President Clinton may not know it yet, but U.S. forces are likely to be engaged in a major war with Iraq within a year or two.
The cruise missile attack on Iraqi intelligence headquarters in Baghdad virtually guarantees that Saddam Hussein will retaliate at a time and place of his choosing. Then Clinton will have to strike again, and harder, and all-out conflict may be unavoidable.The cause of probable U.S.-Iraqi combat is Saddam's refusal to accept or reconcile himself to Iraq's defeat by the American-led coalition that liberated Kuwait from his 1990 invasion.
The thwarted attempt by Iraqi intelligence to assassinate former President Bush with a car bomb when he visited Kuwait in April underlines Saddam's thirst for revenge and utter recklessness.
If the plot had succeeded, his country would have been unmercifully battered by U.S. air power. Instead, the plot's failure led to the pinprick bombing of the intelligence facility.
What next? A reading of the official Baghdad press is instructive.
The government newspaper Al Jomhuriya said Clinton "knows very well that the months ahead will be filled with trouble for his troops abroad, here (in the Persian Gulf), in Africa and everywhere."
Simultaneously, the Defense Ministry's newspaper said Iraq should strike hard "not only against the United States, but also Israeli, Saudi Arabian and Kuwaiti targets all over the world."
It would be wrong to dismiss these threats as overblown Arab rhetoric. In the past, the mouthings of Saddam's propaganda machine have sometimes been reliable guides to his next move.
For instance, his invasion of Kuwait was preceded by claims that the emirate was a province of Iraq, that the rulers were usurpers and that they were stealing Iraqi oil.
It can be argued that Saddam would be mindless to take on the United States again. But he is indifferent to the sufferings of his subjects and has a record of monumental blunders.
In 1980, for example, he attacked more populous Iran, triggering an eight-year war that caused nearly 1 million casualties and gained Iraq not an inch of territory. Instead of rebuilding his nation, he rebuilt his armed forces and within two years was at Kuwait's throat.
Right now, Iraq is known to have resumed building tanks, artillery and short-range missiles.
The question, it seems, is not whether Round 2 of Desert Storm will come, but when.