Clinton-Saddam Fisticuff: War and Diplomacy in Persian Gulf

-Chintamani Mahapatra, Research Fellow, IDSA


The United States and Iraq have been having a conflictual relationship, particularly since the Persian Gulf crisis of 1990 when Iraqi President Saddam Hussein sent his troops to occupy the neighbouring Kuwait. While Saddam Hussein's misadventure led to the Gulf War of 1991, which ended with the liberation of Kuwait and the suffering of the Iraqi people in the wake of the unprecedented UN sanctions against that country, the Iraqi leader has continued to rule the country and spring surprises by his various moves which have resulted in confrontation with the US Administration.

It was George Bush who was at the helm of affairs during the Gulf War. But it has been Bill Clinton who has resorted to force to punish Saddam Hussein for his moves unacceptable to Washington. When the Clinton Administration came to know that there was a plan to assassinate George Bush, it ordered a missile strike against the Iraqi intelligence headquarters in Baghdad. In 1994, when Saddam Hussein reportedly moved his troops along the Kuwaiti border, he was forced under threat to pull back. When Saddam Hussein sent his elite Republican Guards to northern Iraq to participate in an internal Kurdish conflict between rival factions, Bill Clinton ordered 44 rounds of missile strikes against southern Iraq and extended the no-fly-zone unilaterally.1

More recently, in November 1997, Saddam Hussein initiated another confrontation with the United States by refusing to allow the American members of the UN inspection team in charge of destroying Iraq's programmes of weapons of mass destruction. Saddam Hussein charged that the US members were spies and threatened to shoot down the American U-2 planes flying over the Iraqi airspace. Bill Clinton, on the other hand, threatened to use military force, unless Saddam Hussein allowed the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) to perform their UN Security Council mandated duties. Ultimately, the US-Iraq stand-off was resolved through the deft Russian diplomacy.2

The Russian diplomatic success, was, however, short-lived, as Saddam Hussein began before long to refuse to open several other "suspected" sites of weapons of mass destruction to the UNSCOM, particularly the Presidential palaces. For Iraq, the Presidential palaces are symbols of sovereignty. For the United States, Iraq cannot be trusted until and unless the UN team is given "unfettered access" to all the suspected sites. US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in her annual foreign policy review in January 1998 said: "We must and we will maintain vigilance in the Gulf, so that Saddam Hussein is never again able to threaten Iraq's neighbours with aggression, or the world with weapons of mass destruction" and stressed that it was "absolutely essential" that Saddam Hussein meet the demand of the UN Security Council to allow UN inspectors unconditional and unfettered access to suspect weapons sites. She went on to warn, "We will continue to be vigilant and determined, and we do not rule out any options."3 Another round of stand-off has begun between the Clinton Administration and the Saddam regime.

Unlike in the past, the Clinton Administration has been very frequently threatening to use military force to ensure Iraqi compliance with the UN Security Resolutions, if diplomacy fails. In his "State of the Union Message", Clinton said: "I know I speak for everyone in this chamber, Republicans and Democrats, when I say to Saddam Hussein: You cannot defy the will of the world. And when I say to him: You have used weapons of mass destruction before; we are determined to deny you the capacity to use them again." (emphasis added).4 A couple of days later, Clinton once again remarked in his address to the National Defence University that "...we are determined to deny him the capacity to use weapons of mass destruction again. Preventing nuclear, biological and chemical weapons from winding up in the wrong hands is among the primary challenges we face in the new security environment. Nineteen ninety-eight will be a decisive year for our arms control and nonproliferation agenda."5 Time and again, statements are being made by President Clinton and other senior officials of his Administration that "time is running out" for diplomacy and that military action is becoming imminent.

