by Eric Margolis
ZURICH - Saddam Hussein, the man Washington calls a second Hitler, beamed happily as UN Secretary General Kofi Annan lauded him for his `courage, wisdom and flexibility.'
The Clinton Administration reacted to the UN's diplomatic triumph with ill-concealed surliness. Iraq's 9-lived leader had again escaped the jaws of doom. As the latest Gulf crisis wound down from near-tragedy to farce, the Arab world erupted with joyous cries, `Ya Saddam, Ya Saddam!'
American armchair Rambos, who had been chanting `take out Saddam,' were left demoralized - and perplexed by new reports of Russia's secret biowar arsenal. Though President Clinton claimed a great victory over Big Devil Saddam, it was pretty clear to most thinking people that Iraq had outfoxed, outmanoeuvred and outbluffed the US in the latest hand of Gulf poker. . .
The squabble over weapons inspections and palaces was merely a pretext. The crisis was really about the crushing, 7-year old US embargo of Iraq.
At the end of the Gulf War, defeated Iraq was forced to submit to intrusive inspection until the UN determined all weapons of mass destruction were eliminated. Then, sanctions would be lifted and Iraq, with the Mideast's second largest oil reserves, would resume exporting oil and rejoin the international community.
Iraq and UN teams destroyed large amounts of nuclear, chemical and biological materials, plus 819 Scud missiles. The US and Britain still claimed Iraq was hiding more, but without evidence. Meanwhile, US-British sanctions caused the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi infants and left 25% of Iraq's children clinically malnourished, according to UN officials.
Last Fall, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright sparked the latest crisis by imposing a new condition on Iraq that had never been voted by the UN Security Council: sanctions would continue until Saddam Hussein's regime was ousted. The only way to stop the slow-motion starvation of Iraq's people and the crumbling of his country was for Saddam Hussein to kill himself, or be shot - since there is no other form of retirement from Iraqi leadership.
In January, Saddam riposted by denying arms inspectors access to some presidential sites. His timing was excellent. A majority of Security Council members supported easing sanctions. Sympathy for Iraq's suffering was surging across the Arab World. Russia, France and China were fed up watching the US use the UN as a tool for its own, self- serving strategic designs. European governments, Britain excepted, felt the Clinton Administration's Mideast policy was so dominated by Israel as to have become dangerously unbalanced.
So Great Brinkman Saddam openly challenged the US to a dangerous game of diplomatic chicken. Iraq, demolished, almost defenceless, with only 22 million people, was taking on the world's only superpower. Saddam, decided to risk his life, and those of his people, by creating a confrontation that, he hoped, would undermine the status quo that was destroying Iraq.
Saddam succeeded brilliantly. The clash over the relatively trivial matter of presidential sites stunningly revealed Washington's lack of international support, including in the Security Council, for a new war against Iraq. Even America's main Arab protectorate, Saudi Arabia, demurred. The Muslim World seethed with anti-Americanism.
Saddam understood the Clinton Administration had no strategy for Iraq, beyond brute force. Short of sending US ground troops to overthrow him, a measure urged only by American conservative partisans of Israel, Saddam knew he and Iraq could withstand more bombing, an act that would have brought worldwide opprobrium on the US. .
Most important, the inspection crisis forced the world to face the neglected questions of sanctions. How long could they continue? Iraq has been punished more severely than post-World War II Germany or Japan. Why should Saddam behave acceptably when sanctions were endless - and designed to overthrow him? For Iraq, there was no light at the end of the tunnel.
The deal signed in Baghdad this week by Kofi Annan made only passing reference to lifting sanctions, in order to avoid a veto by Washington. But behind the scenes, it was apparent the diplomatic landscape had changed. In spite of US/British claims to the contrary, Saddam seems to have been offered gradual easing, and eventual elimination, of sanctions, within a reasonable time frame. This is what France and Russia have long urged: buy Iraq's compliance step by step. The UN's recent doubling of Iraq's oil export quota is a step in the right direction. . .
Thanks to Saddam's defiance, US attempts to keep Iraq in permanent solitary confinement are failing. A nimbler Saddam has learned lessons from the 1991 crisis, from which he sought to escape too late. This time, he ran rings around Bill Clinton and his inept foreign policy team.
American taxpayers should rejoice. So far, Clinton's huffing and puffing has cost US $1.2 billion. A war would have cost triple. A US carrier battle group was moved to the Gulf from N. Asia, leaving S. Korea vulnerable to attack. The sterile confrontation with Iraq has drained US Treasury and run down America's over-stretched armed forces. .
Saddam has demonstrated the ancient Chinese martial art of using weakness to defeat strength. Saddam's daring bluffing at Baghdad poker has left the angry Americans and Brits looking like two big bullies outfoxed by a smaller, but smarter and very nasty regional bully.
[Eric Margolis is a syndicated foreign affairs columnist and broadcaster based in Toronto, Canada.]
Copyright © 1998 Eric Margolis - All Rights Reserved