The President's decision to send U.S. troops to Kuwait in response to the menacing of Kuwait's borders by Saddam Hussein is another in the string of foreign policy fiascos by our inexperienced President and his incompetent Secretary of State, Warren Christopher. All of political Washington has of course rallied around the President for his "firmness" and "decisiveness" in dealing with Saddam, but it is already becoming clear that Saddam has trapped Bill Clinton and has him where he wants him, with his pants down: In order to get our troops and aircraft back home, we will either have to give Saddam the deal he has been offering us and we have been spurning, or we will have to invade an Iraq that is not occupying Kuwait. To the contrary, Iraq is saying that in exchange for a lifting of the U.N. embargo that is strangling Iraq's economy, it is prepared to honor the Kuwait borders it questioned in 1991 -- which our then-U.S. Ambassador, April Glaspie, seemed to concede in a face-to-face discussion with Hussein.
On Saturday morning, in a telephone conversation with a friend in the Washington press corps, I said the first thought I had when I heard of the Iraqi troop movements was that Saddam Hussein was trying to get the attention of the grownups in Washington -- maybe even getting Jimmy Carter into the act. In both Korea and Haiti, Carter intervened at a critical moment when the Clinton administration's ineptitude in foreign affairs put us at the brink of invasion. In each case, when the spotlight fell on Jimmy Carter, it became clear that "the bad guys" in Pyongyang and Port-au-Prince who were about to feel the lash of our military were actually offering reasonable diplomatic deals. As it was known that Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz was in New York offering a guarantee of Kuwait's borders in exchange for a lifting of the embargo, it seemed likely that he was getting nowhere with our low-level diplomats and Hussein thought he could do better by making some noise.
By Sunday morning, it was clear that he had not only succeeded, but that President Clinton had almost instantly responded by sending troops, ships and planes to the Persian Gulf. Of all the commentaries on what has transpired since late Friday, when this "emergency" was cited by the White House just as the Congress went home for the elections, the one that immediately made most sense to us was that of Ross Perot. On Face the Nation Sunday, Perot with considerable anger pointed out that the White House had to know two weeks in advance that Saddam was moving troops toward the Kuwait border, but chose to keep quiet until that moment. Of course, Perot was right. The U.N. Security Council on September 25 had turned down Iraq's request that since it had complied with the UN's demands that the embargo be lifted -- a position supported by France, China and Russia, but killed by the U.S. Soon thereafter, his troops began their "exercise," leaving plenty of time for warnings to be issued while Congress was still in session. As it was, Clinton, with no discussion or debate, committed the 4,000 troops with the sure knowledge that the build-up would have to be much, much larger to be credible. There was no time for any members of Congress to ask for a round of fact-finding. A smoldering Perot insinuated that Clinton committed the immoral act of putting U.S. troops in harm's way in order to posture as commander-in-chief, to rescue Democrats in the mid-term elections.
Putting that judgment aside, how can we possibly agree with The New York Times that Clinton acted on constitutional grounds? "Unlike the dispatch of American troops to Haiti, threats to Kuwait clearly affect U.S. national interests." Whoa! In 1991, Saddam claimed and occupied Kuwaiti territory. It was not until we persuaded Saudi Arabia that it was next on Saddam's list that even the Saudis worried about Saddam's grab in Kuwait. And it was not until President Bush rounded up our NATO allies and the issue was debated and voted upon in Congress that Desert Storm was launched. That is quite a different kettle of fish than we obtain in this situation with 1) Saddam's troops engaging in military exercises on Iraqi sovereign soil, 2) assuring his Russian supporters that there is no intention of invading Kuwait, which would certainly bring massive and justified retaliation against Baghdad, and 3) his Foreign Minister is at the UN offering to recognize Kuwait's borders. Here is how the Times' Barbara Crossette reported it today:
The Iraqis have argued that Baghdad can do this [recognition of Kuwait's borders] only when the clock has started on an agreed time limit for testing the monitoring systems [of its weapons industry] and Iraq can be reasonably sure there will be no other last-minute demands by the United States.
"Kuwait is Iraq's last card," said Jean-Bernard Merimee, France's representative to the United Nations. "Iraq has to be sure that after the recognition of Kuwait, the Security Council will move to lift the sanctions." He added that there was a growing sense that Iraq cannot be cornered indefinitely without the danger of President Hussein becoming even more threatening.
My understanding is that the United States is really the only country in the world that does not want to end the embargo under any realistic scenario, and that it is acting as if it thinks it can bring down Saddam Hussein by causing his people to suffer. This of course was the Clinton strategy in Haiti, in Cuba, and in North Korea. A prominent German politician now argues that the Iraqi embargo should be lifted and that there is no justification for U.S. troops in the region. Turkey has withdrawn its support. If the U.S. troops were to now invade Iraq to chase down Saddam's Republican Guard and annihilate them, they would do so with almost none of the support from the coalition that backed Desert Storm. Commander-in-chief Clinton would only have the unequivocal support of the Cold War hardliners who argued in 1991 for annihilation of Saddam's army of 1 million -- the "turkey shoot" against which Colin Powell of the Joint Chiefs of Staff argued. New York Times columnist William Safire, on Meet the Press last Sunday, vilified Powell for his position, blaming him for Saddam's latest military teasings, and urging a new turkey shoot. Insofar as General Powell is being seen as either GOP presidential timber or rumored to be the imminent replacement of Warren Christopher at State, it is clearly Safire's aim to cut him down. This is part of the continuing struggle between doves and hawks, diplomats and "bombers," as Colin Powell calls them derisively.
What now? The President is suddenly basking in the glory of war, with his triumphs in Haiti and Iraq. The Democratic pols are suddenly cheered up, expecting all this boldness will turn around the fortunes of their Senate and House candidates -- although Ross Perot is making a lot of noise in the other direction. The President would be well advised to latch onto Colin Powell as Secretary of State, which I'm told he would like to do. An incompetent Secretary of State requires a military budget at least twice the current size, to clean up his mistakes. What happens when the Iraq army relocates to a point 20 miles from the Kuwait border and just sits? We sit there too, which is why there is so much talk about going back in and finishing off Saddam's army. If we leave, Saddam has more military exercises on the border, and we have to return, babysitting the Emir as we are Aristide in Haiti. Now the Bosnian Serbs figure they can make some more noise, and so do the North Koreans. Everyone can play this cute little game.
The upshot, I'd have to guess, will be a settlement with Saddam, a lifting of the embargo, a recognition of Kuwait's borders, a certification of the monitors that he ain't building nuclear or biological weapons, et cetera. The President will of course take credit for the deal, having stood up to Saddam. And he will get the same deal he would have gotten six months ago if he had a competent Secretary of State, just as Jimmy Carter got the same deal from Kim Il Sung in Korea and General Cedras in Haiti as could have been had months earlier.
Will the American people be taken in by all this? Those who want to be will, of course. I'm always happy enough just to say all's well that ends well. If it does.