AS the United Nations and Iraq negotiated over the weekend to avoid another military confrontation, President Bush weighed two of the hardest decisions of his presidency: whether and how to launch military action to force Iraq to comply with the terms of United Nations resolutions ending the Gulf war.
The logic underlying this weekend's discussions suggested that a failure on Mr. Bush's part to act would lead to accusations of indecisiveness in the face of repeated Iraqi cease-fire violations. Iraq's resistance culminated in last week's intimidation of UN investigators seeking key military documents in Baghdad. But if he were to order military action to enforce compliance, critics would call it a ploy to win votes.
The question of how force could be used reportedly yielded no easier answers during a meeting on Saturday at Camp David between Bush and his top military planners. Some are said to favor a small, largely symbolic airstrike on a limited number of targets in Iraq. The alternative, said to be championed by Secretary of State James Baker III, who returned from a week-long trip to the Middle East and Asia yesterday, was a more sustained, extensive round of air attacks.
"We are at the crunch point," said a Washington-based strategic analyst, citing the one area of agreement in Washington over the weekend. "We have to break the pattern of Iraqi cease-fire violations."
At press time UN and Iraqi representatives remained divided over the terms for allowing a team of UN inspectors to enter Iraq's Ministry of Agriculture, where they believe information about Iraq's missiles and weapons of mass destruction is stored. (The UN's crisis agenda, Page 3.)
Inspections are required and such weapons are earmarked for destruction by UN Resolution 687, which ended the Gulf war.
The inspectors were denied access to the building by Iraq for 18 days. After being harassed by Iraqi demonstrators, they left Baghdad on Friday. The incident is the latest of several cease-fire violations, which also include Iraqi attacks on Kurd and Shiite minorities, and Iraq's refusal to negotiate a new border agreement with Kuwait. Iraq has also reasserted its claims to Kuwait as the country's 19th province, reopening the issue that triggered the Gulf war.
Following the two-hour meeting at Camp David, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said that "no options have been ruled out" for dealing with Iraqi cease-fire violations.
Military experts speculate that likely targets of any military strike could include sites to which UN inspectors have been denied access: Al-Jezira, a metallurgical-equipment manufacturing plant; uranium-enrichment plants at Al-Tarmiya and Al-Sharqat, along the Tigris north of Baghdad; Al-Anbar, another enrichment plant; and Iskandariya, a manufacturing site for centrifuge components, along the Euphrates.
"If we can't inspect them then we'll destroy them," says the analyst of the reasoning that could lie behind such strikes.
Over 20,000 US military personnel remain in the Gulf region. Four US warships are in the Red Sea and 13 in the Gulf, according to news reports.
If Iraqi President Saddam Hussein continues his defiance, the US and its principal Western allies are expected to issue an ultimatum. But they are concerned about the political implications of a divided vote, and have not sought a new mandate from the 15-member UN Security Council to launch a military strike against Iraq. Instead, the objective is to ensure the unanimity among the five permanent members for military action the US says is already authorized in the cease-fire resolutions.
Britain and France say they will support an armed response if it is needed to stop Iraqi violations. Russia would not be expected to object. China, the fifth permanent member, may be more inclined to protest military action, analysts say.
The prospect of airstrikes has drawn a guarded response in the Arab world, where leaders are keeping a wary eye on public opinion.
Predictions that the war against Iraq would produce massive demonstrations in the Arab world never materialized, but that was because Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, another Arab state, provided a clear pretext for allied action, Middle East experts say. The attitude on the Arab "street" is that Iraq is a defeated, beleaguered nation whose behavior does not warrant further military action.
"Instead of an invasion by Iraq we have the evasion by Iraq of UN sanctions. So don't look for any public endorsement of an airstrike," says an Arab diplomat in Washington. "At the same time, don't look for any mass resentment" if Saddam is overthrown.
Saudi Arabia, a key ally during the Gulf war, has refused to allow its aircraft to be used in any airstrike although it has given permission for US, British, and French planes to operate from Saudi bases.
As for Egypt, another important Gulf war ally, it would be awkward for President Hosni Mubarak to publicly endorse the bombing an Arab state a week after announcing plans to visit Israel.
Bush's latitude for action was broadened somewhat when Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton indicated that Republicans and Democrats were united in their determination to make Iraq adhere to the cease-fire resolution.
Even so, Bush's reelection prospects seem certain to be affected by the outcome of any military action. If airstrikes are carried out and have inconclusive results and lead to US or civilian Iraqi casualties, his campaign could be hurt. On the other hand, if the raids force Saddam into compliance with Resolution 687, the raids will rekindle memories of Bush's finest hour as commander in chief during the Gulf crisis.
Just how an airstrike could affect Saddam's longevity is also unpredictable. Military action could have a rally-round-the-flag effect, strengthening public support for Saddam at home. Then again, experts say, military action could embolden Saddam's opponents who, twice during the past month, have apparently launched coup attempts.