Playing the Iran Card

Without Iran, Clinton Still Holds a Bad Hand

It is one thing to fight and lose. It is another to lose and win. The former involves miscalculating your chances. The latter involves accepting your losses up front. The latter is the cynic's move.

Saddam Hussein sacrificed tens of thousands of largely inexperienced Iraqi troops in the Gulf War, while saving both tactical firepower and his best forces. Only a regime with little need for legitimacy could keep power after squandering so many men.

In the end, it looks like Saddam outsmarted everyone. He did so by lowering the bar to a point beneath which only he could crawl.

Now, with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan having brokered a diplomatic accord with Saddam, Bill Clinton has had to check his plan to bomb Iraq, at least temporarily. But even if the agreement holds, it is unlikely to control Saddam over time. Clinton needs a long-term plan--something he's never had with Iraq before. And the only real option may be so far away that Clinton can't see it. If he could, it might take many more years to realize than he has left--even if he survives every affair. But what would be hardest of all for America to fathom: this new anti-Saddam strategy would involve a tactical alliance with Iran--yes, Islamist Iran.

However novel, this alternative is grounded in realpolitik: Everyone who knows Saddam, including his neighbors and his own people, hates him more than they hate anybody else.

Seven years after the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein continues to squander his country's treasure. His cynicism remains his trump card. Should Clinton ever decide to bomb, and even with the symbolic and logistical loss of allies like Saudi Arabia, the Clinton administration could still launch sustained air strikes against Iraq. Bombing might, in fact, delay Saddam's capacity to produce chemical or biological weapons. But bombing alone is unlikely to remove him or change his regime. It could even produce a backlash. Any air campaign will produce some collateral damage. More civilians would suffer if Saddam were to deploy human shields at targets such as presidential palaces. The fallout would be worse still if the bombing were to release deadly chemical or biological agents. Meanwhile, Saddam is said never to sleep in the same place twice.

Committing ground forces, the only sure way to oust Saddam, has been ruled out. Hamstrung by the Lewinsky affair, and lacking strategic vision, Clinton could never muster the authority to deploy them. Former coalition allies will not commit any ground forces either. After years of wandering, this administration is lonely in the desert.

Many observers continue to hope that Iraqis themselves somehow oust Saddam. The presumption has always been that someone somewhere in the ruling hierarchy could do it. Indeed, the CIA still prays for a coup. To encourage one, former Bush administration officials like Paul Wolfowitz, who was a senior Pentagon planner, advocate supporting an Iraqi-government-in-exile. By continuing to place their bets on palace insiders, they underestimate Saddam. He has long guarded against a palace coup. Now he has a security force run by Qusay, his younger son.

Popular insurrection was once another option. Unlike the ruling hierarchy, most Iraqis are Shi'ites--like the regime and the vast majority of people in neighboring Iran. One-fifth of Iraq's population is made up of Kurdish Sunnis who identify themselves first as Kurdish. Together, Arab Shi'ites and Kurds comprise four-fifths of the Iraqi people. U.S. officials, however, have always feared what self-determination might bring. It could lead to the secession of its Kurdish areas or turn Iraq into an Islamist state. So instead of chancing either, President Bush, like President Eisenhower in Hungary in 1956, provoked a revolt only to stand by as the insurrectionists were slaughtered.

Today, Clinton needs the same ground forces that Bush abandoned. Supported by neighboring states, commanding the respect of their region's residents--many of whom risked everything--the Kurdish and Shi'ite rebels who rose up and tried to oust Saddam in March 1991 were the best hope that anybody has ever had of removing the Iraqi dictator. Now, the survivors are beat. They hate us and each other almost as much as they hate Saddam.

Thus slick Willy is in a pickle. He and his advisers don't know what to do. So they've been listening to the ghosts of the Bush administration and dusting off a dead plan. Clinton never had his own policy anyway. Instead, he followed Bush's lead, and then let Langley steer. The spooks ran the ship aground. The agency's anti-Saddam strategy is its worst regional blunder since the 1979 fall of the Shah in Iran. And the blowback from that debacle still blinds us. The 19-year-old memory of the 444-day embassy siege is what holds our strategy hostage now.

Could a new policy that involves Iran and others work? Writing under a pseudonym on The New York Times op-ed page, an ex-CIA officer in Iran recently suggested that it might. Maybe the spooks aren't all as dumb as they act. On Sunday, an Iraqi Shi'ite leader based in Tehran and backed by Iran was quoted in the Times suggesting the same thing. Akram al-Hakim wants the United States to coordinate anti-Saddam efforts with Shi'ite forces inside Iraq. That would mean the U.S. would work alongside Iran. The strategy would be a big leap. It is fraught with caveats--not to mention the ghosts of the past.

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