IMMEDIATELY AFTER the American-led air strikes against Iraq on 13 January, then President-elect Bill Clinton said he could imagine a normal relationship with Saddam Hussein provided the Iraqi leader respected international laws. Since Saddam is most unlikely to do anything of the kind, Clinton will presumably not be kept to his word. Embarrassed, he quickly withdrew the remark anyway.
But his observation was indicative of the thinking behind US policy since the Kuwait war. Unable to get rid of the Iraqi leader, the United States has preferred a tamed and humbled Saddam Hussein controlling a unified Iraq to a power vacuum in the Tigris-Euphrates basin which might be filled by Iran.
A domesticated Saddam was presumably what one Bush administration official had in mind when he described the raids on 13 January as a "spanking". The attacks (of which more were threatened as The Middle East went to press) were limited in scope for three reasons. First, the allied coalition has far less airpower at its disposal today compared with two years ago when Desert Storm was launched. Second, the number of targets it can justifiably hit in response to Iraq's flouting of UN resolutions is severely limited.
Third, and perhaps most important, a massive aerial bombardment of Iraq (and there is no doubt the United States could have hit harder if it had wanted to) might entail unacceptable civilian casualties and be no more likely to shake Saddam's resolve than it did in/991. Better, therefore, to send the Iraqi leader a clear message that the United States will inflict corporal punishment whenever he breaks the rules or seeks to move beyond the very limited authority which successive United Nations resolutions have left him.
Squeezing rather than toppling Saddam Hussein was the rationale for providing the Kurdish safe haven and the no-fly zone north of the 36th parallel in 1991. It was also the real reason for establishing the air exclusion zone south of the 32nd parallel last August. The official justification was to protect Iraq's Shia population in the south from Baghdad's repression but, since that was being accomplished (and is still pursued) by ground forces rather than from the air, the allies obviously had rather different motives.
In a revealing interview shortly before the air attack, Robert Gates, the retiring CIA director, disclosed that capturing or overthrowing Saddam Hussein had been discussed at length before and during the Kuwait war. "We...