Sabre-rattling by Stealth: the gunboat diplomacy of our time

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Lord Palmerston had it easier and certainly cheaper. A gunboat dispatched to lob shells at coastal cities would, a century ago, rapidly concentrate the minds of recalcitrant potentates (or so we are told). President Bill Clinton, commander-in- chief of the most powerful, the most complex, and certainly the most expensive military force ever assembled, is finding late 20th-century gunboat diplomacy somewhat trickier.

Ten days ago the US President struck at Saddam Hussein from the Pacific Ocean with missiles worth $1m (pounds 660,000) each, capable (so we are told) of hitting half a football pitch in the Sahara from a range of 700 miles. Last night he was preparing to attack President Saddam from New Mexico, via Kuwait, with F-117 Stealth fighter-bombers invisible to radar. Each aircraft is worth $42.6m - enough to fund the average annual income of 40,000 Iraqis.

How do we know that these secretive aircraft are on the way? Because the US media says so and the US media was told by the US government. It may seem strange to spend billions of dollars on stealth technology to facilitate tactical surprises only to tell your enemy that you are about to attack. But that just shows how confident in its military technology the US government is; and how intricate and bizarre are the politics of what is going on in the Gulf.

Why is President Clinton flying the Stealth fighters all the way from New Mexico to Kuwait, as well as deploying B-52s carrying cruise missiles from the British Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia? Are they the best military weapon for the military job? No, he has 130 planes nearer to hand, equally capable of hurting Saddam. The F-117s are flying half way around the world because they are the best politico-military weapon for the politico-military job of striking Saddam with the lowest possible risk of US casualties or captives.

Washington developed its extraordinary arsenal of computer- and satellite- controlled weaponry to give it an edge in the Third World War (since cancelled). Instead, the machines are providing a comforting extension to the political options available to US presidents trying to face down megalomanic dictators in strategically important regions.

In one sense they could be said to be feeding a grand illusion: that battles can be fought purely from the air, with minimal risk of casualties to your own side. Battles can certainly be fought that way but the events of the past few days suggest that they cannot necessarily be won that way. The cruise missile strikes last week trashed some of the air-defence sites rebuilt by Saddam since the Gulf war in 1991. But, by Washington's own admission, Iraq has reassembled the sites to the point where they threaten once again the non-stealthy US and British and French planes patrolling the no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq.

The absurdities in the latest after-shock from the Gulf war are manifest. But it is easier to point this out than to suggest a politically feasible alternative course of action. The principle alternative to containing Saddam is not containing him. Possibly, the US should have reacted sooner to the Iraqi military moves in the north and the appeals for aid of the Kurdish Democratic Party. But President Clinton was understandably reluctant to be sucked into the faction fighting.

The absurdities of the present situation are deeper-rooted: first, the reluctance of the US, and the rest of the Gulf alliance, to finish off Saddam in 1991; secondly, the failure since then to develop a coherent strategy for destabilising him. Our only policy is to hit Saddam whenever he stirs in his cage. The Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, said yesterday that the US was in danger of looking "like an isolated bully using very sophisticated weapons to no purpose. So we look arrogant and impotent at the same time".