Did Saddam Blink?

With U.S. forces poised to strike Iraq, the U.N.'s Kofi Annan said he was close to a 'breakthrough.' It was the last chance for peace in Clinton's toughest foreign crisis.

SECRETARY OF STATE Madeleine Albright loves to explain. With her big hats and firm but flirtatious style, she has made rapt pupils out of foreign ministers and average Americans. Yet last week she seemed to be struggling. Maybe it was the raucous hecklers who tried to shout her down at an ill-conceived ""town meeting'' at Ohio State University. But even with friendlier audiences and sympathetic anchorpersons, she had difficulty answering some pretty basic questions. Such as: if Saddam Hussein is, as Albright suggests, another Hitler, why not go all the way and drive him from power? Will bombing persuade Saddam to open his palaces to U.N. inspectors? Or will it simply provoke him to lash back, maybe with biological weapons against American cities? At times Albright seemed to be groping for replies, possibly because there are no easy ones.

Gen. Henry Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, hates to complain. A soldier in the traditional mold, he believes in saluting and doing one's duty. But in recent weeks he has been worrying aloud with old friends that the military is being set up for a fall over Iraq. The lesson of Vietnam was that gradualism doesn't work; fight with overwhelming force or don't fight at all. Yet Shelton was being asked to stage a ""limited'' bombing campaign against Saddam. Some civilians in the administration were even advocating that the United States gradually escalate by bombing, pausing, then bombing again, a tactic that, to a Vietnam veteran like Shelton, is synonymous with futility. Lately Shelton has been closely reading a book called ""Dereliction of Duty.'' Its thesis: that the Joint Chiefs of Staff lost the Vietnam War by failing to stand up to civilian leadership.

An uncharacteristically unpersuasive Albright, an atypically angst-ridden Shelton? Blame it on Saddam. He is a riddle without a solution, at least without a simple one. Ordinary Americans seem equally uncertain about what to do. A NEWSWEEK Poll shows that only 18 percent favor limited airstrikes against Saddam. Some 36 percent call for an all-out military effort to oust the Iraqi dictator. An additional 39 percent prefer continued diplomacy. Majorities exist only for pessimistic outcomes: if the United States takes action, 60 percent believe that Saddam will use biological or chemical weapons against U.S. targets; 75 percent predict some kind of terrorist attack on Americans. Their fears may not be exaggerated: according to federal law-enforcement sources, the FBI has picked up intelligence in recent weeks that Middle Eastern terrorist groups are casing buildings in a major American city they decline to identify. The possible suspects are being monitored by the FBI.

A last-minute deal may yet avert military action. Over the weekend U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan traveled to Baghdad to seek a face-saving solution. After talks with Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, he met Saddam on Sunday, spending two hours alone with the Iraqi leader. After the talks, Annan had a short conversation with Albright, and his team was upbeat, speaking of being on the verge of a ""breakthrough'' with a deal that would be acceptable to the Security Council. Annan was to meet Aziz again on Sunday night before returning to New York.

But even if a deal could be hammered out in Baghdad, would Washington accept it? Administration sources said that they would not be prepared to endorse an agreement until they met Annan and analyzed all the fine print back in the United States. On Saturday national-security adviser Sandy Berger told NEWSWEEK that ""we wouldn't object to ruffles and flourishes, but we won't accept any compromise that weakens the inspection regime.'' From the American perspective, the crucial point is that there should be no time limits on UNSCOM access to presidential sites in Iraq; the administration's view is that UNSCOM and only UNSCOM should be able to determine if and when inspections are needed. It appeared as if that issue remained the last subject for Annan's talks in Baghdad.

Even if a deal could be worked out, the crisis might recur. Saddam has a history of backing off, only to pop right back up again. Then what? The Clinton administration is keenly aware that war drums do not become more convincing with repeated banging. No wonder Albright and Shelton seem so vexed. Old rules no longer apply. Standing up to dictators was the lesson from World War II, while containment worked well during the cold war. But it's not at all clear what to do about a paranoid despot with biological and chemical weapons--a type who may become all too familiar in the years ahead.

