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Impact of Message Sent by Missile

Clinton may gain politically at home, but strike sows uncertainty in Mideast

By Jonathan S. LandayStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 4, 1996


The US missile strike on Iraq and the expansion of a no-fly zone raise the specter of a long-term confrontation with uncertain consequences for Mideast stability and President Clinton's reelection bid.

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The biggest US military action against Iraq since the 1991 Gulf war was intended to punish President Saddam Hussein for an offensive against Kurdish rebels in a United Nations-designated safe area in northern Iraq. But Saddam, characteristically, is uncowed, vowing to no longer respect the no-fly zones enforced by US, British, and French planes.

Saddam's defiance, the threat of further US attacks, and the region's incendiary mix of complex political forces raise the possibility that the crisis could escalate at a time when Mr. Clinton is concentrating on his campaign for a second term.

It could also impact the US economy. Oil prices surged after the Sept. 3 attack, in which the US fired 27 cruise missiles at air-defense installations south of Baghdad. But analysts say Clinton had little choice but to act.

Strategically and economically, the president was compelled to reassert US power as the main guarantor of peace in the Middle East, the source of 55 percent of global petroleum supplies. At home, he needed to counter criticism from his Republican rival, Bob Dole, who accused Clinton of "weak leadership" for failing to confront Saddam sooner.

Clinton could turn the crisis to his advantage, analysts say, by demonstrating decisive leadership. He appeared to move quickly to do just that.

"We must make it clear that reckless acts have consequences or those acts will increase," he said hours after the strikes. "We must reduce Iraq's ability to strike out at its neighbors and we must increase America's ability to contain Iraq over the long run."

In using the terrain-hugging cruise missiles, Clinton selected a forceful response that reduced the possibility of major civilian casualties and avoided the potential election-year disaster of having US pilots captured or killed.

Yet the strike was more symbolic than strategic. Analysts say it would do little to hurt Iraq militarily. The question is whether it will deter Saddam from further belligerence.

"The administration really had little choice," says Robert Lieber, a professor of government and a Gulf expert at Georgetown University in Washington. "There are questions of timing and how extensive the response should be, whether to respond with cruise missiles or aircraft. But with the election campaign, the president could not afford to just sit still."

The crisis began late last week when Saddam sent tanks, artillery, and an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 elite Republican Guard troops to intervene in a power struggle between rival Kurdish rebel factions.

The Iraqis entered on the side of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and ousted from the northern town of Arbil, fighters of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz said the Iraqi force had withdrawn, but Clinton said there was no sign of a pullback.