Such threats are being issued by the Clinton Administration in the midst of preparations for a military strike against Iraq. Washington, in fact, has considerably strengthened its military presence in the Persian Gulf since last November with aircraft carriers, fighter aircraft, including stealth fighters, heavy bombers and ground attack aircraft, and warships with enormous firepower. Today, more American firepower has been arrayed within striking distance from Iraq than at any time since the 1991 Gulf War.6 The United States clearly can undertake air strikes against Iraqi targets alone, without military support from its allies or base facilities from the Arab countries of the region. Nothwithstanding the US-backed UN mission to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, the US military does not fear the possible use of chemical and biological weapons by Saddam Hussein for largely two reasons. First of all, if such weapons could not deter the coalition war efforts against Iraq in 1991, after more than seven years of UN inspections such a deterrence would naturally be non-existent. Secondly, there is a belief that if Saddam uses chemical or biological weapons, he would not only lose whatever sympathy he has gained in the region but also would strengthen the anti-Iraq coalition which has developed signs of possible collapse.

In addition to the military strength, the Clinton Administration has considerable domestic political support for his policy towards Iraq. In the US Congress, there is bipartisan support to his Iraq policy and some of the US legislators have called for more stringent action against Saddam than the Administration officials. Senate Majority Leader, Trent Lott, for instance, has said: "Until we get him [Saddam Hussein] out of Iraq, we're never going to get this situation under control.... Let's hit 'em hard, right up front.... Take out the palace guard--take out the palaces. Take out and hope that you can target one missile down in an event or a building where Saddam Hussein is."7 Bill Clinton knows that there is no special bomb or missile that can hit Saddam alone. Saddam is never alone! Any plan to strike him would entail enormous cost to human lives. Clinton, however, has said that the Iraqi people would be better off without Saddam, but it is not "in the immediate interest" of the US to remove him.8

The Clinton Administration is also not worried about the impact of the current crisis in Iraq on the economy. The international stock exchange is reportedly more affected by Monica Lewinsky than by Saddam. One analyst has pointed out, "If you look at the price actions over the course of the last three weeks, the market's more interested in rumours of the President dropping his trousers than dropping bombs." He has been of the view that the Iraqi crisis would not affect the global economy much and that the oil prices have risen by about one dollar and at best would rise by another two or three dollars.9 In addition to all these factors, it is also important to note that Clinton can more freely take a gamble on Iraq in view of the fact that he would not have to run for the Presidency any more. It is a different matter that victory in the Gulf did not bring George Bush victory in the 1992 Presidential poll. And Clinton needs no more votes! But still failed foreign misadventures in the past have affected various US Presidents in various ways. Clinton himself has been questioned several times about his position on the Vietnam War.

Clinton seems reasonably sure of his military success in any strike against Iraq. However, if it has to be more than a few missile strikes against pre-determined Iraqi targets, Clinton has to be more than careful. As of now it seems that weapons of mass destruction may not be the real target. After all, those weapons cannot be destroyed by military strikes without accepting the dangerous consequences in the region. If Saddam could not use those so-called Third World weapons of deterrence during the 1990-91 crisis, even as a political weapon, what use are those weapons? Can he threaten to use those weapons against Israel? Unlikely, since it would invite severe reprisals. Can he use them against the neighbouring countries? Still, unlikely, since he would not like to see an anti-Iraqi international coalition that would be stronger than the earlier one.

If the Clinton Administration has all those supportive factors to enable him to take military action against Iraq, why has it been delaying the use of force? In fact, it is aware of several other constraints that need to be resonably dealt with before any military action is taken against Iraq. First of all, it has not been easy for the United States to assemble a supportive international coalition which would give political, if not military and economic backing, to its policy towards Iraq. In the Security Council, with the solitary exception of Britain, no other permanent member appears enthusiastic about the US eagerness to militarily punish Saddam Hussein for his hide-and-seek game against the UNSCOM. While China has been consistently opposing US military build-up in the Persian Gulf and military action to ensure Iraqi compliance with the UN Security Council Resolutions, France and Russia have been diplomatically very active in search of peaceful and diplomatic resolution of the issues.While categorically rejecting the idea of a joint military strike against Iraq, France has backed UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's proposal to more than double the amount of oil Iraq could sell to provide food and medicine to its people. Although Saddam Hussein put his own conditions to the Annan proposal, Paris went a step ahead and proposed that Iraq must simultaneously be allowed to repair oil installations to boost its oil production. French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine refused to buy the argument that bombing can induce Saddam to change his position and instead suggested that a special formula should be found to inspect the Iraqi palaces that would take into account Iraq's dignity.10

