Clinton 'Fritters Away' Opportunity for Strong Iraq Action

Jewish leaders saw the Clinton administration’s last-minute decision to call off an imminent bombing raid on Iraq as one more retreat by Washington in the face of Saddam Hussein’s skillful maneuvers.

11/20/98
Washington Correspondent
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‘He Frittered It Away’ ‘It’s so obvious, it’s almost comical,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “We know exactly what Saddam’s doing, but we continue to play his game.” That summed up the view of many Jewish leaders this week as United Nations weapons inspectors returned to Iraq and the world breathed a sigh of relief for the war that wasn’t. Jewish leaders saw the Clinton administration’s last-minute decision to call off an imminent bombing raid on Iraq as one more retreat by Washington in the face of Saddam Hussein’s skillful maneuvers. Few expect Saddam to live up to his last-minute promise to allow UN inspectors to resume their search for his well-concealed weapons of mass destruction. The latest U.S. military bluff, they say, can only increase the Iraqi threat to Israel and to American forces in the region. Each new cycle of threat and retreat “tarnishes our leadership role and gives Saddam new ways and means to protect the weapons we’ve pledged to destroy,” said Foxman. “I’m very saddened by what happened.” President Bill Clinton, several Jewish leaders said, had meticulously lined up support for strong American action, but then squandered the opportunity, which is unlikely to be repeated. That will make the inevitable showdown with Saddam costlier and more difficult — and, they say, potentially more dangerous for Israel. The U.S. action also reinforces the impression among allies that Washington will do almost anything to avoid the use of force, Jewish officials say. They point to reports that National Security Adviser Sandy Berger was instrumental in convincing the president to recall the bombers that were already en route to Iraq in order to test Saddam’s latest promise to cooperate. “The administration, and Berger in particular, have an inexplicable fear of using force as an instrument of policy — and as a result, they were once again outmaneuvered,” said a leading Jewish activist here. “You have to look at the bottom line — and the bottom line is that he’s a bigger danger today than he was yesterday.” This week’s dramatic developments produced claims of victory from both sides. Over the weekend, Saddam agreed to resume cooperation with weapons inspectors, whose access he limited in August — and who were barred from inspections entirely earlier this month. Saddam’s promise came just minutes before a U.S. strike that officials here said would have been strong and sustained. Israeli officials, living under Saddam’s gun, were skeptical of the agreement. On Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had “no illusions” about the Iraqi leader’s desire to continue hiding his weapons program, and warned again that Israel was prepared to defend itself. American Jewish leaders were blunter. “This has to be one of the least wise foreign policy moves of the Clinton administration,” said Robert O. Freedman, president of Baltimore Hebrew University. Freedman, a strong supporter of U.S. efforts in the Mideast peace process, said that the Clinton administration missed a unique opportunity. “The president was stronger politically because of the election; the Arabs were angry at Saddam because he thumbed his nose at the weapons inspectors; Russia, desperate for American aid, wasn’t going to intervene. Everything was lined up for a decisive strike — and he frittered it away. He even had [United Nations Secretary General] Kofi Annan on our side.” Even if Washington fulfills its promise to strike quickly if Iraq violates its new promises, Freedman said, “our position will never be as good as it was this week. If Clinton was reluctant to attack under the most favorable circumstances, Saddam will have every reason to believe he can get away with even more evasion.” U.S. policy is more and more out of synch with reality, said Shoshana Bryen, special projects director for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA). “The goal this weekend was to get UNSCOM weapons inspectors back in,” she said. “But it was understood a long time ago that the inspectors couldn’t discover everything, even with unfettered access. And it’s doubtful we’ll get even that access, despite this week’s promises.” The Clinton administration crossed an important line last week when it announced support for efforts to topple Saddam, she said. But the quick acceptance of Saddam’s latest last-minute promises in the wake of impending U.S. military action suggested that officials here continue to pursue the same policy of trying to marshal international pressure and using non-credible threats of military force to change the Iraqi leader’s behavior. “The problem is that his goal isn’t the lifting of sanctions, but to keep his weapons of mass destruction,” Bryen said. “It’s to be the regional power, using these weapons. He has shown no interest in being president of a peaceful, prosperous Iraq. So our threats and our economic pressure have very little impact.” “It may simply be that the administration is afraid of failure in removing Saddam from power, just like the Bush administration,” said the ADL’s Foxman. “If you don’t try, you can’t fail.” The inconsistent U.S. effort may also send a dangerous signal to other countries pursuing nonconventional weapons programs — including Syria, which is reportedly mating VX nerve gas with ever-bigger missiles. “The entire world is watching this charade with disbelief,” said the leader of a major Jewish group. “We talk the talk about proliferation, but things like this show we’re not ready to walk the walk. That’s very bad news for all of us, not just for Israel.” Jewish leaders concede that removing Saddam from power — the solution most observers say is the only one with a reasonable chance for eliminating the Iraqi threat once and for all — will be difficult and fraught with risk. “We can’t dislodge him with bombs and cruise missiles,” said Bryen. “Raining death and destruction on Baghdad isn’t going to change him. We can encourage the Republican Guards to get rid of him, or hit the targets that really matter to him, but it’s not going to be quick or easy.” The Clinton administration, Jewish leaders say, has shown few signs it is ready to walk down that risky road. Knesset Approves Wye Pact Diplomatic observers were dizzy after watching this week’s angry volleys between Israel and the Palestinians over the delayed implementation of the Wye River Memorandum. Officials in Washington, in their new role as Mideast umpires, chided both sides, but were too distracted by the latest Iraq crisis to offer much more than token reaction to the rhetorical grudge match. On Tuesday, the Knesset approved the Wye deal by a 75-19 vote, with nine abstentions. The abstentions included seven members of Netanyahu’s 17-member cabinet. Although the margin was wide, the victory depended on Labor votes as well as Arabs and other opposition groups. But a cabinet vote to approve the first Israeli pullback was postponed until Thursday. Still, Israeli officials said that after a wild week, preliminary implementation of the Wye River agreement was back on track — at least until the next crisis. The crisis was touched off when Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat warned of a new intifadah if Israel did not fulfill its part of the Wye bargain. “Our rifle is ready” to defend Jerusalem, Arafat said in a Sunday broadcast. That prompted an angry reaction from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was still trying to sell the agreement to his government. Netanyahu quickly suspended implementation of the Wye agreement, which was supposed to start with the first promised Israeli troop redeployment on Monday. “What sort of thing is this, this threat of violence with rifles?” Netanyahu said on Israeli television. “If we do not accept the Palestinian demand of a division of Jerusalem, they will use those rifles against us? There can be no such dictates.” Throwing fuel on the fire was Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon, who on Sunday urged Jewish settlers to grab more land. “Everyone should take action, should run, should grab more hills,” Sharon said, according to reports in the Israeli press. “We’ll expand the area. Whatever is seized will be ours. Whatever isn’t seized will end up in their hands.” Early in the week, there were reports that groups of settlers were following his advice. And in a touch of tragicomedy, lawyers for Jonathan Pollard petitioned Israel’s High Court of Justice to block the release of Palestinian prisoners, another requirement of the Wye agreement, until the convicted spy is freed. The petition was quickly dismissed. Publicly, the State Department reaction was muted and evenhanded. Spokesman James Rubin said that Arafat’s remarks “were wrong ...There’s no place in this process for statements which call for or suggest violent actions.” But he also gingerly lambasted Sharon, saying the foreign minister’s remarks “undermine the trust and confidence necessary for such a [positive] environment.” Rubin stumbled a little when he delved into theology. “The phrase ‘turn the other cheek’ is one they could do well to remember,” he said, forgetting that the Christian allusion was unlikely to sway either the Jewish or Muslim leader. By Tuesday, Arafat had retracted his threat and reaffirmed his commitment to the promises made at Wye and Prime Minister Netanyahu tentatively accepted the retraction. Still, administration officials and Jewish leaders expressed skepticism about full implementation of the Wye agreement and the much more difficult final-status talks yet to begin. “Look, Arafat and Netanyahu are both playing to their hard-line domestic constituencies,” said the leader of a major Jewish group. “That’s understandable, but the effects are cumulative. Eventually, there’s a real danger that the trust, which is already minimal, will disappear entirely. And then we’re in big trouble.” Abortion Battle Getting Hot With the 106th Congress expected to take up a host of abortion-related issues, the fight is intensifying in the Jewish community, as well. As the result of a gathering of Jewish anti-abortion activists last week, the Institute for Religious Values, a conservative group, is developing a new project to lure more Jews into the anti-abortion ranks. Recognizing that even many Orthodox Jews who oppose abortion on demand are still wary of sweeping anti-abortion laws, the new group will be called the Jewish Coalition to Reduce Abortion, said Chris Gersten, director of the Institute and organizer of last week’s conference. “We’re not asking the Jewish community to embrace a pro-life position,” he said. “While many Jews believe in a woman’s right to choose in the early stages of pregnancy, many rabbis and Jewish leaders believe abortion is too easy, and that there have to be different approaches to reducing abortion.” The group will focus on legislation banning late-term abortions, requiring parental “informed consent” for underage women and making it illegal to take minors across state lines to get abortions. Last week’s conference, cosponsored by the Catholic University of America law school, presented only the anti-choice side of the debate, and it included some fiery attacks on Jewish women’s and Reform groups that are in the forefront of the pro-choice movement. The Washington representative of one of those groups, Sammie Moshenberg of the National Council of Jewish Women, reacted angrily. “It’s a more enticing name for a coalition than the ‘Coalition to Ban Abortion,’ but everything we know about this conference and the groups involved is that they have supported measures that would ban all abortion,” she said. More revealing, Moshenberg said, “is the fact that they have supported legislation restricting family planning — one of the best ways to reduce the incidence of abortions. So we see this as a disingenuous attempt to lure Jews into the anti-abortion movement with a disingenuous moniker.”

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