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Western Press Review: To Bomb Or Not To Bomb Iraq?

By Joel Blocker, Dora Slaba and Esther Pan

Prague, 16 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- As diplomatic activity over Iraq's defiance of United Nations resolutions on arms inspection intensified over the weekend, much Western press commentary focused on the question: To bomb, or not to bomb, Saddam Hussein's weapons installations? The answers were varied, depending less on political orientation than on country of origin.

NEWSWEEK: The case of the three p's --principle, prudence and posterity

The current issue (dated Feb. 23) of the U.S. magazine Newsweek carries two diametrically opposed opinion pieces --one by Senior Editor Jonathan Alter on "Why the U.S. Should Bomb," the other by Contributing Editor Fareed Zakaria on "Why Bombing Is a Bad Idea." Alter builds his case on what he calls "the three p's --principle, prudence and posterity." He writes: "If (Saddam Hussein's) breaking the (1991 Gulf War's) peace terms isn't punished, then such agreements have no meaning. That's as important an international principle as resisting territorial aggression...." As for prudence, he says: "Bombing will buy time. Saddam has least 20 factories making conventional arms...If the U.S. destroys those, Iraq will have to spend years rebuilding instead of moving ahead militarily." Posterity is also involved, he says, because "the harshest reality of the 21st century is that Saddam Hussein is the face of the future. When he goes, others will rise in his place. (That's) an argument for a new kind of hard-eyed foreign policy."

NEWSWEEK: Bombing Iraq will not destroy its capacity to make weapons of mass destruction

In contrast, Zakaria writes: "Bombing Iraq will not destroy its capacity to make weapons of mass destruction. Virtually all military officers...agree that any such damage will be limited and temporary....So why do it?" he asks. "Frustration" is his answer: "Washington is understandably unhappy at Saddam's refusal to allow UN inspectors into his palaces. But will one more volley of missiles change his mind?....Isn't Saddam likely to wait it out (as he did before)?" Zakaria continues: "America has often used limited force to push negotiations, with dismal results --it was called 'signaling' in Vietnam. Force is not an instrument of communication. If Washington uses force, it should use massive, sustained air, sea and land power with no time limits and a clear objective --the destruction of Saddam...and his regime."

WASHINGTON POST: The more one thinks about the U.S. government's stated rationale for bombing Iraq, the less convincing it seems

The Washington Post on Saturday also ran two very different commentaries on Iraq. One was written by Paris-based Middle Eastern analyst Ghassan Salame, who argued that a U.S-led bombing attack on Iraq, in his words, "could make things worse." The other was by Josef Joffe, the editorial-page director of the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, who focused on the differences among Western governments on the issue.

Salame wrote: "The more one thinks about the U.S. government's stated rationale for bombing Iraq, the less convincing it seems. Even someone like me, a critic of the Iraqi regime's human-rights record for 20 years and a public opponent of Iraq's occupation of Kuwait, finds it difficult to accept the various U.S. explanations for pursuing a shortsighted policy that will bring further death and destruction to an already traumatized society." He continued by posing a series of questions: "Is the objective to defeat a dangerous dictatorship? But how does launching smart bombs from afar bring about a democracy? Why would bombing Baghdad miraculously produce a government that respects human rights or a society that obeys the rule of law? And how many sorties will be necessary to find and kill Saddam Hussein and rouse the population against the Iraqi regime?"

Salame's answer followed: "I see a different outcome of a sustained bombing campaign: a weakened Iraq even more vulnerable to interference from its neighbors, either those frightened by the prospect of lawlessness in Iraq or those who take advantage of the chaos to extend their influence....Regional stability is threatened just as much by a too-weak Iraq as it is by a too-strong one." He concluded: "Is the Clinton administration ready and able to contain the instability

WASHINGTON: Many can read the subtext of wobbliness that accompanies the steely rhetoric of the 'last remaining superpower.'

