By Michael Kelly
Post, 25 February 1998
“This should not be about trust,” said President Clinton on Monday, as he made unseemly
grab the deal brokered by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan that will bring the usual end to the
usual dance in the continuing crisis of Iraq. Actually, this is about trust — about trusting Bill
Clinton, and on matters public, not personal. Do we trust this president to make war (and peace),
not love? We really shouldn’t. In Baghdad on Monday, President Saddam Hussein ordered that
Feb. 23 be consecrated as the “Day of the Flag,” a day of celebration for Iraq’s victory over the
United States. Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz declared the Annan deal “a great victory,”
and hailed the concessions Iraq had won as significant. The Iraqi newspapers carried a statement
by leaders of the controlling Baath Party that the deal will end U.S. “hegemony” and “dominance”
of the United Nations, and will speed the end of all U.N. sanctions against Iraq.
The White House’s position is that this sort of bluster is just a bit of face-saving. The
says that “diplomacy backed by strength and resolve” has in fact forced Saddam to truckle,
providing the United States with “a written commitment to provide immediate, unrestricted,
unconditional access for the UNSCOM weapons inspectors to all suspect sites in Iraq.”
Hmmm, whom to believe — the president of the United States or a despotic megalomaniac
capacity for self-delusion is so vast that he thinks he won the Gulf War? Door No. 2, Monty.
The Annan negotiations marked the second time in a row that the Clinton administration
abandoned negotiating authority in a crisis with Iraq to non-U.S. officials, and in each case the
predictable result has been the same: a deal in which Saddam concedes no fundamental principle,
and the United States does. That Saddam agreed to allow United Nations inspectors the right to
inspect the eight so-called “presidential sites” he had formerly placed off-limits is not a real
concession. Saddam merely agreed to do what he has always been obliged to do under the terms
of the peace treaty that ended the Gulf War.
But the Annan deal commits the United States to a very real and very large concession of
fundamental principle and practical power. The U.S. position on inspections in Iraq has always
been that Saddam enjoys no say whatsoever in the composition of the inspection teams or in the
manner in which the inspections are conducted. Saddam has always fought this, for the excellent
reason that the UNSCOM inspection operation has, in the face of persistent Iraqi deception and
intimidation, proved itself effective in rooting out the weapons of mass destruction that Saddam is
required to destroy and is determined to keep. One reason UNSCOM has been so effective is that
it operates independently of the United Nations and its political pressures; it may not be swayed
from its duties by the machinations of Iraq’s corrupt and self-interested allies in Russia and France.
Annan gave up UNSCOM’s independence in Baghdad, and he gave up also the principle that
Saddam Hussein could not dictate the terms of the inspections to which he is required to submit.
The deal Annan struck, which Clinton promiscuously clasped to his bosom, would strip the U.N.
Special Commission of authority over the eight presidential sites, and would transfer this authority
to a new panel controlled by Secretary General Annan. The new panel would develop “specific
detailed procedures” for inspection that are sensitive to “the special nature of the Presidential
Sites.” And the inspection teams themselves would be shadowed by diplomats chosen by the U.N.
How comforting to Saddam to know that the inspections he hates and fears will now be
conducted not under the auspices of the dangerous UNSCOM, but under a secretary general more
attuned to the “special nature” of his hiding places. How comforting for the inspectors who risk
their safety in Iraq every day to know they will be accompanied by men who may be reporting
back to Saddam’s friends in Moscow and Paris. How discreet of the president not to mention any
of this when he praised Annan’s work on Monday.
Clinton talks about sending Saddam a message. No need; the message has been sent and
many times. The pattern is unvarying: Saddam breaks the peace, and Clinton talks tough, and
Saddam promises to back down to where he used to be before he broke the peace — and Clinton
concedes another piece of U.S. authority and declares another triumph.
Not a bad deal if you can get it, and with this president, you can get it if you try.
Michael Kelly is a senior writer for National Journal.