Leading Article: A judicious response

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The Independent Online
LAST night's missile assault on a nuclear facility in a suburb of Baghdad, just two years after the start of the aerial phase of the Gulf war, was a measured response to President Saddam Hussein's provocations of the past few days. The target was well chosen, since the nuclear plant symbolised the Iraqi leader's determination to rebuild his capacity to manufacture weapons of mass destruction.

These constitute the greatest single threat to security in the Middle East. Responsibility for supervising the dismantling and destruction of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons manufacturing facilities was the biggest single task assumed by the United Nations following the end of the Gulf war. The safety of its inspectors had been threatened by President Saddam over the past few days. The Bush administration could thus claim that the attack was in furtherance of UN resolutions.

There had been provocation in plenty. It ranged in seriousness from those against the UN inspectors to the launching of an Iraqi MiG fighter in the northern air exclusion zone (duly shot down by the Americans), and a three-man Iraqi raid across the border into Kuwait. All that, and much defiant rhetoric, despite last Wednesday's allied attack on missile sites in the southern no-fly zone.

The merit of that exercise, later described as a mere 'spanking', and of last night's, was that they were not grossly disproportionate in their severity, and that civilians were spared. Yet far from teaching President Saddam a lesson (though he did tone down his threats against incoming UN inspectors), last Wednesday's attack seems merely to have encouraged him to cock snooks at the United States. His calculation was evidently that he had more to gain politically than he had to lose militarily from American attacks. That may still be the case after last night's Tomahawking. It is a well-known tactic of dictators to divert attention from the hardships of their people, which they have themselves induced, by attacking a neighbouring country. President Saddam's speciality is to convert military defeats into a kind of political victory. Many Arabs admire a man who stands up to the Americans and the Israelis, even if the results are nothing less than disastrous for millions of fellow Arabs.

President Saddam's strategy seems to be simple: to survive, rebuild his position and regain full countrol of the northern and southern parts of his country. Each attack on him emphasises his durability - and in particular his continuation in office even as his old adversary George Bush hands over to an untested Bill Clinton.

In such a context, the US has been hard pressed to produce a coherent policy framework. The outgoing Bush administration has laid great emphasis on the sanctity of UN resolutions and of the two no-fly zones. But the legal validity of the latter is contested. The American dilemma is real. If they respond to President Saddam's provocations, they may be playing his game while opening themselves to charges of acting out of pique. If they fail to react, President Saddam may be tempted to intensify his taunts, and to crow about his successful defiance. That remains a danger. Last night's attack looks tactically shrewd, but there is no sign of it forming part of a strategy to remove Saddam Hussein. It will be President Clinton's unenviable task to devise one.