WASHINGTON — AS President Clinton ponders what to do about Iraq, his first concern may be shoring up the coalition that drove Saddam Hussein's troops out of Kuwait two years ago.
So far, the United States-led bombing raids of recent days have forced little change in Saddam's defiance. As of this writing, Iraq was still refusing to cooperate with United Nations weapons inspectors waiting in Bahrain to enter the country. Iraqi targeting radars were still challenging US planes that are enforcing no-fly zones.
But the raids do appear to have made some coalition members anxious. Both Turkey, Russia, and Saudi Arabia voiced concern over the renewed bombing. The Russian government asked the US not to take further action without the approval of the UN Security Council.
"It's more important to maintain the coalition in the long term," than force immediate Iraqi compliance with US demands, according to SAIC senior military analyst Greg Weaver.
A number of countries, including coalition member Syria, have criticized the US for enforcing UN resolutions in Iraq with military might, while failing to push for enforcement of UN resolutions calling for Israel to take back 400 Palestinian deportees, and for Serbs to halt attacks against Bosnians.
The UN Security Council scheduled a private meeting for Jan. 19 to weigh Russian complaints.
The continuing confrontations in Iraq may only exacerbate this situation. As of this writing, combat had erupted in the no-fly zones for the third day in a row, as US planes fired on antiaircraft placements in the north after Iraqi radars tracked them.
Meanwhile, Iraq urged Mr. Clinton to abandon the confrontational policies of his predecessor. (Iraq appeals to Clinton, Page 4.) An open letter to Clinton transmitted by the Iraqi News Agency said in part that such a change would "save your country from a lot of problems."
Clinton has said he "will not waver" from Bush's demand that Iraq comply with UN resolutions.
Saddam seems to have reached the conclusion that the relatively restrained US bombing campaign of recent days cannot hurt him. The benefits to be gained from sowing dissension within the coalition outweigh the loss of a few air-defense missiles and a nuclear-related military site, in Saddam's view.
His real goal may be to change the Middle East's perception of the outcome of Desert Storm. If the US-led coalition won that war, why isn't Saddam doing what it wants?
From a military perspective, the bombing campaign is relatively easy for the US to maintain.
To underscore that point, another aircraft carrier, the USS John F. Kennedy, was moving into position to join the USS Kitty Hawk within striking range of Iraq.