The Clinton Strategy: Saddam Hussein v. Ken Starr

Mackubin T. Owens

November 1, 1998

In light of recent events in the Persian Gulf, it is instructive to contrast President Clinton’s strategy for dealing with his domestic political enemies with that for dealing with international threats to US national interests. When his domestic political survival has been at stake, Mr. Clinton has never hesitated to use all the means available to ensure his survival. For nearly six years, Mr. Clinton has employed a campaign of deception and disinformation that must make the boys of the old KGB turn green with envy.

In conjunction with his deception plan, the president has unleashed his legions under the leadership of such trusted lieutenants as James Carville, Sidney Blumenthal, and Barney Frank, to firebomb the reputations of those who threaten him: Ken Starr, Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, Linda Tripp, and Kathleen Willey. Observing the result–the reputations of his domestic political enemies in smoking ruins–Mr. Clinton no doubt feels the urge to kick back and light up a cigar.

But when it comes to Saddam Hussein and the threat he poses to the prestige of the United States and the credibility of US foreign policy, his approach is different. Reversing the advice of Theodore Roosevelt to “speak softly and carry a big stick,” Mr. Clinton blusters, threatens, rattles swords, then–nothing. This is a recipe for disaster.

President Clinton’s problem with Saddam is a manifestation of a broader disconnect between his declared foreign policy objectives in the Gulf and elsewhere and his demonstrated unwillingness to use the instruments necessary to achieve those objectives. President Clinton’s preferred grand strategy emphasizes preventive diplomacy and reliance on international organizations, especially the United Nations.

This strategy, called “cooperative security,” envisions collective action by the international community to deal with those who would threaten the promised international order, one characterized by peace and prosperity. The problem is that although this grand strategy appears deceptively inexpensive, in reality it is quite ambitious and costly.

Theory notwithstanding, cooperative security does not arise spontaneously. While the diplomatic and economic instruments of national power would seem to take precedence in such a regime, anything resembling cooperative security can exist only if it is underwritten by credible military power, the sort of military power that only the United States possesses.

If the Clinton strategy is to work, its architects must be willing to take the necessary steps to implement it, including the use of force. If a regime of international cooperation is to be anything more than a sham, the international community cannot abide outlaws like Saddam Hussein.

The fact is that Saddam violated international law by invading Kuwait. Iraq subsequently was defeated in the Gulf War of 1991. According to the terms of the cease fire that brought the Gulf War to a close, Iraq agreed to cede its nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. These are the facts of the case. The question is, will Saddam comply with the terms of the cease-fire? If not, will the international community enforce compliance?

Despite his rhetorical bluster, President Clinton continues to eschew the use of force to enforce compliance. The hesitation to use force can only encourage Saddam’s intransigence. There is substantial evidence from the history of international relations to support the contention that aggressors test the leaders of liberal democracies, betting that the latter lack the will to oppose the designs of the former.

Some times, the tested leader responds forcefully, for example, John Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis. Other times the tested leader fails, as Neville Chamberlain failed in the run-up to World War II. If history is any guide, Mr. Clinton can expect Saddam to continue to test him. And each time the US backs off, the more likely it becomes that Saddam will again challenge the terms of the cease fire. When Mr. Clinton finally has no choice but to use force, he will discover the conditions to be far more disadvantageous to the United States than the last time.

Backing away from the use of force in the face of Saddam’s most recent defiance was bad enough, but President Clinton’s rationale for doing so did even more damage to the credibility of the means necessary to implement US foreign policy. By claiming that the deciding factor in aborting the use of force was the likelihood of civilian deaths, the president validated Saddam’s asymmetric strategy of placing important military targets in and near urban areas. As Ralph Peters observed recently in the Wall Street Journal, we essentially “told the world that this strategy of surrounding military targets with humanity–turning your own citizens into hostages–works against the greatest military power in history. This undercuts all the hyper-expensive military might of the US armed forces.”

Mr. Clinton’s response to Saddam incurs yet another cost, albeit one that is probably invisible to a president and his advisers who lack military experience. Bill Clinton inherited the finest military on earth, but as a result of force structure reductions (one-third since Desert Storm), and increased operational and personnel tempo resulting from more frequent deployments (up three-fold since Desert Storm), readiness problems are beginning to manifest themselves: pilot shortages, retention shortfalls and recruiting quota shortages, increased accident rates, and a general decline of morale.

These problems are the predictable outcome of a cycle that has now many repeated several times: Saddam challenges the terms of the cease fire; President Clinton threatens the use of force; Saddam pushes harder; the president deploys US forces; at the last second, Saddam backs down; Mr. Clinton declares victory and the forces return home. Meanwhile, US credibility suffers, the military establishment is destabilized, funds for both military modernization and operations and maintenance (O&M) are depleted; and experienced troops leave the service at increasing rates.

Neither the United States nor international society can afford the Clinton approach to foreign policy any longer. The president has three options: 1) do what is necessary to implement the current ambitious strategy, including the use of US military power to enforce Saddam’s compliance with the Gulf War cease fire agreement (massive force, not cruise-missile pinpricks); 2) shift to a less ambitious strategy aimed not at depriving Saddam of his weapons of mass destruction, but merely deterring their use; 3) or announce that Saddam is really Ken Starr, and make James Carville Secretary of Defense. Saddam wouldn’t know what hit him.

Mackubin Thomas Owens an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University and a professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI.