To the brink to see who blinks

It's a scenario the US will repeat until it resolves ambivalence about Iraq

Some clichs from crises past are being dusted off for the latest Iraq crisis in which a last-minute pledge by Saddam Hussein to permit unfettered weapons inspection led President Clinton to abort an air attack moments before launch. "Brinksmanship," referring to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles' proclaimed willingness in 1956 to go to the edge of nuclear war in order to cow the communist adversary. And what you might call "blinksmanship," referring to Secretary Dean Rusk's remark at the end of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis that President Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev had been eyeball to eyeball, and "the other fellow blinked."

Mr. Clinton went to the brink of war with Saddam Hussein, but who it was that blinked is arguable. The president gave up the best chance he may ever have to attack Iraq with the international community behind him in return for yet another promise to comply with weapons inspection. And that promise is subject to undefined "modalities," that may mean fetters on unfettered inspection. I am sure we will be hearing more about that the next time the inspectors get too close to finding something.

But, ah, there is something new. Clinton publicly supports the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Well, he sort of supports it. His ambivalence was first shown in January 1993, a week before his inauguration, when he said that "if he (Saddam) wants a different relationship with the United States, all he has to do is change his behavior." The next day, Clinton backtracked, saying he had no intention of normalizing relations with the dictator.

More recently, in March of last year, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said the sanctions would stay on as long as Saddam was in power. But that line was quickly dropped as counterproductive because it would leave Saddam with no incentive to obey. An attentive listener to the president on television last Sunday could hear how, short of sleep, he made revealing verbal slips. He said the best way to address the Iraqi threat is "through the government in Baghdad," hastily adding, "a new government." He talked of strengthening our political support "to make sure that the opposition ... or, to do what we can to make the opposition a more effective voice."

During the week that Saddam was proclaiming his defiance, Kuwait's deputy chief of staff, General Fahad al-Amir, flew to Washington, bringing word that Iraq was on the verge of a revolution, which, he said, might be triggered by an American airstrike. It is not clear how much credence the United States gave to that assessment. But there is some question whether the administration is really ready for revolution in Iraq and the chaos that might follow.

That leaves the administration in the position of having periodically to go to the brink and see who blinks. Or, in the words of an older authority, "All the king's horses and all the king's men, they march up the hill and they march down again." For a billion dollars or so each time.

* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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