Since assuming office, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has warned Baghdad it will take very seriously any efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction. The Bush team is keeping open all options for response, but many in Washington say it is unlikely to return to the Clinton administration's use of air strikes against weapons facilities unless there is an extreme need. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at why.
Washington, 5 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The day after President George W. Bush was inaugurated last month, American newspapers reported Iraq may be rebuilding factories suspected of producing chemical and biological weapons.
The New York Times quoted senior U.S. military officials, who requested anonymity, as saying the factories are in an industrial complex in Falluja west of Baghdad. The sources said satellite images showed two of the factories are ones hit two years ago in raids by U.S. and British planes which punished Iraq for refusing to cooperate with UN arms inspectors.
One factory was reported to be producing oil from castor beans, which is used in brake fluids but also as a base for a biological toxin. Another was reported to be producing herbicides and pesticides and a third to be producing chlorine -- all substances which can be transformed into biological or chemical weapons.
The newspaper stories were not confirmed by Washington. But they were followed by a quick warning to Baghdad a few days later from new Vice President Richard Cheney.
Cheney said Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is still clearly looking for ways to develop weapons of mass destruction and remains a threat to the region. And Cheney said Saddam needs to understand that the new U.S. administration will take very seriously any effort to resume such activities.
The flurry of news reports and warnings has subsided now but it raises the question of whether the Bush team would repeat the Clinton administration's use of pre-emptive air strikes against suspected weapons facilities.
The U.S. and Britain conducted a four-night campaign in December 1998 -- dubbed Desert Fox -- to hit suspect factories and Iraqi military targets. In response Baghdad barred arms inspectors from Iraq and they have yet to return more than two years later.
Analysts say Desert Fox has left a complicated legacy for the Bush team that makes it unlikely it would use such air strikes again unless there was an extreme need to do so.
Patrick Clawson, a regional specialist at the U.S.-based Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says the Clinton administration found itself criticized after Desert Fox because many Americans -- including some strong Republican voices -- felt the results were disappointing. The critics expected the outcome of such dramatic military action to include the crippling, if not toppling, of Saddam's regime.
Clawson says the disappointment attached to Desert Fox was due in part to the Clinton administration saying it favored a regime change in Baghdad. That is something the Bush team also has said it would like to see.
"The Clinton administration adopted a formal policy of seeking a change of regime in Iraq and that therefore has established a standard of success by which any U.S. [military] action regarding Iraq is judged. As far as the people of the world and the people of the U.S. are concerned, Iraq policy is not fully successful so long as Saddam Hussein is in power. And therefore any military action which is adopted will be judged against that standard."
That could make any new Desert Fox operation politically risky, unless the Bush team first convinces the public that massive military force can be deployed for goals that stop short of ending the whole Iraq crisis.
Several in the Bush administration, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, have called for setting just such precise and clearly achievable objectives when using U.S. forces abroad. Patrick Clawson says:
"Mr. Powell's philosophy, and I think that is strongly supported by Mr. Cheney and some of the other people in the administration, is to use force only when force is used decisively to accomplish a purpose. Now, Mr Powell's preference in his military career was therefore to define limited goals such as the destruction of a factory and to bring to bear overwhelming force to accomplish those goals."
"It will be interesting to see how that plays with the criticism we have heard from many in the Republican Party and many in the Congress about defining such limited goals and there may be pressure therefore to define broader goals. The difficulty is that when you define those kind of broader goals the sort of force you need to accomplish them is pretty overwhelming."
Analysts say that apart from the risk of creating political pressure to go further militarily against Saddam, operations like Desert Fox also risk creating a backlash abroad. After the December 1998 air strikes, many in the Arab world criticized the bombings as increasing the suffering of ordinary Iraqis.
Judith Yaphe, a policy expert at the National Defense University in Washington, says such criticism makes it essential that any new campaign be proceeded by clear evidence that facilities are being used to produce chemical and biological weapons. But such evidence can be difficult to obtain in the absence of ground inspections.
"If we could identify new facilities that were engaged in chemical weapons, bacteriological, missile development, those go right to the top of the target list. But how do you prove that? The technical means we have now can only show you a facility, what they think it is doing."
Yaphe says any difficulties with proof raise the danger that Baghdad can persuade observers that innocent facilities are being targeted -- an argument already used in connection with one facility that Iraq claims manufactured baby formula.
"So we could get stuck in a repetition of the baby milk factory, where they did use a facility for the production of chemicals but switched it over to baby milk. It's attacked and, of course, it looks like we have hit an innocent facility."
In spite of the political risks attached to bombing suspected weapons facilities, analysts say the Bush administration will continue to keep the option of air strikes open as it seeks to re-energize sanctions and get arms inspectors back into Iraq.
Yaphe says the Bush team campaigned for the presidency with an Iraqi policy which stressed drawing what it called "red lines" that Saddam must not cross. The reddest line concerns building weapons of mass destruction, which Bush promised in his inaugural speech to "confront so that a new century is spared new horrors."
That means if Baghdad does rebuild weapons facilities, those facilities could be hit again by air strikes. But before that happens Washington can be expected to mount a careful campaign to convince both Americans and the world that the danger is immediate and must be removed by massive air strikes -- even if those air strikes leave Saddam in power.