Focus: Iraq crisis-Clinton reveals his killer instinct

DURING the 1992 election, a bumper sticker read: "Saddam Hussein still has a job. Do you?" By playing on America's weak economy and George Bush's preference for foreign policy over the domestic agenda, it helped to bring Bill Clinton to office.

As the President contemplates his final two years in power, he can be satisfied with the economy, indeed jubilant. But that man in Baghdad is still in work, and if there is a strategy for changing that, then it is being very carefully hidden.

The present crisis seemed to be the best chance the US would have to apply military force to the problem. It has planned a concerted air offensive aimed at destroying the Iraqi regime's military infrastructure, but also at weakening Saddam's power base. The UN weapons inspectors were the casus belli, but in reality, the US decided long ago that the weapons inspection game was over.

The last time that Washington ran into a head-on confrontation with Iraq, in February, it blinked. For all the bluster and the loud clanging of sabres, it had become clear before Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General, struck a deal that force was not an option. This time, America has played it much quieter and much tougher. And Bill Clinton has a much stronger domestic position. Far from being weakened by the Monica Lewinsky affair, he has emerged strengthened. He has seen off Newt Gingrich, as Republican leader in Congress. He has struck a deal with Paula Jones, the former Arkansas state employee whose sexual harassment suit sparked the Lewinsky investigation. He faces impeachment hearings this week, but in a subdued Congress that has little stomach for them.

America is becoming much more willing to use force aggressively in what are known, euphemistically, as "asymmetric operations". It tried to kill Osama bin Laden, whom it blames for attacks on the US, when it launched missile attacks on Afghanistan this year. In theory there is a prohibition on assassinating foreign leaders, but that prohibition was never watertight and there are broad hints that America wants to see Saddam Hussein gone.

The US had taken the opportunity of the gap between the February crisis and now to reappraise its policy. It was increasingly clear that the weapons inspectors depended, in practice, on Saddam's consent. The idea seems to have been to play it cool, not force a crisis and rebuild support among the Security Council nations and Iraq's Arab neighbours, in the certain hope of a future confrontation. "If we don't act, the international community will have huffed and puffed and walked away," a senior Administration official told the New York Times.

But for what? The enduring impression is that there is no clear idea of what would follow attacks. "They are simply talking about killing people," said a senior military figure. Military officers are not persuaded that the toughness is underlain by strategy. Any sense that it might be necessary to engage with Iraq - to deal with the fact that Saddam Hussein is still there, that there is no obvious alternative, and that sanctions are of declining use in military containment - is brushed aside.

Mr Clinton may want his legacy to be in foreign policy, in deals like those in Bosnia, Northern Ireland and the Middle East. But it is increasingly likely that he will also bequeath to his successor a problem called Saddam Hussein.

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