Sept. 10,1996

Advisory: David Evans is filling in for David H. Hackworth until Oct. 1. Evans is a retired marine corps lieutenant colonel (in tagline below). Hackworth will resume on Oct. 8.



"He's strategically worse off," President Clinton crowed recently after the smoke cleared from the detonations of U.S. cruise missiles carrying high-explosive messages to Saddam Hussein.

Maybe the reverse is true, especially if the object of a nation's political strategy is to isolate its foe and the object of its military strategy is to neutralize his ability to act.

In terms of being isolated, Saddam got a message all right: America's putative friends in the region are less committed than appearances warranted. Unwilling to appear as lap dogs of the Americans, the leaders of neighboring states denied the United States permission to launch a punitive strike from their bases. Saddam benefited from a huge "no-fly" zone in reverse that forced the United States to shoot from far at sea.

If the bombing was intended to limit further Saddam's ability to act militarily, hitting a few inconsequential targets only served to demonstrate the constraints on American military options.

No-fly zones were established shortly after the Gulf War, when the Iraqis were discovered using armed helicopters to suppress a Shute Muslim rebellion in the south and a Kurd rebellion in the north.

But "no-drive" zones were never implemented, for the sensible reason that it is the Iraqi army that keeps the country from splitting apart. As the saying goes, everyone wants an Iraq and no one wants an independent Kurdistan.

Further, it would have taken 50 or more long-range bomber sorties to truly pummel Saddam's Republican Guard divisions deployed outside Irbil. However, employing manned aircraft would have risked American aircrews. Heavy bombers dumping racks of ordnance would have killed scores of Iraqi troops, and Saddam would have looked more like an underdog than a regional bully.

Instead, Clinton resorted to strategic tokenism. He even took care to aim well to the south, where no errant U.S. cruise missile could possibly hit a Kurd in northern Iraq. Saddam now knows the Americans will shoot up his porch furniture but are wary about coming into the house to break up a fight.

Even though the United States expanded its southern no-fly zone, who is the more boxed in, President Clinton or Saddam Hussein? Instead of making it more difficult for Saddam to invade Kuwait, American pilots flying closer to Baghdad's defenses face greater risks, and the overall costs of the operation have been increased.

Despite our president's self-indulgent shooting from the lip about Saddam being strategically worse off, it appears that the man whom we claim lost the Gulf War now has the initiative.

Saddam's battalions are still in northern Iraq, and his security forces have put our CIA agents to flight and have been busily executing Iraqi and Kurd dissidents. He continues to make America look impotent.

Clinton, as one of America's premier critics of the Vietnam War, knows bombing didn't work against the Hanoi regime. Did he challenge any advisers who may have suggested it would work against Baghdad, when we bombed Iraq for a month solid in 1991 and still had to liberate Kuwait with a massive ground assault?

Rather, by bombing targets in Iraq, America has become the target of greater resentment throughout the region. In his seminal 1973 book, "The Arab Mind," author Raphael Patai described the Arabic concept of courage as "the ability to stand physical pain or emotional strain with such self-control that no sound or facial expression betrays the trial one is undergoing."

By whipping him with harsh words and striking at him with cruise missiles, America has given the unruffled Saddam an opportunity to demonstrate Arab courage.

Containment is a losing proposition. It would seem that a policy of gradual disengagement and reduced dependence on the region's oil would lower America's profile and improve its strategic options, at less risk and cost.

But it won't happen so long as America's leaders seem willing to spend more in one week shooting $50 million worth of cruise missiles than, as one example, the $40.5 million the Clinton administration proposes to spend for all of next fiscal year supporting research into alternative transportation fuels based on crops like corn.

Instead of having to constantly prove our manhood by bombing, it may be more courageous to restate the obvious: The fractious Persian Gulf has a huge but finite stock of petroleum, while America has an endless supply of corn.

David Evans is a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel.