Posted on September 16, 1996 in Washington Watch
The unraveling of the situation in northern Iraq has been matched by the unraveling of bi-partisan support for the President’s Iraq policy.
Following Saddam Hussein’s initial foray into Irbil, Republican criticism of Clinton was quite harsh. He was chided for being “weak and wavering” in the conduct of foreign policy and was taunted for what was termed an “ineffective Iraq policy” that Republicans claimed had emboldened the Iraqi leader to test U.S. resolve.
As Clinton mobilized U.S. forces, struck Iraqi targets, and expanded the no-fly zone, his partisan critics were silenced—but only for a while.
Allowing their Presidential candidate to appear to be above the fray, Republican Vice Presidential candidate Jack Kemp and a number of Republican Senators and Congressmen, have, in past weeks, stepped up their attack on President Clinton.
The Administration’s response to Saddam’s move northward was admittedly limited, but they had hoped firm enough to send a message both to Baghdad and to domestic critics. The expansion of the no-fly zone and the targeting of Iraqi radar and communications facilities in the south were designed to discourage further movement by the Iraqi regime. The Administration had little interest in provoking a reaction among its Arab coalition partners and apparently saw no advantage in becoming directly engaged in hostilities in the northern conflict.
The Baghdad regime, smelling success in the north and sensing the possibility of achieving some public relations gains in the broader international arena, has apparently decided to up the ante with verbal and military provocations.
With the continuing chess game in Iraq being played out on nightly television and in front page headlines, Republicans have now ended their two week long silence. They are gambling that they can use the Iraq situation as a campaign issue to challenge what they are terming the President’s weak and reactive foreign policy.
The first to draw blood was Dole. Although he had been silent for over a week following the U.S. bombing of southern Iraq, on September tenth the Republican Candidate issued a statement noting that “Reports of continued strife and killings in north Iraq . . . raise questions about whether the Administration’s strategy has advanced U.S. interests.”
Before the U.S. strikes Dole had issued much harsher criticism chiding the Administration’s failure to take action to bring an end to Saddam Hussein. Once U.S. military engagement began, Dole led bi-partisan support for the President. Now that the Republican presidential nominee has signaled that criticism of the President is fair game, the floodgates of criticism have opened.
Republican Vice Presidential nominee Jack Kemp slammed the Administration stating that, “there is a lot of vacillation and a failure by the President to clearly define the objective . . . [of] how he intends to carry out the mission in the Persian Gulf and getting Saddam Hussein and [brutal treatment of Kurds] to end; how can he get the U.N. Commission weapons inspection teams back into Iraq.”
Other Republicans soon joined the attack. Speaking at a hastily convened hearing before Congress, James Baker former Secretary of State under George Bush criticized the Clinton Administration for not hitting Saddam harder. “Iraq under Saddam Hussein only understands force. More to the point it only understands overwhelming force.”
Following on this theme, Senator Richard Lugar, a Republican member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee called on the Administration to, “conduct raids that would hobble any air power, air defenses, communications, and intelligence. I would not put Baghdad off limits.”
At the same time, and in a somewhat contradictory vein, the Republicans are also criticizing the president for failing to maintain our Gulf War coalition. Kemp, for example, decried the fact that “our alliances are in disarray and support for the mission is at risk because our policy is vague and unrealistic.”
The apparent purpose of this political assault, while seeking to score political points domestically against the Democratic President, is also to goad the Administration into a full-scale assault on Iraq.
The dangers to the White House are real. The President is caught between Iraq and the right wing—between Saddam’s testing and Republican taunting.
So far domestically, public opinion is two to one in support of the Administration’s handling of Iraq. And yet the longer the pressure continues to mount and the more aggressive the regime in Baghdad becomes, the more problematic the entire situation becomes for the White House.
Serious questions must be asked. What would the impact of any escalation be on our Arab allies, Arab public opinion, and the internal situation in Iraq? Would an assault on Iraq accomplish any meaningful objective? What is the goal and/or long-term policy? Would the American public be prepared to accept full-scale hostilities?
With all these in mind, the Administration has sought, thus far, to pursue a more prudent and limited course than that being called for by its Republican critics. It is for this reason that the President has correctly called for a full-scale policy review of U.S. policy toward Iraq.
There are too many questions to answer and vital interests at stake to allow either the Iraqi regime or the Republican Party to press the Administration into precipitous action with unpredictable outcomes.
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