This build-up of military strength, more appropriate to war with Russia or China than a nation of 20 million people, is intended to intimidate Saddam Hussein. Mr Clinton also needs to show the US public that he is making a robust response to the expulsion of the UN weapons' inspectors.
But there is also deep unwillingness in the White House to go into battle. A prolonged air war against Iraq is full of political dangers. A limited air strike, against, say, Iraqi buildings allegedly linked to Iraq's strategic weapons programme, has its attractions, but could probably be absorbed by President Saddam.
Last year the Iraqi leader sent his tanks - at the invitation of one of the Kurdish factions - into Arbil, the Kurdish capital. Iraqi soldiers captured and executed 120 members of the Iraqi opposition, allied to the US. The US could have bombed the tanks, but only by operating at low altitude. This would have risked American planes being shot down and their pilots captured.
Washington opted instead for a missile attack on Iraqi military targets 500 miles to the south near Nassariya, which was enough to satisfy American television viewers but left President Saddam with a tactical victory.
This time it is more serious. Public attention is focused on Iraq in a way that has not been true since the Gulf war. The crisis will be more difficult to defuse. The US is fighting to preserve the status quo in the Middle East which was created in 1991, when the it achieved its present predominance. It needs to show the rest of the world, and the Middle East in particular, that it can face down Baghdad.
Militarily the disparity between the two sides is immense. Iraq is vast but it is almost a city state. Some 8 million Iraqis, almost half the population, live in metropolitan Baghdad. It has an army of 450,000 and 800-1,000 modern T-72 tanks, but its air defence system is primitive, unlikely to bring down many American or British planes unless they fly low over heavily defended areas.
The problem for President Clinton is that he is involved in a new type of war, which has more to do with the media and public perceptions of war, than the progress of military technology. The Gulf conflict created exaggerated expectations. It showed missiles and smart bombs striking Iraqi targets with pinpoint accuracy. American and allied casualties were small. The heaviest allied losses proportionate to size in the Gulf conflict were suffered by a Romanian medical unit which tried to distil its own alcohol.
Losses were so low because of US technological superiority. But also because allied aircraft flew high. F-16 fighter bombers avoided metropolitan Baghdad after two were shot down on the third day of the war. A-10 ground attack aircraft were ordered to stop attacking Republican Guard divisions after two of their planes were hit.
A myth developed, carefully cultivated by air forces around the world, that a new type of air war had developed. The missile and the smart bomb could find and destroy any target. "One target, one bomb," was the slogan of Texas Instruments, a US company which provides guidance systems. In fact a post-war study by the US General Accounting Office revealed that every target destroyed in Iraq was hit by an average of 44 tons of unguided bombs and 11 tons of guided munitions.
Nevertheless the US defence contractors and the Pentagon have a lot riding on their picture of the Gulf war since no less than $58bn is being invested in guided munitions and the means to deliver them.
In fact cruise missiles and guided bombs are good at hitting what dumb bombs were also best at destroying: large, static targets like oil refineries, factories, bridges and office buildings with a large physical profile. They have difficulties when the targets are mobile, small and easily concealed like tanks, armoured personnel carriers and mobile artillery.
Above all pilots and missile launchers need good intelligence. Recent years have seen two wars dependent on the precisely guided munitions. The first was the Gulf war in 1991. The second was in 1995 when Israel launched "Grapes of Wrath", their operation in South Lebanon using artillery and air power but no ground troops to attack the Hizbollah guerrillas. Israeli military operations and their presentation on television were consciously modelled on "Desert Storm". Videos on Israeli TV showed buildings, described as Hizbollah headquarters, exploding as they were hit by bombs or missiles.
Far more than Desert Storm the Israeli operation ended in frustration and shame. Not even the Israeli army claimed that it had killed many Hizbollah guerrillas. It did not stop them firing Katyusha rockets at Israel, the declared aim of Grapes of Wrath. Israeli artillery shells killed over 100 Lebanese civilians sheltering in a UN base at Qana in South Lebanon. Not a single Israeli was killed in the operation, but its failure left Hizbollah and Syria stronger than before.
It is not a lesson that the US Air Force shows much sign of learning, though it had its own Qana in the Gulf war when it killed 500 civilians in a shelter at Amariyah in Baghdad with two smart bombs. It had received faulty intelligence that President Saddam was inside. Given the Air Force boast of total accuracy it has become even more difficult than in Vietnam to explain such mistakes as inevitable "collateral damage".
The new type of air war is therefore very like the old one. In Desert Storm the allies had little difficulty in inflicting crippling damage on the Iraqi civilian infrastructure (though the managers of Baghdad's water and sewage system said their biggest problem was not war damage, but the departure of several thousand Egyptian engineers and skilled workers they could no longer afford to pay).
This could be repeated, but the knock-on effect on Saddam Hussein and his regime is dubious. It is also doubtful if non-American opinion would support such a prolonged, strategic bombing offensive as it did in 1991.
Man in the middle
IN THE UN there are growing mutterings about the role of Richard Butler, the forthright Australian diplomat, appointed this year to head the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) on destroying Iraq's strategic weapons, writes Patrick Cockburn.
Iraqi officials find his actions and words in sharp contrast with those of Rolf Ekeus, for six years head of UNSCOM and now Swedish ambassador to Washington. Dr Ekeus was considered tough, but polite and good at preventing a crisis reaching boiling point.
Mr Butler goes in for more deliberately offensive rhetoric than his predecessors. He said that Iraqi allegations against American members of his inspection team were "false" and "pathetic".
They see his decision to withdraw from Iraq after the expulsion of its American members as showing that he answers to Washington, not the UN.
Mr Butler is nobody's fool. He had a good reputation as Australian ambassador to Thailand. But at two stages - by refusing to inspect when Americans were barred and then withdrawing UNSCOM - he has helped to exacerbate the crisis. His critics at the UN suggest that he may have been too swift to try to show that he and not Dr Ekeus was now in charge.Reuse content