In the midst of American and British warning to Saddam Hussein, Russia kept reiterating its opposition to any military solution of the Iraqi crisis. Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeni Primakov sent his special envoy Viktor Posuvalyuk to Baghdad to hold discussions, refused to buy the US interpretation that it could take military action against Iraq without seeking any more mandate from the UN Security Council and said that Russia was determined to find a peaceful and diplomatic solution to the Gulf crisis. President Boris Yeltsin, on the other hand, went to the extent of warning of a possible global flare-up and world war in case the Iraqi crisis is sought to be resolved through the bombing of Baghdad.11 A draft resolution in the Opposition-dominated Duma called for immediate and unilateral lifting of sanctions against Iraq, if the US took military action against that country, although the non-binding resolution that was finally adopted was a watered-down version which called for consideration of "the expediency of continuing sanctions...and Russia's participation in them" in case of American military action against Iraq.12 A team of Russian legislators, including Vladimir Zhirinovsky later visited some of the so-called "suspect" sites and discovered no weapons of mass destruction!

Several countries, which have entered into bilateral, trilateral or multilateral security arrangements with the United States, showed no willingness to support the US eagerness for a military solution to the Iraqi crisis. Greece and Turkey, both North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) members, refused to take part in the US-led military strike against Iraq. Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien said that the House of Commons would debate his country's participation in a possible military strike against Iraq, before Ottawa was called on to help. Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto criticised Iraq for refusing to allow full access to the UN inspection team, but called on Bill Clinton to seek a diplomatic solution and pledged Tokyo's support to such peaceful moves. The Australian Prime Minister said that he would consult his Cabinet before indicating his willingness to back any possible US-led military strike against Iraq. It was not until after a flurry of diplomatic consultations by President Bill Clinton, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Secretary of Defence William Cohen and US Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson that a gradual shift in policies and perceptions of some of the US allies began to take shape. It all began with Germany, as Chancellor Helmut Kohl, while attending a defence symposium in Munich, said that Germany would make its air bases available to the US, if Washington decided to take military action against Iraq.13 Canada, Australia, Denmark and Japan subsequently began to indicate that military action could follow, if diplomacy failed to change Saddam's ways.

There was also great hesitation among the Gulf countries to back the US position. All the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states have entered into bilateral security arrangements with the United States in the post-Gulf War period. But none of them, except Kuwait, is prepared to support a US-led military strike against Iraq. The situation in 1990-91 was completely different in the sense that a fellow Arab country was victim of aggression at the hands of another Arab country. But this time, it is a question of Iraq versus the United Nations or may be the United States. The Iraqi people's suffering due to years of UN sanctions has generated sympathy in the Arab world. Any military strike that would enhance the plight of the Iraqi people would thus be unpopular. The popular sentiment in the region is reflected to a certain extent in the regional Press. Al-Khaleej, a UAE daily, expressed the view that the United States was taking the law into its hands, while Al-Ittihad urged the Arab people to enhance their efforts to "put an end to the tragedy of the Iraqi people and ensure neutral inspections and monitoring without caprice or designs." The Qatari daily, Al-Watan, was of the view that no diplomatic solution to the Iraqi crisis would be possible as long as the United States, and not the United Nations, was the main player. Bahraini daily Akhbar al-Khaleej hoped that "Iraq will not miscalculate, as it did before." And the Kuwaiti Al-Watan said: "Military action against Iraq would create a power void in the region, which only Iran can fill, and will enrich the Israeli-Turkish alliance and its southward spread to the Gulf."

