Albion Monitor /News

Iraqi Standoff Follows Movie Plot

Analysis by Farhan Haq

Some diplomats contend the crisis may be exacerbated because of Clinton's alleged sex scandal
(IPS) UNITED NATIONS -- The latest Hollywood hit "Wag the Dog" -- a satire involving a White House spin doctor deflecting the media from highlighting a presidential indiscretion -- has an all too uncomfortable ring of truth these days.

In the film, the beleaguered U.S. president's aides distract the public from a sex scandal involving a young girl by staging a fake war with Albania.

The cynical tone of "Wag the Dog" is now being applied to a real crisis: the U.S. standoff with Iraq over U.N. weapons inspectors. Some diplomats here privately contend the crisis may be exacerbated because of President Bill Clinton's own problems with an alleged sex scandal.

"You can't escape the fact that, if there is an attack on Iraq, this scandal might get pushed off the front pages of the papers for a few days"
Already, talk of a "Wag the Dog scenario" involving U.S. air strikes against Iraq have put diplomats on the defensive. When a reporter recently asked U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson whether an Iraq attack could occur in a manner analogous to the fictitious Albania invasion, the envoy angrily responded, "I'm not even going to dignify that with a comment."

White House spokesman Mike McCurry, however, tackled the film's concept yesterday when he responded to questions about the likelihood of an Iraq attack.

"The circumstances of that piece of fiction showing up when we're dealing with deadly reality may be less than fortunate," he said. "But that doesn't change what the president, as commander-in-chief and our nation's chief diplomat, must do."

U.S. officials argue that Clinton has run out of patience with the months-long standoff that has repeatedly barred U.N. weapons inspectors from Iraqi "presidential and sovereign sites" and had already decided to plan for a military response by early February.

Richardson, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and other top officials are reportedly ready to give Baghdad one last chance to comply with providing full access to the U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM) during the first week of February. But, with the onset of the Islamic Eid-ul-Azha holiday, the drive for strikes against key Iraqi installations will begin in earnest by the weekend, sources say.

The ongoing Clinton sex controversy has quickly overshadowed the Iraq standoff, to the seeming delight of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. In a statement made last weekend, the Baghdad regime claimed an attack would be in the offing to distract the U.S. public from Clinton's personal problems.

U.S. officials deny that Iraq and the Lewinsky scandal have any effect on each other, with State Department spokesman James Rubin saying the allegations have "no impact" on Iraq policy.

Yet some Western diplomats concede privately that matters are not so simple. As one put it, "You can't escape the fact that, if there is an attack on Iraq, this scandal might get pushed off the front pages of the (U.S.) papers for a few days."

That possibility is making countries that are already objecting to military measures against Iraq -- notably Russia and China -- all the more wary.

"All scenarios providing for the use of force are unacceptable and counterproductive," the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement yesterday, on the same day that Deputy Foreign Minister and former ambassador to Iraq Viktor Posuvalyuk was sent to Baghdad to find a negotiated solution to the crisis.

Sergey Lavrov, Russia's U.N. Ambassador, added recently that a report from UNSCOM about Iraqi obstruction also included some mildly optimistic news about "some forward movement on issues like the inspection of sensitive sites." As a result, he added, the United Nations should abide by "the need to rely entirely on diplomatic solutions, (and) to be patient."

An attack now could be misread no matter how strongly U.S. officials make the case
Currently, according to UNSCOM head Richard Butler, Iraq refuses access to eight presidential sites but has pledged to open up other sensitive areas.

Chinese U.N. Ambassador Qin Huasun has joined Lavrov in counseling patience, urging the 15-nation U.N. Security Council to take no action to escalate the crisis until after technical experts meet in Baghdad next month to evaluate Iraqi progress on destroying missile warheads and VX biological weaponry.

"Any prejudgment of the results (of the technical meetings) is irresponsible, and should be avoided so that experts will work on an objective evaluation," Qin said. He added that any solution to the standoff should take account of "Iraq's dignity and legitimate security concerns."

Other nations, however, appear to be gradually rallying behind Washington as the standoff continues. France, which previously objected to military measures against Iraq, reportedly is ready to acknowledge that Baghdad is "in material breach" of Security Council resolutions, a finding which could help to justify U.S. strikes.

British Ambassador John Weston warned last week that the Council's credibility would be at stake if the United Nations could not respond soon to the blocking of inspectors and the possibility that Iraq is concealing biological weapons. Britain has dispatched forces to the Persian Gulf which may join U.S. troops in the event of an attack.

The key irony remains that after months of rallying allies to support its aims in Iraq, Washington is finally winning support only at a time when the Clinton administration's intentions are in doubt. An attack now, some officials muse, could be misread no matter how strongly U.S. officials make the case for one.

"There is no question that a strike on Saddam Hussein would be popular in America," a Russian official told The New York Times. As long as the White House remains entangled in scandal, many diplomats here will wonder whether the tail really is wagging the dog.

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Albion Monitor February 2, 1998 (

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