Regardless of its domestic implications, Operation Desert Fox is a spectacular but dangerous gesture, a smokescreen to cover for the lack of a comprehensible or workable policy toward Iraq. It is also a grievous insult to the United Nations–not least to the nearly 400 UN humanitarian staff whom no one bothered to evacuate before the bombs began to fall. For seven years, Washington has tried and failed to achieve through sanctions what it drew back from on the battlefield: the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Like those sanctions, this bombing strengthens a regime that is as noted for its stupidity as for its mendacity.
The President has studiously avoided the one serious test of the legitimacy of US military action–putting it to the vote in the UN Security Council, whose 1990 and 1991 decisions he has invoked. He has not done so for the simple reason that he would lose. As an unusually outspoken Secretary General Kofi Annan said just days before, “There are areas where Washington’s policies diverge from those of the United Nations…and one case in point is Iraq.”
Other members of the Security Council, many of whom find Iraqi obfuscation in the face of the inspection regime equally exasperating, justifiably question both the legality and the efficacy of unilateral military action by the United States. They have good reason to be skeptical. The first casualty of this war is the very inspection regime that it purports to enforce. If the bombing causes significant civilian casualties–President Clinton said there was the risk of “unintended” Iraqi casualties–it will further erode the rapidly crumbling international support for sanctions, and in doing so it will weaken the legitimacy of all UN decisions. It gives Baghdad just the excuse it needs to cease all cooperation.
Now that the bombers have hit Iraq, what can the White House do, apart from bomb again and again? The rest of the world, with the exception of the loyal Tony Blair, will presume that the only exit strategy involved in the air raids is the one that stops impeachment. Desert Fox (unfortunately, the sobriquet of Gen. Erwin Rommel, one of Hitler’s most brilliant field marshals) may make history as the most expedient war since the eighteenth-century War of Jenkins’s Ear, when the British used a grisly relic to declare war on Spain.
On Capitol Hill, the Baghdad airstrikes brought both chaos and relief, leading to a delay of the planned impeachment vote. Some of the same Republicans who’ve long agitated for Saddam’s ouster now stamped their feet; a furious Senate majority leader Trent Lott declared that both “the timing and the policy are subject to question.” Even the famously compartmentalized President acknowledged the context of “the serious debate currently before the House of Representatives” but only to say that Saddam may have mistakenly thought it would “distract Americans, weaken our resolve to face them down.” “Highly suspicious to say the least,” snarled Representative Bob Barr, a leading impeachment hawk.
As tactically meaningless World War II–vintage flak ascended from Iraq’s antiaircraft guns toward out-of-range US cruise missiles in the night sky, it was clear that this bombing, regardless of motivation, was likely to do more to aid President Clinton than to curtail Saddam Hussein’s regime.