WASHINGTON — As the Clinton administration makes its case against Iraq to the American people, a larger issue looms: What else should or could the United States do to deal with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, his weapons of mass destruction and Baghdad's threat to the strategic Persian Gulf?
The question is gaining urgency because neither option in the current standoff over Iraq's refusal to allow unconditional U.N. weapons inspections--a limited U.S. military strike or a diplomatic solution--is designed to remove the broader problems.
Indeed, ranking officials already admit that the United States is likely to be in a similar situation again and again. And again.
"The United States has failed fundamentally to understand what we need to do to drive Saddam from power," warned Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
To prevent an open-ended crisis, the Clinton administration may need to do more, according to members of Congress and experts on Mideast and defense issues.
"We need a more proactive policy," said Judith Yaphe, an Iraq specialist at National Defense University in Washington. "If we are caught in a backlash because of this crisis, because our allies back away and decide that enough is enough, then Saddam will have won."
Washington has an array of options, from controversial initiatives such as arming the opposition, as the United States did in Afghanistan during the Reagan administration, to creating new defenses against chemical and biological weapons.
Among the options:
* Tighten the slipping international sanctions. In defiance of United Nations sanctions, Iraq has sharply increased its illicit export of oil via the Persian Gulf. Only about 5% of the shipments now are seized, oil experts say. The amount getting through is about 100,000 barrels a day, netting up to $600,000 a day, said James Placke of Cambridge Energy Research Associates.
Part of the problem is the unwillingness of Gulf states, for various reasons, to take receipt of seized ships. The U.S.-led interdiction force is supposed to hand over seized cargo to a nearby Gulf state for sale and put the profits into a U.N. escrow fund. Another problem is that Iraqi ships sail under false Iranian papers bought from corrupt Iranian officials, U.S. officials say. The ships also hug the Iranian coast, which makes interdiction difficult.
"As sanctions fatigue grows, there's a need to encourage closer enforcement all around," said Robert Pelletreau, former assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs. "Any little bit of oil that makes it through the spigot helps Saddam."
Washington could improve satellite intelligence and interdiction of ships sailing from southern Iraq; assist or pressure Gulf states to deal with seized cargo; and coordinate enforcement with Iran.
* Aid Hussein's opposition. Support for the Iraqi opposition has dropped considerably since a 1996 Iraqi raid forced the U.S.-backed Iraqi National Congress and the CIA station out of areas in northern Iraq.
"The administration should organize a more concerted effort at unifying these dissident elements and providing the logistical support needed to bring about the collapse of Saddam's regime," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a Vietnam War veteran.
Among the alternatives is arming the opposition, which Washington did not do even when CIA agents were urging military operations against Hussein's forces. The U.S. also could provide financial support by allowing the opposition access to Iraqi assets frozen after Baghdad's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. And the U.S. could lift sanctions on Kurdish northern Iraq, which faces dual sanctions from the U.N. and Baghdad.
"We need to help the Iraqis help themselves," said Paul Wolfowitz, a Defense undersecretary in the Bush administration who is now dean of Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. "The opposition is not feckless; our support is."
* Improve relations with Iran. Hussein's long-term goal is to be the Gulf's dominant power. The greatest regional threat to Hussein's goal is Iran, as witnessed in their eight-year war during the 1980s.
Iran has about three times the population and nearly four times the land mass of Iraq and at one point appeared capable of winning the war. But Iraq's massive use of chemical weapons and missiles destroyed Iran's military and forced a cease-fire in 1988. Ever since, Hussein has been emboldened to threaten other neighbors.
U.S. rapprochement with Iran, in response to initiatives by Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, could shift the balance of power away from Baghdad. "Saddam would be really frightened by greater U.S.-Iran understanding or even agreement on certain things," Yaphe said.