Blinkmanship

Blinkmanship

Blinkmanship

How you look at things.
Nov. 19 1998 3:30 AM

Blinkmanship

Was Clinton's decision to call off the Iraq attack cowardly or courageous?

Saturday, an hour before U.S. planes and missiles were scheduled to attack Iraq, Saddam Hussein apparently surrendered. In a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Saddam announced that Iraq would allow U.N. weapons inspectors to resume their work in Iraq, which Saddam had previously halted. With that, President Clinton decided that the purpose of the U.S. attack--to punish Saddam's refusal to cooperate with the inspectors--had been rendered moot. So Clinton called off the attack.

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Pundits spent the next two days questioning Clinton's judgment and manhood. They accused him of "flinching" and letting Saddam start and stop confrontations as though the United States were "on a yo-yo." "Does anyone seriously believe that Iraq backed down and not the United States?" asked Bill Kristol on ABC's This Week. "It was a chance finally to take decisive action, and the president blinked." On CNN's Late Edition, Susan Page said Clinton was having trouble explaining "why it isn't the United States who blinked." "Which one blinked?" asked the front-page headline in Monday's New York Times. "Diddled again," answered the headline over William Safire's column. "It didn't take much for Saddam Hussein to get the attack called off, did it?" scoffed Brit Hume on Fox News Sunday. "We're letting Saddam Hussein drive our policy."

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

This criticism has two parts: "blink" and "yo-yo." The blink critique assumes that the purpose of preparing the attack was to complete it and thereby hurt Iraq. But suppose Clinton's deeper purpose is--as he says--to control and eliminate Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. And suppose he believes--as he says he does--that the best way to do this is through the weapons inspections, not through a military assault. In that case, once Saddam agreed to let the inspections resume, the truly resolute course was to accept the offer and call off the attack.

The yo-yo critique focuses on predictability. First Clinton authorized the attack because Saddam had halted the weapons inspections. Then, when Saddam allowed the inspections to resume, Clinton called off the attack. The yo-yo charge implies that Clinton is letting Saddam manipulate him. What this metaphor nicely obscures is the rationality behind Clinton's predictability. Yo-yos and other objects follow laws of nature. Humans follow laws of our own making. We've even invented a name for these laws: "principles." Clinton's principle is that the inspections must resume. When Saddam violates that principle, Clinton will attack. When Saddam yields to the same principle, Clinton will not attack. Yes, Saddam can choose the outcome, just as you can choose your fate by deciding how to answer a mugger who says, "Your money or your life." But do you really imagine that you're the one in control?

This is what Clinton tried to explain at his press conference on Sunday, "Our willingness to strike ... produced the outcome we preferred: Saddam Hussein reversing course, letting the inspectors go back to work without restrictions or conditions." The press wasn't buying it. "What do you say to the criticism that Saddam Hussein is jerking the United States around, that he is able to provoke a crisis and then end it on his timetable?" one reporter asked National Security Adviser Sandy Berger. "Don't you think in the Arab world they're going to look at it and say, 'OK, Saddam won again?' " asked another. Berger could only reply in exasperation that Saddam had "capitulated" on the key issue of weapons inspections. "We have to be able to take yes for an answer," he pleaded.

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The pundits, captive to the geopolitics of machismo, think saying yes is easy. But when everyone wants you to say no, saying yes is hard. Yo-yos can't do it. Neither can cruise missiles. That's why we have presidents.

Recent "Frame Games"

"Cannibalism": The House coup is taking the GOP in the wrong direction. (posted Tuesday, Nov. 10, 1998)

"The C Word": The 1998 election didn't kill conservatism. The postelection analysis did. (posted Friday, Nov. 6, 1998)