Last Friday's air strikes at Iraqi missile command-and-control sites near Baghdad were aimed at pre-empting Saddam Hussein from embarrassing the new Bush administration.
The Bush team came to office prepared to devise a new, tougher strategy against the Iraqi strongman whom the elder George Bush failed to dislodge and who is hanging around like a nagging reproach to George W. In clear challenge-mode since the younger Bush was elected, Hussein has sharply increased the number of attempts to hit U.S. and British pilots enforcing no-fly zones over Iraq.
The Pentagon pressed for pre-emptive strikes, and it's no wonder the president approved them. Can you imagine the humiliation if Hussein's forces downed a U.S. warplane with a SAM-6 missile just as Colin L. Powell was setting out this week on his first Mideast tour as secretary of state?
But this brief U.S.-Iraqi encounter gives full notice of how hard it will be for the Bush administration to devise a new and better Iraq policy that will finally tame or remove Saddam Hussein.
Ten years after the Persian Gulf War, Hussein seems confident of his ability to cling to control of his semi-ruined country. There are severe limits on his power. His military is roughly half the size it was during the Gulf War. He is constrained by the no-fly zones and by a U.N. embargo that leaves Iraqi oil revenues under U.N. control and makes it impossible for him to buy weapons openly.
But that economic and military embargo is crumbling. Prime example: Intelligence reports say that some of the new SAM-6 missile batteries threatening U.S. and British pilots came from Ukraine and Serbia and were smuggled into Iraq. More and more countries are flouting the air embargo with Baghdad, upgrading diplomatic relations, or smuggling goods in and oil out.
Few in the region - save perhaps the Iranians or the Kurds whom Hussein has poison-gassed - seem to worry about his renewed efforts to build weapons of mass destruction. So Powell's Mideast mission to persuade moderate Arabs to continue support for U.N. sanctions until Hussein proves he has ended all such weapons programs will be a very hard sell.
The Powell mission is further undercut by an open secret that everyone knows but no one speaks of in public. Hussein won't end those weapons-of-mass-destruction programs, therefore U.N. sanctions won't ever end, even if they are maintained only by a U.S. veto.
Right now, there aren't any U.N. weapons inspections in Baghdad because Hussein won't let inspectors into Iraq. But even should he relent, no one expects that the inspectors could find the goods, because Hussein has made clear he won't ever again permit the kind of surprise raids that turned up evidence he had been making biological and nuclear weapons.
In effect, Powell must persuade Mideast leaders to endorse sanctions indefinitely as a means of containing Hussein.
The Bush administration does have another option, one that has been openly backed in the past by many top officials now on the Bush foreign policy team. That option is "rollback" - getting rid of the Iraqi leader by backing the Iraqi opposition in exile with money, military support and covert action. The only problem is that most experts don't think these exiles have the clout or the home support to make such a strategy work.
Moderate Arab leaders, burned by fitful Clinton administration efforts at rollback, would be reluctant to endorse new schemes. Kurds in Iraqi's north have been burned also, by U.S. betrayals by both the elder Bush and Clinton. It's hard to imagine them volunteering their territory yet again for another putative campaign against Baghdad - unless the Bush team made it very clear that it was willing to give serious military backing to an anti-Hussein campaign.
Powell, never an enthusiastic supporter of the Gulf War, doesn't seem keen to go that route (this issue may yet divide the Bush administration). His best course, perhaps his only one, may be to use all his persuasive power to urge Arab leaders to back looser but continued sanctions that leave Hussein with enough money to feed his people but not build up his armies.