Can the ruling regimes in the Gulf countries ignore the popular sentiments? In the past, perhaps it was easier. But the demographic, economic, political and economic atmosphere in the Gulf has changed so much that the rulers can ignore the popular sentiments only at their own peril. First of all, there is an increasing demand for internal political changes in many Gulf countries.14 Secondly, with reducing oil revenue, the Gulf countries are increasingly unable to sustain the welfare state system of the 1970s. "The conundrum for the Gulf rulers today," writes F. George Gause III, "is how to do more, politically, with less, economically."15 More worrisome to Washington is the fact that "the US military facilities have become the targets of popular resentment in Saudi Arabia. The increasingly visible presence of US military personnel in the UAE is much remarked upon there. Even in Kuwait, where the US military remains most welcome, questions are being raised about the long-term consequences of the US role in the country."16 Under such circumstances, it would not be easy for the rulers of the Gulf countries to openly opt for the American option in the Iraq-UNSCOM stand-off. Significantly, the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) called on the United Nations to avoid an escalation of tension and to do everything "to avoid the use of force."

The Clinton Administration has, on the other hand, left no stone unturned to seek indirect, if not direct, support of the Gulf countries before it takes military action against Iraq. While President Bill Clinton had telephonic conversations with some Arab leaders, Secretary of State Albright went to the region to hold front-to-front dialogues with the Arab leadership. While the public statements issued by the Arab leaders did not convey any major change in their respective positions, Albright concluded that the Arab countries would acquiesce in military strikes, if diplomacy failed. She said: "They all have different ways of expressing themselves...but I underline that none of the Arab leaders specifically asked me to urge the President not to use force."17 US Secretary of Defence William Cohen visited the Arab countries, along with a few US legislators, after Albright's return to Washington. Senator Carl Levin, who accompanied Cohen, reportedly said that support for a US strike against Iraq was building up among the Gulf states. He observed that the regional leaders had said "in various ways, basically the same thing" that Saddam "must comply with UN Security Council Resolutions and, if he fails to comply and if there is military action, the responsibility is his and his alone."18 Arab League Secretary General Esmat Abdel-Meguid refused to believe the American Secretary of State's statement that Arab nations were prepared to acquiesce in US military action.19 However, it is true that the Gulf countries are generally careful about their public comments, not wanting to upset the Americans and simultaneously avoiding being branded as hostile towards a fellow Arab nation. There is clearly an Arab dilemma.

But there is also an American dilemma which contributes to the constraining factors. The question of who would foot the bill of any war operation remains. The Asian allies are facing a financial crisis, the Gulf rulers are faced with a situation of declining oil revenue, the European friends are struggling with rising unemployment. Would Washington go it alone? Yes, it may. However, in this case, it has to be a few surgical strikes and it cannot be a long drawn-out war. If it is going to be a surgical strike, what or who would be the targets? Saddam Hussein? May be! But it could amount to a state-sponsored assassination. It would carry a very heavy political price. After all, there cannot be one capable bomb which can kill just one Saddam Hussein. Several other civilian or innocent military lives are bound to be sacrificed. Can the biological and chemical sites be the target? It is difficult, because it would have the potential to affect the people in the region.

However, one political compulsion belittles the importance of these constraining factors. And that is Saddam's game of hide-and-seek and his attempts to thumb his nose at Washington. Saddam's success would not only create the impression of American weakness but also challenge the credibility of the US capability in the Persian Gulf. Therefore, while one would wish that diplomatic efforts should succeed in resolving the stand-off, preparations are already on for a confrontation. According to reports, Iraq has planned to scatter soldiers of the elite Republican Guard throughout the country and would try to shield them from American bombing by keeping them in places such as schools. It is significant to recall that during the 1991 Gulf War, while about 100,000 Iraqi soldiers got killed, the Republican Guards were largely unscathed. Saddam Hussein has also prepared more than a million members of the Arab Baath socialist party to keep order in case there is an uprising by the Kurds and Shiite population. Kuwaitis have started preparations for a possible Iraqi attack by stockpiling dried food, bottled water and batteries for makeshift bunkers in their homes. Israel has been working "around the clock" for civil defence against any Iraqi attack. Turkey is getting ready to send troops to enter northern Iraq to prevent a flood of refugees in the wake of a US military strike against Iraqi centres. The US and UK Embassies have, on the other hand, urged their respective citizens to maintain adequate food supplies and to get their vehicles ready for a quick exit to neighbouring Saudi Arabia. In other words, all preparations are being made for a contingency, if diplomacy fails.