The Washington Post's title for the Joffe commentary was "Attack Iraq? Allies Say Yes, No, and Maybe." The Munich-based analyst wrote: "As the United States is priming those bombs destined for Saddam Hussein's biological and chemical weapons labs, Europe is applauding faintly. Only the British --cheers to the 'special relationship'-- are ready to fly along....Europe has split along classic lines... At one extreme are Tony Blair and the British...At the other extreme are the French (who) evidently surmise that there will be an uproar in the streets of Araby, complete with lots of burning Uncle Sam effigies.....And if you think in realpolitik terms, as the heirs of Cardinal Richelieu proudly proclaim they do, there are some nifty French gains to be culled from the aftermath." As for his home country, Joffe said: "The Germans, as usual, are in between....But last Sunday (Feb. 8)...Chancellor Helmut Kohl said the magic words: 'Of course, America can count on our full political support.' And, of course, U.S. Air Force units stationed in Germany could be used for the air strikes against Iraq."

Joffe asked: "Why the split? One reason," he answered, "is 'Made in the USA.' The French have seen the signals coming out of Washington, as have many other Europeans....Many can read the subtext of wobbliness that accompanies the steely rhetoric of the 'last remaining superpower.' There is a feeling that Clinton would rather not bomb, that he would be only too happy to see Saddam Hussein step back from the brink."

SUNDAY TELEGRAPH: It would be the worst decision to do nothing

Reflecting Joffe's analysis, Britain's Sunday Telegraph urged what it called "decisive action against Iraq's President Saddam Hussein." In an editorial, the paper wrote: "Even though bombing is not the perfect means, nevertheless it would be the worst decision to do nothing, or to do so little that it would look as if it were nothing. The time has come for decisive action and the preparedness for a protracted campaign. President Clinton and Mr. Blair should drive ahead with their plans and should not be deterred from their course by compromises at the last minute." The paper concluded: "If Saddam still wants to negotiate, then it must be all or nothing as it was in the case of the (1990) occupation of Kuwait. If one leaves him the slightest elbow-room that will only mean that a higher price will have to be paid later."

IRISH TIMES: If diplomacy fails it will be difficult to prevent the coalition conducting air strikes against Iraqi targets

An editorial in today's Irish Times is less enthusiastic about bombing Iraq, but notes nonetheless: "If diplomacy fails it will be difficult to prevent the coalition led by the United States and Britain conducting air strikes against Iraqi targets to force compliance, even if it lacks the authority of a new Security Council mandate to do so and remains open to the criticism that such retaliation is ill-defined and could make a bad situation worse." The paper goes on to say: "While it is unacceptable that Iraq should attach conditions to the (UN's) substantive investigation, there should be room for accommodating its concerns about protecting sovereignty from espionage masquerading as UN inspection. It is likely that anything agreed will fall short of the absolute guarantees demanded by the U.S. and Britain; but it will be up to France and its Security Council supporters to steer it through."

LA REBUBBLICA: This time neither of the two conflict parties show any flexibility....

In Italy, today's daily La Repubblica writes in its editorial: "Saddam Hussein is all sound and fury, with no substance....While the U.S. is strengthening its troops in the Gulf, the UN inspection effort continues to show extreme hesitation. Secretary- General Kofi Annan does not trust the issue. He knows...that he risks a storm of criticism if he finds no diplomatic solution. He could be reduced to the role of war witness if he travels to Baghdad like all those before him: Russia, France, Germany and Italy. So he will ask the UN Security Council for more negotiations." The paper concluded: "This time neither of the two conflict parties show any flexibility....Washington has only to understand that an impending attack would be only the beginning of a long series of attacks. Three hundred bombings per day are foreseen in the first five days of the military strike alone."

LE SOIR: All indications are that diplomacy will be given one last, real chance

Saturday's Le Soir of Belgium ran a commentary by Pierre Lefevre titled "Signs of Flexibility Appear in the Anglo-Saxon (that is, U.S.-British) Camp." He wrote of a reported compromise proposed at the Security Council by Britain "that would allow the UN to pursue inspections and Iraq to save face and the symbols of its sovereignty." Lefevre said: "It appears...that Kofi Annan no longer has empty hands....All indications are that diplomacy will be given one last, real chance. Unable to recreate the 1991 (Gulf War) coalition, confronted with the Arab, Russian and French refusals, the U.S. appears less determined than before to take on a military adventure with an ending that no one can predict. It is also possible that the unpredictable Saddam Hussein is playing a game. One can't rule out the impact that his last rejections had in escalating the conflict."