Opportunity Missed

As U.N. weapons inspectors returned to Iraq this week and U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf stood down from high alert, the world breathed a sigh of relief after yet another race to the brink with Saddam Hussein.

But many Jewish leaders were fuming about what they saw as one more retreat by Washington in the face of the Iraqi leader’s skillful maneuvers.

Few expect Saddam to live up to his last-minute promise to allow U.N. weapons inspectors to resume their search for his well- concealed weapons of mass destruction. The latest U.S. military bluff, they say, can only increase the Iraqi threat to Israel and to American forces in the region.

“It’s so obvious, it’s almost comical,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “We know exactly what Saddam’s doing, but we continue to play his game.”

Each new cycle of threat and retreat “tarnishes our leadership role and gives Saddam new ways and means to protect the weapons we’ve pledged to destroy,” he said. “I’m very saddened by what happened.”

President Clinton, several Jewish leaders said, had meticulously lined up support for strong American action, but then squandered the opportunity, which is unlikely to be repeated. That will make the inevitable showdown with Saddam costlier and more difficult — and, they say, potentially more dangerous for Israel.

The U.S. action also reinforces the impression among allies that Washington will do almost anything to avoid the use of force, Jewish officials say. They point to reports that National Security Adviser Sandy Berger was instrumental in convincing the President to recall the bombers that were already en route to Iraq in order to test Saddam’s latest promise to cooperate.

“The administration and Berger, in particular, have an inexplicable fear of using force as an instrument of policy — and, as a result, they were once again outmaneuvered,” said a leading Jewish activist here. “You have to look at the bottom line, and the bottom line is that he’s a bigger danger today than he was yesterday.”

This week’s dramatic developments produced claims of victory from both sides. Over the weekend, Saddam Hussein agreed to resume cooperation with weapons inspectors, whose access he limited in August, and who were barred from inspections entirely earlier this month.

Saddam’s promise came just minutes before a U.S. strike that officials here said would be strong and sustained.

Israeli officials, living under Saddam’s gun, were skeptical of the agreement. On Monday, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said that he had “no illusions” about the Iraqi leader’s desire to continue hiding his weapons program, and warned again that Israel was prepared to defend itself.

American Jewish leaders were blunter.

“This has to be one of the least wise foreign policy moves of the Clinton administration,” said Robert O. Freedman, president of Baltimore Hebrew University.

Freedman, a strong supporter of U.S. efforts in the Mideast peace process, said that the Clinton administration missed a unique opportunity.

“The president was stronger politically because of the election; the Arabs were angry at Saddam because he thumbed his nose at the weapons inspectors; Russia, desperate for American aid, wasn’t going to intervene. Everything was lined up for a decisive strike — and he frittered it away. He even had [U.N. Secretary General] Kofi Annan on our side.”

Even if Washington fulfills its promise to strike quickly if Iraq violates its new promises, Freedman said, “our position will never be as good as it was this week. If Clinton was reluctant to attack under the most favorable circumstances, Saddam will have every reason to believe he can get away with even more evasion.”

U.S. policy is more and more out of sync with reality, said Shoshana Bryen, special projects director for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA).

“The goal this weekend was to get UNSCOM weapons inspectors back in,” she said. “But it was understood a long time ago that the inspectors couldn’t discover everything, even with unfettered access. And it’s doubtful we’ll get even that access, despite this week’s promises.”

The Clinton administration crossed an important line last week when he announced support for efforts to topple Saddam, she said. But the quick acceptance of Saddam’s latest last-minute promises in the wake of impending U.S. military action suggested that officials here continue to pursue the same policy of trying to marshal international pressure and using non-credible threats of military force to change the Iraqi leader’s behavior.

“The problem is that his goal isn’t the lifting of sanctions, but to keep his weapons of mass destruction,” she said. “It’s to be the regional power, using these weapons. He has shown no interest in being president of a peaceful, prosperous Iraq. So our threats and our economic pressure have very little impact.”

“It may simply be that the administration is afraid of failure in removing Saddam from power, just like the Bush administration,” said Foxman. “If you don’t try, you can’t fail.”

The inconsistent U.S. effort may also send a dangerous signal to other countries that are pursuing nonconventional weapons programs — including Syria, which is reportedly mating VX nerve gas with ever-bigger missiles.

“The entire world is watching this charade with disbelief,” said the leader of a major Jewish group. “We talk the talk about proliferation, but things like this show we’re not ready to walk the walk. That’s very bad news for all of us, not just for Israel.”