A farewell to half-measures

Posted: Mar 21, 2003 12:00 AM

Usually an American president doesn't take a swipe at a predecessor when announcing that the country has gone to war. That, however, was the unmistakable impression left when President Bush told the nation on Wednesday that the war in Iraq wouldn't involve "half-measures."

TV newscasters, U.S. troops overseas, people at home on their couches, drunks at bars - nearly everyone listening, no doubt, heard that line and thought: "'Half-measures.' Hmmm. Bill Clinton."

Bush and Clinton exemplify two different philosophical and temperamental approaches to war. Bush is direct and forceful, ordering an Iraq operation that in its rush to engage and destroy the enemy is in the finest traditions of American warfare. Clinton was indirect and cautious, nibbling at the edges of the enemy in an effort to "send signals" and avoid, if possible, hurting anyone.

Consider Iraq. When Saddam Hussein attempted to assassinate former President Bush in 1993, Clinton replied with a strike against an empty Iraqi intelligence building in the middle of the night. This wasn't even a half-measure, but a quarter-measure.

When Saddam ignored administration warnings in 1996 and attacked Kurdish forces in the north, Clinton responded ... in the south, with 44 cruise missiles. "Our missiles sent the following message to Saddam Hussein," Clinton said. "When you abuse your own people or threaten your neighbors, you must pay a price." A small, mostly symbolic price.

In the fall of 1998, Saddam announced the end of his cooperation with inspectors, and U.S. warplanes were ordered into the air. With a CNN report that Saddam had (very temporarily) changed his mind, the planes were called right back.

When Saddam predictably ended his cooperation with the inspectors altogether, the administration launched strikes over four days, then stopped with the start of Ramadan. "The administration pointed to the start of the Muslim holy month as its justification for cutting off the attacks," writes former Clinton official Ken Pollack, "but this was an excuse, not a reason."

In Clinton's defense, it can be argued that other conflicts kept him from ever launching a more sustained operation in Iraq. In Bosnia, however, it took the administration 2 1/2 years to work up to bombing a bunch of drunken Serbs. In Kosovo, it took weeks -- while hundreds of thousands of Albanians were made refugees by the Serb military -- until the administration abandoned pinpricks for more decisive attacks on Belgrade.

These were largely humanitarian interventions, so perhaps not worth stronger medicine. But even when there was a direct attack on American interests -- the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998 -- Clinton responded with a pinprick missile strike against one terrorist camp in Afghanistan. This prompted Bush's vow after 9-11: "When I take action, I'm not going to fire a $2 million missile at a $10 empty tent and hit a camel in the butt."

In all his military engagements, Clinton was reflecting, even as he made attempts to tame, contemporary liberalism's reflexive post-Vietnam hesitation to use force (since American power was assumed to be tainted and corrupting); its belief that all disputes can be worked out by reasonable parties (so even military strikes took on an aspect of negotiation); and its ability to see all sides of any question, even to the point of paralysis ("a liberal is someone," goes the old saw, "who won't take his own side in an argument").

Bush, in contrast, has no doubt about the goodness of American power, knows an evil and recalcitrant enemy when he sees one, and is self-assured to the point of brazenness. This makes the difference between, in Bush's words to the nation, "decisive force" and "half-measures," between the way Bush has wielded force and the way Clinton did.

Americans, as they watch the Iraq war unfold, will have a chance to decide which approach to warfare they prefer. We can be certain about Saddam's preference. He is a man desperately longing for some half-measures right now.