Why US Is Edging Toward Military Strike on Iraq

Scandal may embolden Clinton to hit Baghdad to show US isn't adrift.

Even before the latest scandal, President Clinton faced a tough call in deciding whether to use force to compel Iraq to cooperate with the United Nations' search for its illegal weapons programs.

Military action by the United States could hurt ties with Russia, France, and the Arab world, derail the stalled Middle East peace process, and heighten threats of anti-American terrorism. Moreover, there is no promise that bombs and missiles will succeed with Iraq's implacable dictator, Saddam Hussein, where diplomacy has failed for three months.

But with hopes for a negotiated resolution all but doused by Iraq's rebuff of the latest UN quest for access to Saddam's palaces, the sex scandal may make Mr. Clinton's decision to go to war a little easier.

As the world sniffs for any hint of scandal-induced vulnerability in Washington, some US officials say the costs of not striking Baghdad may be higher now than before. Inaction, they assert, could be read by Iraq, other US foes and potential rivals as an open invitation to exploit the deepening crisis at the White House. "We are at crunch time now," says one US official.

Beyond Iraq, a perception of US weakness could encourage tests of American resolve on a range of critical fronts, from the Korean peninsula to Bosnia, officials say. Russia and China, already contemptuous of what they condemn as American arrogance of power, may be encouraged to challenge US policies and curtail cooperation with Washington to weaken its bargaining positions on contentious issues.

The image of a floundering superpower could also rattle the confidence of America's allies in Europe, where NATO is in the midst of an unprecedented makeover, and in Asia, where the economic crisis is fueling jitters over regional stability.

Some experts say there is historic precedence for the administration's concerns, pointing to Egypt's October 1973 attack on Israel as former president Richard Nixon sank into the mire of Watergate.

Accordingly, the administration is striving to portray the president as hard at work on Iraq, lobbying allied support for military action in the coming days if last-ditch French and Russian diplomacy fails to persuade Saddam to cancel a threat to end cooperation with UN inspections.

"The diplomatic string is rapidly running out," warns State Department spokesman Jamie Rubin.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will leave tonight for Europe, where she is expected to meet with British, French, and Russian foreign ministers to press the case for a sustained US bombing campaign on Iraqi air defenses, security and industrial targets. US ambassadors are now consulting with governments in the Middle East, possibly preparing visits by Ms. Albright or Defense Secretary William Cohen.

Meanwhile, military preparations are gathering pace, with US officials consulting closely with Britain, which has deployed an aircraft carrier in support of a 30,000-strong American force in the Gulf. A visit by British Prime Minister Tony Blair to Washington next week could provide a backdrop for a final ultimatum to Saddam. Says a European diplomat: "The whole game is moving very quickly."

US officials admit that the looming threat of US attacks on Iraq is opening Clinton to charges that he is seeking to divert attention from the gravest crisis of his political career. But, they reject any linkage, saying Iraq has been on notice for months that its defiance of the UN could trigger American military reprisals.

"When the president is required to put American lives at risk and when he is required to take action as commander in chief, he will do so based on the national interests of the US," says a White House official. "It's a very sober bottom line that every president has to face."

But even if US strikes succeed in forcing Saddam to open his palaces to UN inspection, many experts say that in the long term, Clinton's stewardship of US foreign policy may have been seriously damaged by the current scandal.

They say allegations he sought to cover up an affair with a former White House intern have hurt US credibility abroad. They have also raised doubts about whether Clinton will remain office, calling into question commitments he may have made or his ability to push key initiatives through Congress. For instance, some ask, with Clinton's tenure uncertain, why should Iran respond to his overtures to discuss improving relations?

"This president ... may be mortally wounded because he has lost the one thing that an American president has in foreign policy and that is legitimacy," says Gerry Pubantz, a political science professor at Salem College, in Winston-Salem, S.C.

But others dispute that view. They argue that while Clinton may be ham-strung by his personal tribulations, the US political system ensures a continuity of power by giving the secretaries of state and defense daily oversight of security policies.

Speaking Jan. 26 on CNN, Nixon's former secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, recounted that even though Watergate made his job "a nightmare," he was still able to keep US policy on course.

Furthermore, aware of the vulnerability of US global interests, GOP leaders are also closing ranks around Clinton. "In the matter of international relations, the United States is one nation," asserts House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) Georgia.

Still, just how long Clinton can count on such support remains uncertain. The longer the scandal persists, some experts say, the weaker he becomes, raising the prospects the US will face challenges to its economic and political power.

Says Mr. Pubantz: "In the long run, what this does is encourage the development of independent, competitive foreign policies by small and large states alike."

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