Leading article: Bill Clinton 0, Saddam Hussein 1. So what is the US strategy?

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The Independent Online
What is going on with Iraq, and why should it matter to us, as we buy our groceries? Tony Blair thinks it matters. This week in the Commons he laid down the law to Saddam Hussein in simple, populist language. "It is absolutely essential that he backs down on this - that he be made to back down ... If he does not, we will simply face this problem, perhaps in a different and far worse form, in a few years' time."

Well, he hasn't backed down at all. The US and Britain have, in effect.

The real import of what has happened is that Saddam Hussein called the US's bluff by expelling the UN weapons inspectors. Moreover, he seems to have lost nothing by it. After yesterday morning's nocturnal meeting in Geneva, amid talk of breakthrough and a resolution of the crisis, it was notable that President Clinton and his Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, sounded grudging and sceptical. "We'll wait and see whether he does in fact comply with the will of the international community," said Mr Clinton. And the US military build-up goes on. Hoping for peace, the US is still preparing for war.

The message from Washington is clear. But it has to be spelt out because, earlier this week, the White House strategy of bluffing Iraq into submission by uncompromising talk and a massive show of strength came badly unstuck.

In an error entirely of the Administration's own making, a State Department official disclosed that the US might countenance a more flexible sanctions regime. That told Iraq that it could treat the warmongering pictures being beamed in on CNN (which functions at times like these like a virtual back channel for US diplomacy) as mere sabre-rattling. Like everyone else, the US was prepared to deal. Once that cat was out of the bag, the US had to try doubly hard to look tough.

A few British Harrier jump jets hovered supportively in the background. The British and Americans may stress the united front presented by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council whose foreign ministers met in Geneva in the early hours of yesterday morning. But the fact is that the US wants to be tougher on Iraq than at least three of the other five, and it cannot act tougher without destroying the sham unity that offers the one hope of letting Iraq off the hook completely.

This is not a satisfactory situation for anyone. Britain has been dragooned into his historic role as chorus-and-numbers-maker to the US. But solidarity in the United Nations is important and sometimes requires the contribution of British arms and personnel, which is why Saddam's crimes should matter to us all. Mr Blair and Mr Cook were right to support Mr Clinton in his attempt to enforce the rule of international law.

The trouble is that, for a nation that prides itself on its "can-do" attitude, America's sense of the possible has

been conspicuously lacking during the current crisis.

Desperate not to repeat the mistake of his predecessor in personalising the conflict as President of the United States vs arch-devil Saddam Hussein, Mr Clinton has remained largely in the background, appearing every now and again to move a new piece of military hardware and say something unyielding. At least he was consistent.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon was distracted by a trip by the defence secretary, William Cohen, to the Far East and China, which was cancelled because of the Iraqi crisis. And the Secretary of State, on the other hand, went ahead with what was intended as a major flag-waving tour of the Indian subcontinent. Two major drives of US diplomacy were thus derailed.

This left the way clear for Russian-French diplomacy. When the wily Yevgeny Primakov looked as though he might have a success on his hands, the US had rapidly to join the discussions in Geneva, or be left on the sidelines.

Now, as the world waits to find out whether Iraq really will allow the inspectors back, and what the UN has given away in the small print - the deal that surely exists, however much everyone denies it - Washington has left its allies facing an uncomfortable question: what is the real aim of US policy?

Does it really want only to resume UN inspections, with Americans back in the teams? Is it trying to be the conscience of that nebulous "international community", insisting that Iraq observe every dot and comma of UN resolutions before sanctions can be ended, even if the "international community" is not that sure any more? Or is Washington's prime objective to prolong Iraq's pariah status until someone more congenial is in power than Saddam Hussein? That is what Iraq suspects, and Washington's handling of the current conflict will have done little to disabuse it.