New weapon needed

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 December, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 December, 1998, 12:00am

AS the world waited last night for news of whether the bombing of Iraq would end with the start of Ramadan, US officials were mulling their handiwork. Initially, the Pentagon could confirm hitting only 18 of 89 targets. Although that figure appears relatively low, given the much-trumpeted accuracy of modern weaponry, the final tally likely will be higher. Real damage has almost certainly been inflicted on Baghdad's ability to produce or deliver weapons of mass destruction. There is little doubt Iraq has suffered a crippling, though less than fatal, blow to its weapons infrastructure.

What the bombings have shown, despite the international outcry, is that the world still has the means and will to punish Saddam Hussein for thumbing his nose at the United Nations. His brinkmanship will not be tolerated indefinitely.

Yet the attack also raises significant questions about the long-term effectiveness of the present strategy. The Gulf War showed clearly the limitations of a campaign conducted entirely from the air and the continued need for ground forces to finish the job. The latest attacks merely confirm the assessment that air raids alone may contain Iraq, but will never destroy its regime or its ability to perpetrate new outrages.

Furthermore, the Pentagon has admitted it cannot target known or suspected chemical or biological weapon stocks for fear of releasing the very poisons it is trying to destroy. That weakness, too, holds important lessons for the future of warfare. In a world where every nuclear power station is a potential source of deadly fall-out and civilian chemical plants harbour the most noxious poisons, all-out air war may no longer be an option.

The current US policy is partly the product of Washington's frustration at its inability to put Mr Hussein in his place, rather than an entirely coherent design for ending the threat his weapons pose to the region. But frustration is hardly the best basis for long-range strategic planning. Nor does it provide any kind of basis for dealing with similar brinkmanship from unpredictable regimes like North Korea or regional bullies such as Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic.

With Mr Hussein once again weakened, the time may have come for the international community to stop bickering over the latest tactical intervention and start hammering out a more effective approach for containing rogue regimes in future.