WASHINGTON — President Clinton has drawn a line in the sand, just outside the suburbs of Baghdad. Until now, the multinational coalition that fought the Gulf war has steered clear of the Iraqi leader's stronghold.
But the expansion of the no-fly zone into Saddam Hussein's backyard raises the political, economic, and strategic stakes for Mr. Clinton in this oil-rich region.
"This is a difficult, complex situation. One of the problems is that there is no clear endgame," says Anthony Cordesman, a former Pentagon official and Mideast expert with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Should Saddam end his offensive in Kurd-dominated northern Iraq and yield to the expansion of the no-fly zone, a prolonged standoff could ensue pending his next showdown with the US or a precipitous turn of events inside Iraq.
But there is another possibility: Encouraged by Arab anger at the US cruise-missile strikes and differences within the US-led 1991 Gulf war coalition, Saddam could press his assaults in Iraqi Kurdistan, ignore the no-fly zones, or defy the US in some other way.
With a limit to the utility of cruise missiles, Clinton would then face the possibility of having to unleash American air power. The US missile attacks on Iraq's southern air defenses appear to have laid the groundwork for just such a strategy. But by taking that approach, Clinton faces some potentially serious consequences.
"The question is for the president to decide which risks are worth taking and to be willing to run those risks," notes Zalmay Khalilzad, a senior Pentagon planner during the Gulf war and now an expert at the Rand Corp.
An air campaign would have to be massive to ensure Saddam's capitulation and avoid a protracted conflict. "Our response must be well planned, disproportionate and devastating," says Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana.
"What we need in the short term is a strategy that puts Saddam in a box and that means escalation," says Mr. Khalilzad. He says the US should target military bases, strategic industries and communications systems.
But the price could include intensified anti-US sentiments across the Arab world that could trigger fresh new terrorist attacks against the 20,000 American troops stationed in the Gulf. Strains over Iraq between Western governments could worsen, poisoning relations on other issues, and world oil prices could see further price hikes.
And Clinton could jeopardize his quest for re-election by risking the lives of US pilots.
There is also a practical hurdle to such a strategy - it has little support in Saudi Arabia and Turkey, US allies from whose territories American combat aircraft would have to fly. Both countries despise Saddam and host the American, French, and British aircraft policing the southern and northern no-fly zones in Iraq. But Riyadh and Ankhara worry that weakening Saddam's grip on power too much could trigger an upheaval inside Iraq that could spill across the region.
Furthermore, the Saudi government is grappling with a growing opposition movement that resents the presence of some 5,000 American troops in the land that hosts Islam's holiest shrines. Airstrikes on Saddam would fuel those sentiments, which are believed to have prompted terrorist bombings against US service personnel this year.
"Ordinary Arabs ask why America would do that kind of thing. If its heart is with the Kurds, it could have done something a long time ago," notes a Saudi journalist, speaking on condition of anonymity.
For its part, Turkey is anxious to resume trade with Iraq. Once Iraq's third largest trading partner, Turkey says it has lost $25 billion since the imposition of UN sanctions following Saddam's invasion of Kuwait. It stood to win the bulk of food and medicine purchases Iraq was to have made with the revenues from a UN-regulated resumption of oil sales. The plan, however, has been put on hold.
Should it chose the airstrike option, the Clinton administration would have to mount a diplomatic offensive to arm-twist Saudi Arabia and Turkey into allowing US aircraft to operate from their territories. Without such "basing rights," the US would have only carrier-based planes available and those would be insufficient, analysts say.
The alternative of not escalating military operations against Saddam in the event of his continued defiance, advocates say, would be a humiliating backdown by the US that could encourage new acts of Iraqi aggression. The fallout could be devastating to the petroleum-based economies of the US and other industrialized nations.
But other experts say that Clinton should now be content to flex his muscle through the enforcement by US, French, and British aircraft of the enlarged southern no-fly zone. Meanwhile, he should set in train a plan for toppling Saddam, they say.
These experts call the extension of the southern no-fly zone a humiliation for Saddam, because it will impede his military capabilities across 40 percent of Iraq by denying his air force the ability to train or provide cover to ground troops.