President Bush's promise that he will pursue a more effective policy toward Iraq has been put to its first major test, and failed.
An American-British effort to revise the U.N. sanctions imposed after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 had to be withdrawn in the face of a threatened veto by Russia in the Security Council. The plan would have modified the oil-for-food program that since 1996 has let Saddam Hussein's regime export $43 billion worth of oil under U.N. supervision. Some revenues have been earmarked to compensate Kuwait and other victims of Iraqi aggression. The rest has paid for imports of food and medicine.
But ordinary Iraqis continue to suffer under the sanctions policy. That led to the proposal to permit expanded imports of civilian goods, at the same time tightening the ban on imports of military-related items. But Iraq is uninterested in modifications or compromises; it insists on an unconditional end to sanctions. Russia, while not endorsing that demand, balked at tougher restrictions on imports that could serve military as well as civilian purposes. The upshot is that the current sanctions policy will continue at least until the end of this year.
Baghdad proclaims this a major diplomatic victory, and it's hard to disagree. It has got Russia to defend its interests in the Security Council, in exchange for promises of future lucrative oil development and other contracts and eventual payment of the $9-billion debt it ran up buying weapons from the Soviet Union. And it continues to defy U.N. resolutions requiring it to surrender all of its weapons of mass destruction.
U.N. weapons inspectors, prevented by Iraq from examining suspect facilities, were withdrawn from Iraq in late 1998. The Security Council created a new and weaker inspectorate, but Iraq refuses to allow resumed on-site inspections. Western intelligence agencies are convinced that Iraq continues work on prohibited chemical and biological weapons and that it has hidden a quantity of missiles for delivering them. Iraq, in short, remain a serious regional threat.
The Bush administration has been reminded, in both the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and now in the Persian Gulf, that while it may be easy to criticize a predecessor's policies it can be a lot harder coming up with something better. The failure of the American-British initiative in the Security Council means that the sanctions policy will go on unchanged. Also left largely unchanged is Baghdad's ability to acquire the materials it needs to continue developing weapons of mass destruction.