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Containing a Rogue State | FOREIGN POLICY

Clinton Learns the Art of Using Force

September 08, 1996|Charles A. Kupchan | Charles A. Kupchan, a professor of international relations at Georgetown University and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, served on the staff of the National Security Council for first year of the Clinton administration

WASHINGTON — Saddam Hussein has an amazing sense of timing. In 1990, he was in the midst of becoming a power broker in the Middle East and amassing one of the region's most formidable military machines. He then invaded Kuwait, inviting a U.S.-led coalition to cut his stature and armed forces down to size.

This year, Hussein finally reached an agreement with the United Nations to ease the economic sanctions imposed on his country. Then he dispatched his crack troops to the off-limits Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq. So much for a relaxation of sanctions. And it served as another open invitation for military retaliation--especially with President Bill Clinton entering the home stretch of his bid for reelection.

Election-year politics aside, Clinton was right to respond with force to Hussein's provocations. Back-to-back cruise-missile attacks not only made clear that the United States will not tolerate Hussein's violation of the rules established to contain his ambition, but also sent a more generic message that the Clinton administration is prepared to stare down rogue states. The absence of broader support from allies was unfortunate, but Clinton was justified in proceeding with the retaliatory attack on his own. Indeed, if Clinton deserves any criticism, it is for not having responded with more potent military force.

Since his invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Hussein has demonstrated, time and again, that his appetite for power can be contained only through tit-for-tat retaliation. If not boxed in and punished every time he challenges the limits imposed on his regime by the international community, Hussein will seek to increase his strength at the expense of his own citizens and neighboring states.

Clinton's decision to punish Hussein for sending his troops to Irbil was only the most recent episode of the president's successful implementation of the strategy of coercive diplomacy put in place by the previous administration. President George Bush acted prudently in stopping the war against Iraq before coalition forces reached Baghdad. To have done otherwise, and destroyed Hussein and his regime, would have left the United States with the onerous and costly task of occupation and reconstruction. And even if the Bush administration had accepted this responsibility, a successor regime might have proved neither stable nor more palatable than Hussein's.

Living with rogue states might not be pleasant, but it is preferable to running the risks associated with seeking to destroy them. Responsibility has thus fallen to Clinton to be patient, yet firm and watchful, giving Hussein sufficient breathing room should he decide to pursue a path of reconciliation with the international community. But prepared to respond with appropriate vigor when he attempts to break out.

In adeptly carrying out this balancing act, Clinton is not just responding appropriately to the challenges posed by Hussein. He is also helping adapt U.S. policy and the country's military establishment to the challenges posed by rogue states.

Since the Vietnam War, aversion to limited war has reached phobic proportions; politicians and military commanders alike have taken an all-or-nothing approach to the use of force. Containing dangerous regional powers, however, entails playing a game of cat and mouse and, when necessary, resorting to the limited and proportional application of military power. Step by step, Clinton is preparing the country for a 21st century--when challenges to national security will no longer be black and white. The U.S. military, as well as the public that fills its ranks and pays its bills, must be prepared for a new array of threats that, if less grave than those of the Cold War era, still require sacrifice and steadiness.

In light of the merits of Clinton's decision to launch retaliatory strikes, it is not surprising that his action won strong bipartisan support. Clinton's critics have not challenged the need for a military response. Instead, they questioned both the absence of stronger backing from U.S. allies and the military utility of striking back in southern Iraq when Hussein's offending actions took place in the north.

Clinton apparently spent much of last weekend seeking to build allied support for military action. He succeeded in securing the enthusiastic backing of only a handful of states. Clinton's decision to act, nonetheless, demonstrates that he has found his bearings, however, not that he lacks diplomatic skill. For three reasons, Clinton was right to act unilaterally.

* Hussein's actions in Irbil warranted a punishing surgical strike, not a prolonged campaign of the type required to drive his forces from Kuwait. The United States uniquely possesses the appropriate military technology for such a limited strike. There was no need for a broader coalition of forces.

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