left open the possibility that they might vote as early as Friday.

In a speech to the nation, President Clinton defended his attack on Iraq, saying a “strong, sustained series of airstrikes” against Iraq was necessary to punish Saddam Hussein for his refusal to comply with U.N. weapons inspectors. Only minutes into “Operation Desert Fox,” Republicans were crying “Wag the Dog.” Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., joined other leading Republicans in claiming he could not support the attack because he couldn’t be sure it wasn’t politically motivated, although Lott had been briefed three weeks ago about the possibility of an attack if Saddam defied the United Nations.

Salon asked Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University and an expert in international conflict and U.S. foreign policy, about the timing of the attack on Saddam, why the United States waited until now to launch it and whether the U.S. should immediately end economic sanctions.

In bombing Iraq, was President Clinton simply trying to deflect attention from the impeachment proceedings?

I think there are certainly legitimate strategic reasons for bombing Iraq. I don’t want to say the president is motivated exclusively or even primarily by political reasons. Having said that, the bombings certainly serve the president’s interests. The timing works very well for him. There have been many occasions where taking military action against Iraq would have been appropriate. There was no reason last time around to believe Saddam’s lies — he always lies. Right now the president has tremendous incentives to take the action which he should have taken earlier. He should have bombed last month without question.

Why?

The Iraqis have not complied with the U.N. inspection requirements. The only way for Saddam to know that we are serious about enforcing the inspection regime is to punish him when he doesn’t follow it. Now, it’s true that we could not have taken out whatever weapons of mass destruction he has been building — because we don’t know where they are — but that’s not the same as saying we couldn’t have punished his regime severely for their misconduct. We could have and we should have. We look awfully foolish right now.

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The president said during his speech that the airstrikes were necessary now because “for [the U.S.] to initiate military action during Ramadan would be profoundly offensive to the Arab world.”

Part of the impetus for the timing is that Ramadan is soon and you don’t want to be bombing in Ramadan if you want the Arabs to not be adamantly or vocally opposed to the operation.

Do you think the American public will support this mission? Or will they agree with Trent Lott, who said he will support the troops, but not the president?

I don’t know whether it will increase the president’s approval ratings, but those don’t really mean anything. His popularity rating is high enough that it doesn’t matter if he gains five points or loses five points. Historically, a president’s approval ratings always go up following a military action, successful or unsuccessful.

But in this case, couldn’t the public be cynical about the uncanny timing of this?

Some people will rally behind him, others will view it in a more cynical way. What really matters is that the Congress won’t vote to impeach him while this is going on. If he can keep this going until the weekend, then you get into Christmas week. If I were the leader of the Democratic Party in the House, I would be urging my members to think about how important it is for them to be back in their districts for Christmas. Would the Republicans dare impeach the president with only Republicans present? What Clinton really needs to do is buy enough time to carry this over into the next Congress.

The U.N. recently pulled its inspection team out of Iraq, because the Iraqis were not being cooperative.

The U.N. is there to look for evidence of the production of chemical, biological and, of course, nuclear weapons, so the facilities they are interested in inspecting are quite diverse. Some of them are facilities where you might store the relevant chemical or biological agents or where you might be doing nuclear testing, though nuclear testing is much harder to hide. Part of [the U.N.'s job] is to inspect places where development of weapons might be taking place, part of it is to inspect places where already-made weapons might be stored and part of it is to inspect places where documentation on the purchase of chemicals and biological agents might be. That’s why they need to be able to inspect such a diverse set of places. It’s not that they are looking for a smoking gun — here’s a missile with botulism in it!

Why is the U.S. repeatedly foiled by Saddam?

If I was making policy right now towards Iraq I would do two things: I would do intensive bombing in conjunction with lifting the economic sanctions.

Lifting the economic sanctions?

The primary reason I would lift the economic sanctions is that they are a great benefit to Saddam Hussein, because it has created a tremendous black market, which he controls, and he makes the income from that black market available to his cronies, who have made hundreds of millions of dollars individually from controlling it. The shortage of goods is a benefit to a dictator. Franco did the same in Spain during World War II. The Spanish economy was on the verge of collapse and the supporters of Franco were all getting rich. Saddam doesn’t need popular support. He doesn’t need to vilify the United States. It doesn’t matter if most people in Iraq think he’s a monster. What matters is if the generals controlling the tanks think he’s doing a good job. And their definition of doing a good job is whether or not he’s making them rich.

If we lift the sanctions, then there is much more of a competitive marketplace and Saddam is cut short on the money he can use to line the pockets of his cronies. It becomes more likely that money will circulate to the hands of people who in the future might form a credible opposition. So I would bomb him to punish him for his past acts and I would lift the sanctions to make it harder for him to engage in his future acts.

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

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