Posted on February 16, 1998 in Washington Watch

The U.S. Senate adjourned last week without passing a resolution in support of a military strike against Iraq. Since the Senate will not reconvene until February 23, the Congress can take no action for at least one week.

The Senate’s refusal came as a surprise to some, especially given the bellicose rhetoric of some Senate leaders in recent weeks. These public comments apparently masked private concerns.

Many senators, for example, privately question the ultimate goals of a military strike and ask what could, in reality, be accomplished even by the “substantial and decisive” air strikes threatened by the Administration. What, they ask, would be the options left to the United States if the Iraqi regime survived the attacks still defiant of the UN inspections? Others raise concerns about the negative consequences resulting from such attacks–civilian causalities, destabilization and the potential for an anti-American backlash that might prove threatening to U.S. allies in the region. Finally, there are questions about the cost of the operations and concerns about how these costs are going to be covered.

The White House still insists that it can take limited military action without congressional approval. This has historically been the position taken by past Administrations. The Bush Administration, for example, maintained that it had constitutional authority to act against Iraq in 1991 without congressional approval, but it welcomed the blessing it received from the Senate shortly before launching its attack in January of that year.

The Clinton Administration can act alone, but given the seriousness of the Congress’s reservations and the potential political fall-out should the risky military venture fail, it seems unclear whether the White House will act without further congressional consultations.

This failure of the Republican-led Senate to give its blessing was only one of a number of new developments that added complexity to the Gulf crisis in recent weeks.

A number of prominent liberal Democratic members of Congress have formed a caucus of members opposed to any military action. They have taken to the airwaves and, in some cases, to demonstrations in front of the White House to make their case.

While the opposition of liberals might have been expected, there were some surprising developments on the conservative side as well.

The old cold warriors of the neo-conservative movement have continued to beat the war drums, but more traditional conservatives have stepped up their public opposition to a conflict. A number of prominent and influential conservative political commentators have been expressing their reservations about U.S.-Iraq policy for a number of weeks now, they were joined a few days ago by Jack Kemp, the 1996 Republican Vice Presidential candidate and a leading contender for the 2000 Republican Presidential nomination. In what is most certainly a risky move, Kemp has issued a plan to end the standoff and ultimately to end the economic sanctions against Iraq. In essence, the Kemp plan calls for Iraq to agree to unrestricted inspections for a six-month period. At the end of this period, if Iraq can be certified to be free of weapons of mass destruction, the UN would then move to end economic (not military) sanctions against that country.

Kemp’s is only one, albeit the most prominent, of many plans being circulated and discussed as a way of ending the crisis. While these efforts differ in some of their details they share a number of common points as well. All of these proposals seek to find a way out of the current stand off by reconciling the UN’s insistence on unrestricted inspections and the elimination of all weapons of mass destruction programs with what is believed to be Iraq’s concern that there be a defined process that will end economic sanctions when full compliance is verified.

With these developments, the situation has become more complex than it was a few weeks ago. The Iraqi regime’s game of brinkmanship has produced some tangible results. There is greater awareness and concern then ever before for the plight of the Iraqi people. The decision to dramatically increase the UN’s food for oil program to over $11 billion per year is significant in this regard. At the same time, Iraq’s isolation in the Arab and international arenas has been reduced. Finally, there is a growing debate both internationally and in the United States regarding the sanctions policy.

Given all of this, however, the Iraqis must recognize that there is no lessening of support for full implementation of the UN resolution requiring unrestricted inspections and a verifiable end to all weapons of mass destruction programs. Despite the fervent desire of many, both in the Arab world and internationally, to see an end to the current government in Iraq, most have become resigned to the fact that the regime will in all probability survive. This can be accepted, however, only if it complies with its obligations and is militarily contained.

But lest the government of Iraq misread the situation, it must understand that even with the dangers brought on by the complexities and uncertainties of recent developments, it hardly seems possible that the Clinton Administration can pull back from its threat of force if Iraq fails to agree to inspections. Even without congressional support and even with the attendant risks and the negative consequences of U.S. attacks, the Administration appears to be too over-committed to back away from its position. And many U.S. allies in the Middle East who fear the consequences of a U.S. attack also fear the consequences of the United States losing face in this standoff.

The ball remains in Saddam Hussein’s court. The question is will he be smart enough to surrender and, recognizing his gains, declare victory.

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