CLINTON'S FOREIGN-POLICY team of Albright, Berger and Defense Secretary William Cohen has never really been tested by an international crisis before. GOP foreign-policy mandarins joke about national-security policy made by ""a poet, a prof and a pol.'' (Cohen has written a book of poetry; Albright taught at Georgetown, and Berger has been a political adviser.) But in some ways Albright, Berger and Cohen (a.k.a. ""ABC'' inside the White House) have a tougher challenge than George Bush's team did. In 1991 Saddam had invaded another country--Kuwait--threatening Arab neighbors, like Saudi Arabia, which feared that the Iraqi dictator would keep on rolling unless the Americans stepped in. In 1998 Saddam's weapons of mass destruction still seem more frightening than real. In the meantime, the Iraqis have evoked Arab sympathy for their suffering under the U.N.-imposed economic sanctions. And two of America's gulf war allies, Russia and France, seem more interested in profiting from Saddam's oil than in punishing him for defying UNSCOM, the U.N. weapons-inspection team.

There has been relatively little disagreement within the Clinton administration over the use of force, certainly nothing like the hawk-vs.-dove wars that divided earlier administrations. Albright has been seen as the lead hawk--she urged a somewhat reluctant Clinton to bomb in Bosnia--but Clinton did not require much persuading on Iraq. It was actually Cohen who led Clinton ""across the Rubicon,'' according to one senior administration official. At a national-security meeting in November, Cohen spoke coolly but convincingly about the dangers of chemical and biological weapons. Five pounds of anthrax, said Cohen, could wipe out the population of the Unit- ed States. Clinton had his argument. ""UNSCOM sounds like a disease. Weapons of Mass Destruction might as well be a college course. But everyone understands convulsions and death,'' says one of Clinton's senior advisers.

A few days later Cohen, with Clinton's blessing, plunked down a five-pound bag of sugar on ""This Week With Sam and Cokie'' to show what Saddam could do to America, if only given the chance. And Clinton began speaking apocalyptically, as he did last week, about ""an unholy axis of terrorists, drug traffickers and organized international criminals.'' We must, Clinton declared in a speech at the Pentagon, ""defend our future from these predators of the 21st century.''

But how? The means are not as clear as the ends. As late as December, Clinton spoke of ""eliminating'' Saddam's arsenal of chemical and biological weapons. But beginning in January the president and others toned down their rhetoric. They began to talk about ""substantially reducing'' Saddam's capability. While some administration officials continued to discuss forcing Iraqi compliance with the U.N. arms- inspection regime, others at least privately conceded that airstrikes would probably mean an end to any inspection of Saddam's secret labs and stockpiles.

The public was understandably confused. What had happened, behind the scenes, was a dose of military reality from General Shelton. Asked to brief the president's advisers on options for military action, Shelton soberly cautioned against overpromising. The military can't eliminate Saddam's weapons of mass destruction for the simple reason that it can't find them, not all of them, at any rate. And bombing is probably not going to compel Saddam to cave in to U.N. arms inspectors. Shelton later confided to an old friend that he was surprised by the relative ignorance and unrealistic expectations of his civilian masters, who seemed to believe that bombing could be a finely calibrated diplomatic tool. According to Pentagon insiders, Albright has long seemed reluctant to accept that military options are often limited. A senior administration official denied any disagreement between Albright and Shelton and expressed mild exasperation over what he described as routine low-level carping at the Pentagon. The military always does this, he said, because they don't want to be responsible for anything that goes wrong.

Another military reality intruded: the need for air bases. In the gulf war, Saudi Arabia had served as a giant aircraft carrier for American warplanes, which took off from a score of desert airfields. Now, fearful of a fundamentalist backlash, the Saudis are unwilling to be seen on the ""Arab street'' as American lackeys. In late January, Albright left for the Middle East to try her vaunted powers of persuasion. She was whisked across the Saudi desert in a motor coach ""fit for a rock star,'' recalled an aide (the vehicle, normally reserved for Saudi royalty, came equipped with a mirrored ceiling). After the usual gifts (11 crates of truffles) and vast repast, Saudi Crown Prince Abdallah bin Abd al-Aziz al-Saud had a talk with Albright, who wore a scarf in deference to Islamic custom. The two got on well, according to Albright's aides. ""Madeleine has a wide repertoire,'' says one adviser. ""She can be woman, mother, teacher, refugee, professor.'' With the Saudi prince she played hard-nosed secretary of State, a disarming role to Saudi men unaccustomed to assertive women. ""We like her directness,'' said Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the United States. ""She has cojones.''

Albright's aides insist she got private assurances of support from the Saudis that if war breaks out, American planes will probably be able to fly over Saudi airspace to attack Iraq, and support aircraft, like fueling tankers and AWACS, may be able to land in Saudi Arabia. But the secretary didn't even bother to ask for bases for U.S. attack planes. Anti-American sentiment is provoking riots and flag burnings around the Middle East, and no Arab leader can afford to show too much partiality to Washington. The Clinton administration has come under particular blame for failing to push Israel's hard-line leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, to make concessions in the stalled Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. When Albright shuttled through Cairo, President Hosni Mubarak told her, ""We have to deal with public opinion in the Arab and Islamic world, and we're going to face a hell of a problem. This is not 1991.''

With mixed success, Albright wooed a pair of other allies from the gulf war coalition, France and Russia. Dining with French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, she searched for a French euphemism to illustrate why arms inspections must go forward in Iraq. A phony UNSCOM, one without full access to all of Saddam's palaces, would be a ""trompe l'oeil'' UNSCOM, she told Vedrine. The French diplomat was charmed and appropriated the description for his own. A few days later, Albright tried to be as cozily colloquial with Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov. She scorned a ""Potemkin UNSCOM.'' Primakov, a former KGB agent, appeared unamused. Later, Russian President Boris Yeltsin stunned Albright by declaring that U.S. airstrikes might start a ""world war.'' Russian diplomats scrambled, asserting that their president's dire warning was a mistranslation. But the next day Yeltsin went right back out and repeated it.

By early February, it was obvious that the United States would have to worry about world opinion as well as efficacy when it comes to striking Iraq. The Pentagon had drawn up an elaborate list of targets, mostly designed to punish Saddam by depriving him of his favorite toys. They include intelligence headquarters, barracks and tank depots of the elite Republican Guard and conventional arms factories, as well as facilities where chemical and biological weapons have been made in the past. The Pentagon had marked which targets were most likely to incur ""collateral damage''--civilian deaths. According to Pentagon sources, their civilian masters quickly shredded the list, eliminating targets in densely populated areas in Baghdad in order to hold down casualties. Ever since Vietnam, when LBJ used to personally pick bombing targets, the Pentagon brass has resented such civilian intrusion. As their civilian bosses began to throw around phrases like ""graduated response,'' Pentagon officials began seeing more and more signs of Vietnam-era thinking. The code name for the bombing campaign is Desert Thunder. ""It sure sounds like Rolling Thunder to me,'' says a top Air Force officer who has seen the plan. He was referring to LBJ's notably unsuccessful bombing campaign to pressure North Vietnam into desisting from arming the Viet Cong. During the gulf war, the architect of the bombing strategy, Col. John Warden, gave his plan the name Instant Thunder, precisely to signal a difference in approach. The gulf war bombing campaign was designed to overwhelm the Iraqis with maximum force.

Any attack will be far smaller than in 1991. During the 43-day gulf war, the United States flew 112,000 combat sorties, or about 2,500 a day. The plan now calls for about 500 sorties, but only for four days, and fewer than two thirds of these will be bomb-carrying strike sorties. In 1991 the Air Force led the way. This time it will be the Navy, simply because Arab sensitivities about allowing U.S. planes to use land bases there have forced the Americans to strike from the sea.

That's fine with Rear Adm. Charles (Willy) Moore Jr., the commander of the Navy's battle force, floating some 120 miles off the Iraqi coast. ""We have right now nine acres of sovereign U.S. territory here in the gulf''--the flight decks of two carriers, the Independence and the George Washington--""and we don't have to negotiate with anybody to have it here,'' he says. In Desert Storm, the Navy played a peripheral role, partly because its attack planes were equipped mostly with ""dumb'' iron bombs. Now the Navy's F/A-18s and F-14s carry laser-guided smart weapons. The Navy can also launch 300 or 400 satellite-guided Tomahawk cruise missiles that can hit targets with fairly high accuracy.

PROUD BUT RUSTY AFTER 39 years of service, the Independence is probably on its last mission (the carrier's first battle-zone mission was the CIA's ill-fated invasion of Cuba, the Bay of Pigs in 1961). Admiral Moore's war room is a cramped, shabby chamber that rattles and shakes every time a returning warplane slams the deck overhead. In the dim light Moore's staffers, who call themselves ""the cockroaches'' (because they are so far below the top brass), pore over documents they call ""the maps''--the war plan. Moore is unfazed by the reports of civilian meddling. ""If there are people in suits picking targets, it won't be the first time. People just want to pick targets. It's fun. In this day and age, the targeting process is becoming more political.'' There was mild grumbling in the squadron ready rooms when the word came down that the pilots could fly no lower than 10,000 feet above Iraq. At that altitude their bombs will be less accurate. On the other hand, there is less chance a pilot will be shot down. Moore, who flew 200 combat missions in Vietnam and has a chestful of medals, is proudest of something called the Admiral Stockdale Award for Inspiration in Leadership. He won, he says, because he was ""sensitive to the needs of my people.''

That night he entertains his officers in his formal dining room. The wine glasses are filled with different colors of Kool-Aid (no booze on board, officially at least). In 1986 Moore was the commander of a squadron that bombed Muammar Kaddafi's headquarters in Tripoli. It was widely assumed that the United States was trying to kill the Libyan strongman. ""We never had a target that said, "Get Kaddafi','' says Moore. ""What we're after is command-and-control capability, and in a despotic regime, like Saddam Hussein's, one single person is in charge of all things, so OK, he's the ultimate command-and-control target. If the guy happens to be there, he happens to be there. But nobody is saying, "Let's get Saddam Hussein'.''

Of course, it is possible that one of Admiral Moore's pilots will get lucky and take out a command-and-control facility with Saddam in it. But would that really solve the problem? Without the terror of Saddam holding it together, Iraq--with its large Kurdish and Shiite minorities--might violently break apart, as it very nearly did after the gulf war. Alternatively, Saddam's power might be inherited by his eldest son, Uday. Last year Uday was gunned down and nearly assassinated. He survives with a bullet in his spine. Under the headline IMPOTENT UDAY KILLS WOMAN HE FAILS TO SEDUCE, The Sunday Times of London recently reported that Uday paid off the young girl's family with $700 and an Oldsmobile. Saddam's son is given to violent rages. He once ordered the Iraqi national football team beaten on the soles of their feet after a loss in the World Cup tournament. Imagine what he could do with a stock of chemical and biological weapons.

In the NEWSWEEK Poll, 60% favor the way Bill Clinton is handling Iraq, but only 18% back a policy of limited airstrikes alone

36% prefer all-out air and military action to remove Saddam from power; 39% think diplomacy remains the best option for resolving the crisis

54% support a covert assassination of Saddam as a way of ending the crisis; 67% say the Clinton administration has done a good job of explaining its Iraq policy


With more than 300 attack planes in the region, America appears to have surrounded Iraq. But this is not the 1991 gulf war. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and possibly Bahrain--which has sent mixed signals--have refused to let the United States stage airstrikes from their territories. As a result, aircraft carriers are likely to be the chief platform for an attack.

