WASHINGTON – The recent public-television documentary on the Clinton presidency has focused attention anew on the scandal involving Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. Overlooked is the important role this affair played in the confrontation with Iraq in 1998.
As the story was breaking, I happened to be in Baghdad as the deputy chairman of the U.N. weapons inspection group called UNSCOM. These were critical times for Iraq, the United Nations and Washington. In the 1990s I was virtually the only senior U.S. official who met regularly with top Iraqi officials, due to my role at the United Nations.
Our countries had no diplomatic relations. Understanding on the part of both sides was extremely limited — Washington had a cartoonish image of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, and he had an equally simplified image of Washington. Consequently, my meetings with senior Iraqis often drifted into topics beyond weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
In one conversation with Hussein’s deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, he asked me a question unrelated to the U.N.: “What is an intern?”
I knew the difficulties that U.S. intelligence analysts faced in trying to fathom what went on in the Hussein regime. And I understood the problems in communicating those assessments to political leaders who had no way of relating to the Baghdad universe. But suddenly I felt enormous sympathy for whoever was responsible for explaining Washington to Hussein.
The Iraqi dictator had no clue how the leader of the last superpower could be effectively disabled by a 20-something “intern.” Even Aziz, who was one of a handful of senior Iraqis with some experience with Washington, was at a loss to understand how an event that would not have caused the slightest ripple in Baghdad could potentially bring down, arguably, the most powerful person on the planet.
From my discussions with senior Iraqis after the invasion, and comments from Hussein himself, they believed that the Lewinsky affair meant Washington had been weakened. Hussein could smell weakness, whatever the cause, and this assessment underlay Baghdad’s decision-making throughout 1998 — a critical year in the U.N. weapons inspection process in Iraq.
That summer and fall were filled with confrontations between Iraqi officials and U.N. inspectors who were trying to verify the disposition of Iraq’s WMD.
By this point, Hussein had effectively eliminated his WMD capability (though he obstructed inspections), and he pushed for a conclusion to the inspection process. But the inspectors had been deceived so many times by Iraq that there was no willingness to give Hussein the benefit of the doubt. Further, there was ample evidence that Iraq still had not complied with U.N. mandates.
Hussein assumed that the United States, with its enormous intelligence system, must be aware of the true state of his weapons, despite the public statements by Clinton and his secretary of state, Madeleine Albright. He finally concluded that, no matter what he did, Washington would not agree to lift sanctions in the U.N. Security Council. With controversy distracting (at a minimum) Washington, Hussein took a course that was best summarized by Aziz: “We can have sanctions with inspectors or sanctions without inspectors.”
In the end, Iraq saw no point in “endlessly sustaining” the work of the inspectors when there was no prospect of Washington moving to lift the sanctions or even to open a dialogue with Baghdad. Clinton, in the Iraqis’ view, was weakened; he would not acknowledge Iraq’s compliance or open a dialogue; nor, critically, did he have the will to do anything that would threaten Hussein’s regime.
In December, as Clinton was being impeached in Congress, the inspectors reported that they could not do the job the Security Council asked of them under the conditions in which Iraq allowed them to operate.
In response, without the backing of the highly divided Security Council, the U.S. conducted (with British support) a four-day bombing exercise in Iraq dubbed Desert Fox. The Iraqi ambassador told me following the raids, “If we had known that was all you would do, we would have ended the inspections long ago.” In retrospect, the Iraqis, from their perspective, made the correct decision. Washington was weak. The Security Council was divided. And from that point on, the sanctions on Iraq crumbled, and Saddam Hussein re-emerged as an important player in the region — a situation that continued until Sept. 11, 2001.
This episode from the Clinton presidency reminds one of the desperate ignorance that underlies many critical decisions. Leaders in Washington hadn’t the foggiest idea what was going on in Baghdad. The absence of an embassy and diplomatic relations contributed heavily to that situation.
It is worth recalling this today as we discuss equally significant decisions regarding Iran and, in many ways, are equally ignorant about Iranian leadership — and vice versa.
Charles Duelfer, who was a U.N. weapons inspector in the 1990s and led the Iraq Survey Group’s search for WMD after the ouster of Saddam Hussein, is the author of “Hide and Seek: The Search for Truth in Iraq.”