Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
This Year's Biggest Scandal
August 31, 1998
The Washington Post editorial read: "Partners in a Charade." The editors compared public statements by President Clinton in February with the facts in August and asked, "What could account for such deceit?" But they weren't talking about L'affaire Lewinsky. This was about Iraq—again.
In February, Clinton postured himself as a fervent supporter of aggressive UN inspections. If we fail to act when Saddam Hussein prohibits UN inspectors from doing their jobs, he intoned Saddam "will conclude that the international community has lost its will. He will then conclude that he can go right on and do more to rebuild an arsenal of devastating destruction. And some day, some way, I guarantee you, he'll use that arsenal."
Then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan brokered his deal, which supposedly allowed UN inspections in search of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to proceed unhindered, as agreed at the end of the Gulf War. Clinton assured us the deal signaled no loss of international will, but rather a renewed resolve to enforce UN sanctions.
Now, in August, there is much evidence that the administration has not only lost its resolve, but has secretly intervened to actually prevent UN surprise inspections that would uncover evidence of Iraq's WMD program! The darkest fears about Annan's February deal now appear well founded. It was all a charade. The President talked tough but withdrew the military forces required to enforce compliance. Meanwhile, Saddam pretended to comply with the UN requirements by allowing pre-agreed "inspections" at sites such as the "presidential palaces." These apparently were nothing more than dog and pony shows for public consumption.
As the Post says, all of this makes "the United States more culpable in some ways than those countries, such as China and Russia, that have overtly undermined the UN inspection regime." A harsh judgment. But it is warranted. Clinton's diplomatic duplicity rivals the Reagan administration's two-faced action of announcing no deals with terrorists while secretly trading arms for hostages.
On a charitable reading, perhaps the Clinton administration wanted to avoid a confrontation with Saddam at a time not of its own choosing. However, Clinton has so dramatically cut the U.S. military capability in the region that quick and decisive action is now impossible.
A more disturbing explanation is that the administration has decided to keep the screws on Iraq by maintaining the economic sanctions but to give up on the inspection regime. This is strategically incoherent and profoundly questionable as a matter of international justice. Sanctions are not an end in themselves, but a means to a just end, in this case, eliminating Saddam's WMD capability through effective UN inspections.
For better or worse, the U.S. is the only nation with the diplomatic leverage and military capability to enforce the inspection regime. We have given the international community of nations every reason to believe that we would act. And rightly so. The threat and use of force is entirely justified. It is not merely a matter of national interest narrowly conceived. Rather, force would uphold the international rule of law by backing UN sanctions, defend the shared values of the international common good by preventing the proliferation of WMD, and provide an example of resolve to other aggressors (e.g. the Serbs, North Koreans and free-lance terrorist organizations.)
That's why Clinton's failure to enforce the inspection regime is so serious. It undermines what little moral and legal authority remains in the UN and international law. The Post's editors were right when they concluded: "If ever a foreign policy matter called for congressional inquiry, it is this alleged practice of deceitful diplomacy."
—Keith J. Pavlischek, Fellow
Center for Public Justice
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”