The scope of Friday's airstrikes on Iraq may have sent a strong
signal about the Bush administration's resolve to squeeze the regime of
Saddam Hussein, but Washington also may have played directly into the
Iraqi leader's game plan.
At its heart, Hussein's strategy in the decade since he was forced to
retreat from his invasion of Kuwait has been to make Iraq appear a victim
rather than a villain.
Thus, the angry international reaction to the attacks near
Baghdad--particularly from Arab states, Russia, China and the developing
world--certainly worked in the regime's favor.
In key countries, experts warn, President Bush is seen as the third
U.S. president in a row to come across as a hawk, even a bully, this time
for the most serious airstrike since 1998.
Egypt, America's closest Arab ally and a country that contributed
troops to help evict Iraq from Kuwait, rejected the strikes as "a serious
negative step" that endangered Iraq's "safety and sovereignty" and could
not be justified, the Foreign Ministry said Saturday. Two civilians were
killed in the raids, Iraq claimed.
Russia charged that "American militarists" in the new administration
were challenging "international security and the entire world community,"
in the words of Gen. Leonid G. Ivashov, chief of the Defense Ministry's
foreign relations department.
Even France, which supported the creation of the two "no-fly" zones
over Iraq and once mounted airstrikes alongside U.S. and British
warplanes, expressed "incomprehension and discomfort" over the raids. The
French Foreign Ministry said the attacks only created tension "damaging"
to a diplomatic resolution.
Beyond those reactions, the airstrikes may enhance the Iraqi
president's position on several fronts.
"Hussein playing victim helps divide the [United Nations] Security
Council. It provides the moral excuse for France and Russia to return to
Baghdad and collect oil contracts and other business deals," said Charles
Duelfer, formerly the top U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq and now a fellow
at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
On Iraq policy, France, Russia and China--three of the five permanent
members of the Security Council--are now squarely aligned against the
United States and Britain, the only two countries whose warplanes
attacked Iraq on Friday.
"Dealing with Iraq strictly in the Security Council also conveys
legitimacy on the regime. It's exactly what Saddam wants," Duelfer said.
"It also contains the U.S. [in its ability to make policy], which is what
the Russians, French, Chinese and even Brits want."
In addition, the strikes scored points for Hussein in his own region.
"He's positioned himself as the only leader in the Arab world to stand
up to the United States at a time the Arab-Israeli crisis is worsening.
So this strengthens him, not only at home," Duelfer said.
The Iraqi leader has fine-tuned his "sympathy strategy" over the
years, experts say.
Hussein has starved his own people, withholding food as well as
medicine even from babies, U.S. officials from both the current and past
administrations charge, to worsen hardships and win international
sympathy by blaming the United States' relentless insistence on economic
Over the years, Hussein has scored points even with most of the
countries that fought in Operation Desert Storm. The majority of those
nations now favors a relaxation of sanctions because of Iraqi suffering.
On hundreds of occasions, Hussein also has ordered his troops to fire
at U.S. and British warplanes, fully aware that the allies would respond,
destroying military sites and war materiel and possibly killing some of
But the cost-benefit ratio was apparently worth the sacrifice of
others' lives because, again, the United States was the party that ended
up appearing aggressive.
The strikes also have played well for Hussein because he is the
ultimate publicity seeker, experts say. And the more U.S. punishment he
takes, the better. What the Iraqi leader hates is losing the limelight
and falling off the front pages, since the most powerful weapon in his
arsenal is to maintain public focus on Iraq's situation.
"He wants to be the No. 1 item on the U.S. foreign policy agenda
because his importance increases with the amount of time and energy the
U.S. spends dealing with him," said Henri Barkey, an Iraq expert formerly
with the State Department who is now at Lehigh University in
Pennsylvania. "The higher his profile, the greater his standing in many
parts of the world. After all, the first international visit by a new
U.S. president was completely overshadowed by Saddam Hussein."
So whatever the Iraqi leader lost at his command-and-control centers
Friday may have been worth the price. Iraqis rallied in Baghdad,
attention again diverted from their own situation. And, from South Korea
to South Africa, American allies blasted Washington for its aggression,
not Baghdad for escalating its attacks on allied warplanes.
In South Korea, which considers the United States its closest ally,
the national news agency said the strikes "confirmed the U.S. policy of
emphasizing military supremacy" and warned that this general "policy of
strangling Iraq" has failed to achieve its goals while hurting innocent
In the end, however, the new Bush administration may have had little
choice in light of America's own long-term goal of preventing the Iraqi
regime from threatening its neighbors. All but one country in the
38-nation coalition that participated in Desert Storm are now willing to
deal with Baghdad diplomatically or economically. Only the United States
and to a lesser degree Britain are left to enforce both the cease-fire
agreement and a series of U.N. resolutions designed to prevent future
Who's winning? It depends on one's perspective, experts say.
Iraq is contained and unable to buy many arms. Its military machine
has dropped from 1 million troops to about 350,000, according to
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. Baghdad is technically able to fly
only between the 33rd and 36th parallels, and not over large areas of the
south and north that make up about half the country. A U.N. committee
must approve Iraq's expenditures from all legal oil revenues, in effect
controlling its purse strings.
But Iraq also has expelled U.N. weapons inspectors and begun to
rebuild its nuclear facilities, according to U.S. intelligence officials
and former weapons inspectors. It would take many years to find and
dismantle the regime's weapons of mass destruction programs, these
"For a decade, Hussein has been unable to rebuild his military, so for
now he can no longer threaten the region militarily," Barkey said.
At the same time, Iraq's military is still the mightiest in the
Persian Gulf region. Its oil smuggling operations through Syria, Iran,
Turkey and Jordan generate more than $1 billion a year in illegal funds
for the regime.
Even sanctions have helped strengthen Hussein's position.
"The rationing system gives him an enormous amount of power. It
enabled him to heighten his chokehold on the Iraqi people, who are now
more dependent on his largess," Barkey said. "So sanctions helped him
stay in power because they enable him to control the Iraqi population in
ways he couldn't do before the Gulf War."
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times