Wednesday, several Iraqi fighter jets zipped into the "no-fly" zone over southern Iraq, encountered U.S. and British warplanes, and sped away without firing. Rather than pursue the offenders, the allied U.S. and British pilots rained bombs and missiles on unrelated Iraqi radar, missile, and communications facilities. This was the latest chapter in a seven week assault on Iraq's air defenses that has earned scant media coverage and no outcries in Congress or at the United Nations, thanks to an ingenious U.S. public relations strategy of spontaneity, self-defense, and silence.
Last December, when the United States and Britain bombed Iraq for four days, television networks covered the onslaught live. Governments around the world cringed, many protested, and the bombing had to be halted. Since then, Saddam Hussein has repeatedly defied the no-fly zones, using his jets, radar, and anti-aircraft weapons to provoke allied pilots. The conventional wisdom, distilled last week by the Los Angeles Times, is that Saddam is shrewdly provoking the allies and that they're taking the bait, engaging in a "war of attrition" that will "keep world attention focused" on Iraq and leave the United States "looking like a bully."
But over the past month and a half, the United States has learned how to wage war under the guise of ad hoc retaliation. President Clinton authorized pilots to attack air defense sites unrelated to those that have threatened their planes. Gen. Anthony Zinni, who commands U.S. forces in Iraq, told Congress, "We have the authority to react and attack any part of the air defense system any time there's a threat. And it's not particularly geared to the cause of the threat." U.S. officials indicate that pilots patrolling the no-fly zones deliberately pass over predetermined targets, obviously in the hope that the Iraqis will provoke them. In late January, for example, the allies noticed that Iraq had moved three anti-ship missile launchers toward the Persian Gulf. Only after a separate Iraqi battery fired on allied patrol planes on Feb. 2 did the United States drop a dozen bombs on the anti-ship launchers, destroying two of them.
In short, the allies are beating Saddam at his own game of provocation. "He's provided an opportunity for us to pick apart his military machine," one U.S. official explained to the Los Angeles Times. In January alone, allied aircraft patrolling the no-fly zones dropped some 60 bombs and missiles on Saddam's air defenses, scoring more hits than they achieved in December's four day campaign. On background, the Clinton administration admits that its aim is to destroy Saddam's air defenses, demoralize his generals, and provoke a coup. He is losing the war of attrition.
Meanwhile, the world isn't paying attention. Wednesday's bombing made Page A5 of the New York Times and Page A33 of the Washington Post (as a wire story). Congressional critics and Arab governments are silent. The U.N. Security Council is ignoring Iraq's protests. That's largely because, in contrast to the overhyped December bombardment, U.S. officials are playing down the recent assaults, justifying them in terms of self-defense and providing scant information on the damage. "We are responding in a comprehensive way when [Iraq] threatens our pilots," National Security Council spokesman P.J. Crowley told the Post. Meanwhile, officials anonymously concede that the piecemeal retaliatory strategy is designed to mollify Arab and European leaders. One senior official told the Post, "It's a way of pursuing an objective in a way that everyone's comfortable with. You get things done without rocking any boats. If we started a broad bombing campaign people would say, 'What provoked this?' "
None of this implies that the bombing raids are unjustified. There is broad international agreement that Saddam is a menace and scofflaw. Furthermore, he can always moot the allies' self-defense argument by ceasing his provocations. But evidently he's too dumb and stubborn to restrain himself. Meanwhile, a White House that couldn't resist staging a pep rally for its impeached president has remained scrupulously gloat-free about its military success in Iraq. Sometimes the best spin is no spin at all.