President Clinton, anxious to wash his hands of Iraq as fast as possible, was wrong when he said that "our mission has been accomplished." Northern Iraq, ostensibly under American protection, is now effectively divided between Kurdish factions backed by Iran and by Iraq, with the latter moving to consolidate its hold.
But then the United States has been wrong about the Kurds for a quarter-century. The legendary Kurdish leader, Mustafa Barzani, said in 1972 that the US was the only major power he trusted.
He organized a CIA-sponsored insurrection against Saddam Hussein. But when Saddam and the Shah patched up their differences, the CIA abruptly abandoned the rebels to the Iraqi dictator's mercy. Mr. Barzani wrote Secretary of State Henry Kissinger an anguished letter, "Your Excellency, the United States has a moral and political responsibility towards our people."
Now Barzani's less charismatic son, Masoud, leads the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). After the Gulf war, President Bush called for an uprising to topple Saddam. When the Kurds rose up, the US withheld armed support and left Kurdish towns vulnerable to Iraqi helicopter gunships.
For the past five years, the US has managed to broker cease-fires between the Barzani party and the Iranian-supported party of Jalal Talabani. However, in the crunch, the Clinton administration withheld the million dollars - about the price of one cruise missile - requested by the KDP to maintain the mediation effort. Barzani, reading that as another US abandonment, turned to Saddam, even though the Iraqi leader had gassed thousands of Kurds.
As his father once wrote to Mr. Kissinger, Masoud Barzani wrote to Secretary of State Warren Christopher, assuring him that he would still support "American initiatives for a peaceful settlement in Iraqi Kurdistan." Meanwhile, the purge of anti-Iraqi Kurds went on and a tenuous truce gave way to civil war. "Mission accomplished," Clinton said. How many such accomplishments can we afford?
The frustration over Saddam has also led to the idea of revoking the 20-year-old ban on government involvement in assassinations. Former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft says it is "ridiculous" that America should be able to make war on Iraq, but not eliminate its leader. CIA director John Deutch responds that assassination would not be consistent with this country's values, "or frankly that we could do it well." Which may be more to the point.
Under Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, the CIA was involved in unsuccessful plots against eight third-world leaders. A plot to poison Patrice Lumumba of the Congo was still in the works when he was killed by other foes. Dissidents armed by the CIA killed Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, but the agency disclaimed credit. In South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem was killed in a CIA-supported coup, but President Kennedy said he hadn't wanted him killed - just deposed.
The same with a Nixon-Kissinger plot to topple left-leaning Salvador Allende in Chile. President Sukarno of Indonesia and "Papa Doc" Franois Duvalier of Haiti died of natural causes while their extinction was under discussion.
And Fidel Castro - ah, Castro. Over a period of years, the CIA engaged in assassination plots - some quite bizarre, like poisoned drinks and cigars, a disease-infected diving suit, and a poison-tipped ballpoint pen.
All of this was exposed in a Senate investigation in the mid-1970s, with the result that President Ford signed an executive order banning government employees from involvement in assassination plots. That was modified over the years to exclude the death of a foreign foe as an "unintended consequence" of a military action.
So, President Reagan had the compound of Libya's Muammar Qaddafi bombed in 1986 and said he would not have "shed any tears" if Qaddafi were killed. During the Gulf war, an equally dry-eyed Mr. Bush went after command and control installations in Iraq and said, "We're not in the position of targeting Saddam Hussein, but no one will weep for him when he is gone."
Qaddafi, Castro, and, of course, Saddam are not gone. But the Clinton administration does not seem out to add to the sad history of assassination attempts.
*Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.