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"While American pilots conduct a war of attrition against Iraq with audacity and skill, their president and his advisors have done little to construct a political strategy to justify the risks the flyers take and the destruction they inflict on a traumatized and suffering nation.

This White House's 10-week-old rhetorical commitment to 'regime change' has bogged down and now comes across as an effort to triangulate policy on Iraq-to do just enough to defuse Republican and other criticism but not enough to risk fundamental change that would destroy tyranny in Iraq. The administration's senior policy makers seem to have lost sight of the centrality of the Iraq people in this continuing.

In their majority, Iraq's civilians are the hostages of a criminal gang of murders in charge of the state apparatus. President Clinton needs to hold that one thought in his mind as he makes decisions on Iraq.

He should not let the din of 'expert' opinion on ethnic divisions in Iraq society or the importance of territorial integrity drive from his consciousness this grim reality. Each decision makers bureaucracy will do its best to help the president avoid seeing so starkly his responsibility to rescue a people on whom the world's only super power has waged intermittent war for nearly a decade.

His diplomacy too often exhalts the instant gratification of appearance and spin over the frequently uncomfortable realities and hard choices every administration confronts abroad. Clinton seems to be hoping to leave office with all these stroked but unconsummated.

Clinton is too often abetted in his virtual policy making by an over-stimulated media, which play out foreign challenges as being about the mettle or brilliance of Clinton, or Madelaine Albright, or some national security worthy, rather than about the underlying issue that causes people to fight, die or sink into poverty.

In Iraq this virtual foreign policy risks leaving Clinton stranded between self-defeating options, as this winter's war of attrition and the simultaneous death of UN arms inspectors in Iraq illustrates.

U.S. warplanes have hit some 200 Iraqi targets since mid-December. Sadam Hussein and his army are clearly rattled by this war attrition, which has touched off by Sadam's continuing refusal to cooperate with UN arms inspectors.

But the air raids make certain that Sadam will not permit a resumption of the international hunt for atomic, biological or chemical weapons. So do disclosures by U.S. officials to the POST and other news organizations that the CIA used the inspectors for its own narrow, reckless and unsuccessful coup efforts. There has been no monitoring of any kind in Iraq since November, a fact that U.S. falling bombs help obscure or mitigate.

The war of attrition is a justifiable and useful tactic in itself. But with the arms inspectors a dead issue, the raids have been limited in durability as an isolated method of dealing with Iraq. A lucky Iraq anti-aircraft shot, or a spectacular accident that results in U.S. losses, would cause Americans to question the costs and benefits of the open-ended raids on a country held hostage internally by Sadam's forces and externally by punitive sanctions. Foreign opinion is already hostile to the raids.

The air campaign concentrates on blowing up Iraq's air defense installations. Such narrowly targeted raids made sense militarily to prepare the ground for wider attacks.

But in his statements and actions, the Clinton administration shows it is not mounting wider, consistent action. It blames the Iraq opposition and the American public for being too divided to permit a more aggressive policy.

(However, these)...are straws in the wind that could be easily dismissed - if Clinton himself had demonstrated a clear, consistent and compassionate commitment to freeing Iraq's 22 million endangered hostages. Instead, he continues to offer a virtual policy that can only bring confusion and incoherence.

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