During the gulf war, seven B-52s from Barksdale Air Force Base, La., made a nonstop 35-hour bombing run, the longest in military history. The United States has a small number of bombers in the region, but distance means little to these behemoths.

B-52 Stratofortress High-altitude bomber with 70,000 lbs. of ordnance, including 20 cruise missiles. Gulf war targets: bunkers, troops and chemical-/biological-weapon facilities

B-1B Lancer Set to replace B-52 as mainstay of the force. Flies lower, evades radar and has a larger payload: typically 80 500-lb. conventional and 30 cluster bombs.


The bulk of the U.S. air forces now in the gulf, strike fighters can deliver bombs and air-to-ground missiles, but are smaller and more maneuverable than bombers. They can carry air-to-air missiles to protect against attack by enemy aircraft.

F-117A Nighthawk Stealth fighters were first used in gulf war. They attacked the most strategic sites with "smart" bombs (designed specifically for use on F-117A).


F/A-18C & D Hornet Versatile planes that, during the war, shot down enemy aircraft and bombed targets during the same sortie. More than 100 are now in the gulf region.


F-15E Strike Eagle Equipped with infrared targeting, the Strike Eagle is a nocturnal specialist. It can carry 12 air-to-ground armaments, including laser-guided bombs.

F-16C & D Falcon Flew more sorties than any aircraft in the gulf war. Attacked airfields, surface-to-air and Scud missile sites and the Baghdad Nuclear Research Center.

A-10 Thunderbolt II Relatively slow and unmaneuverable, A-10s were used during the war primarily in attacking armored units, suppressing air defenses and hunting Scuds.

AV-8B Harrier II Can be rearmed and refueled in 20 to 25 minutes. In the war, they bombed armored units, artillery positions and airstrips. Six are currently en route to the gulf.

Tomahawks and GBU-27/Bs were the chief muitions against fortified strategic targets during the war. This time, the U.S. will rely on larger, bunker-busting GBU-28/Bs and on Tomahawks: 288 were fired in 1991; some 500 are on combat ships now in the gulf.

Air-to-air AIM-9 Sidewinder missile: Infrared guidance homes in on aircraft exhausts.


Air-to-ground GBU-27/B 'smart' bomb: Can change its angle of approach to maximize damage to the target.


Ship-to-shore Tomahawk missile: Global-positioning system added since 1991 improves accuracy.


During bombing missions, even the nimblest strike planes are vulnerable. Radar jammers can neutralize air-defense systems, and fighters protect against enemy aircraft. During the gulf war, U.S. air control was never seriously challenged.

EA-6B Prowler and EF-111A Raven Radar-jamming aircraft used extensively in the gulf war. Prowler can carry four HARM missiles, designed to hit radar installations.

F-14 Tomcat Principal fighter of U.S. Navy. Can also carry some ordnance. One lost (to a surface-to-air missile) during gulf war in more than 14,000 flight hours.


F-15C Eagle Air Force stalwart that carries a full complement of eight antiaircraft missiles. Of 38 air-to-air kills during the gulf war, 33 were achieved by the F-15C against no losses.


Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, commander-in-chief, U.S. Central Command (USMC)

He was wounded in Vietnam, led efforts to aid Kurdish refugees and negotiated with Somali warlords. His wartime challenge is to devise a strategy that delivers a strong blow to Saddam without wrecking U.S. relations in the region. "Don't make enemies," he says. "If you do, don't treat them gently."

Gen. Henry Shelton, chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Lt. Gen. Jefferson Davis Howell, USMC Cmdr., Cent. Com. Lt. Gen. Carl Franklin, USAF Cmdr., Cent. Com. Lt. Gen. Tommy R. Ranks, Army Cmdr., Cent. Com. Vice Adm. Thomas Fargo, USN Cmdr., Cent. Com.