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Fixing a Broken Iraq Policy

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell’s quick swing through the Middle East included a stop in Kuwait to help commemorate its liberation from Iraq’s occupation 10 years ago. North of Kuwait another celebration was occurring, as Saddam Hussein’s regime extolled itself for outlasting the sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council. Kuwait had reason to rejoice, and Saddam Hussein had cause to gloat. Despite the battlefield debacle he suffered at the hands of a multinational force led by the United States, his hold on power remains firm. He continues to clandestinely develop weapons of mass destruction without the annoyance of international inspections, which he refuses to allow. And he has won admiration among the Arab masses, if not their leaders, because of what he flaunts as his successful defiance of American military power.

President Bush’s administration recognizes that U.S. policy toward Iraq is a shambles. Now it must decide how to reorient that policy. Powell proposes to lift most economic sanctions while maintaining and tightening controls over Iraq’s access to military material and equipment. Britain, which shares with the United States a self-assigned responsibility for patrolling the no-fly zones over Iraq, would go along with that plan. China, France and Russia, the other permanent members of the Security Council, are eager to see sanctions eased because of the lucrative commercial opportunities that Baghdad has promised them.

But Powell still must sell his ideas in Washington. Hard-liners within the administration and Congress believe that any easing of sanctions would be seen by Hussein and others as a loss of U.S. resolve. Certainly Baghdad would proclaim victory in its long contest of wills with the United States. But the ineffectiveness of the sanctions is clear, as is the misery they have brought ordinary Iraqis while leaving the regime and its key supporters untouched. Relaxing the sanctions would at least deny Iraq’s claim to international sympathy because of the suffering endured by its people.

That’s the easy part of reshaping an Iraq policy. The hard part is what else to do. The object is to keep Iraq from threatening others in the region and from acquiring chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. Some in Washington favor arming Iraqi opposition groups that would conduct guerrilla warfare against the regime. But the opposition groups have proven notoriously unable to work together, and in any case Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait would not permit them to operate from their territories.

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Bush’s advisors criticized the Clinton administration’s Iraq policy as weak and lacking in international support. Now the burden is on the new administration to show it can do better.


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