But the Arab League, France, Russia, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan all are involved in intense diplomatic negotiations to ward off a threat of war in the Persian Gulf. Iraq on its part too is taking steps to meet the eventuality. Saddam Hussein interestingly has invited US House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich to visit Baghdad. He has sent envoys to the neighbouring Arab countries, particularly Syria, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, to drum up support for his stand.20 The Clinton Administration in the meantime has decided to despatch a senior American envoy to the Middle East to win Arab support for the bellicose US position. The envoy, Ambassador David Newton, an Arabic speaker and former Ambassador to Iraq from 1984-88, would be visiting six GCC states and Syria, Egypt, Turkey, and Lebanon. The US Ambassador, Bill Richardson, recently went to China and Japan for similar purposes. He could persuade Japan to alter its earlier position, as reflected in Foreign Minister Keizo Obuchi's remark that Tokyo supported the US position that "all possible options" must be considered in the dispute with Iraq. In China his goal did not aim at persuading Beijing to reverse its position, but aimed at muting Chinese criticism of American efforts and ensuring that China did not veto any resolution declaring Iraq had breached the terms of a ceasefire ending the Gulf War, a vote that could open the way for a military strike against Iraq.

In a way diplomatic actvities are going on on a war-footing to prevent any kind of military confrontation. But there is a war cloud over the Iraqi sky—not on the horizon. If diplomacy fails and armed confrontation occurs, what would be the duration, intensity and scope of such confrontation? It would be premature to draw conclusions. But one may raise several questions in an attempt to fathom the level of dangerous consequences of armed confrontation. Is it going to be a long-drawn out confrontation between Iraq and the US? What would be the US goal? It is unlikely that the US would either use any weapons of mass destruction or commit its ground troops or unduly prolong the military action against Iraq for quite obvious reasons. But would it be possible either to destroy the chemical or biological weapons through military strikes? Cannot such weapons be re-built? Would the US seek to remove Saddam Hussein from power? If yes, would the operation cost Saddam his life? What would be the implications if Saddam goes out of power? If Saddam survives the US military action, what would be the impact on the US credibility in the region and the world at large? Will the war lead to Israeli involvement? What may be its implications for the Middle East peace process? What would be its consequences for the US military presence in the region? While such questions indicate the gravity of the situation, even then military action against Iraq cannot be ruled out.



1. For details, see Chintamani Mahapatra, " Clinton's Operation Desert Strike," Strategic Analysis, December 1997.

2. For details, see Chintamani Mahapatra, "Defusing the US-Iraq Stand-off: Whose Victory?," Strategic Analysis, Jaunuary 1998.

3. Secretary of State's Annual Foreign Policy Review," Wireless File, USIS, January 14, 1998.

4. Official Text, USIS, January 28, 1998.

5. "Remarks by the President at National Defence University," The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, 29 January 1998, Official Text, USIS, January 30, 1998.

6. Reuters, On-line, February 5, 1998.

7. Reuters, On-line, February 3, 1998.

8. Reuters, On-line, February 6, 1998.

9. Reuters, On-line, February 6, 1998.

10. Reuters, On-line, February 5, 1998.

11. Reuters, On-line, February 6, 1998.

12. Reuters, On-line, February 4, 1998.

13. Reuters, On-line, February 7, 1998.

14. For details, see Ralph H. Magnus, "The GCC and Security: The Enemy Without and the Enemy Within," Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, vol. 20, no. 3, Spring 1997.

15. F. George Gause III, "The Gulf Conundrum: Economic Change, Population Growth, and Political Stability in the GCC States," Washington Quarterly, vol. 20, no. 1, Winter 1997, p. 152.

16. Ibid., p. 160.

17. Reuters, On-line, February 5, 1998.

18. Reuters, On-line, February 11, 1998.

19. Ibid.

20. Financial Times, London, February 10, 1998.