The Annan-Hussein Memorandum of Understanding (MOLT) of February 22, 1998, averted an Anglo-American attack on Iraq for a promise of renewed UN inspections. Advocates of the MOU portray it as a triumph of diplomacy backed by the threat of force, another instance of successful U.S. containment of Saddam Hussein. What actually occurred, however, could be more accurately described as the containment, even self-containment, of the United States. This carries far-reaching consequences, not least of which will be a decline in U.S. influence throughout the region.
It is worth recalling that the recent crisis proceeded in two stages. First, Iraq expelled all American inspectors on October 29, 1997. This capped many months of increasing harassment of the UN teams and, more ominously, the activation of air defenses that might threaten U-2 reconnaissance planes. The timing suggested that the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) was close to discovering something new. Only one thing could have been so important that Saddam was willing to risk war: proof that Iraq was manufacturing new biological or chemical weapons to replace the old, much of which had been destroyed after previous UNSCOM searches. This crisis was defused on November 20 when Russian foreign minister Yevgeni Primakov promised Saddam a rapid conclusion of UNSCOM’s work with a view toward lifting the sanctions, or at least allowing Iraq to sell more oil.