U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf has long been a pernicious muddle. A half century ago, Washington helped install the Shah of Iran, whose thuggery eventually spawned an Islamic revolution, which treated America as the “Great Satan.”
After the humiliating seizure of the U.S. Embassy, Washington aided Iraq’s Saddam Hussein when he struck at Iran. After they fought to a draw, Iraq did what Washington was afraid Iran was going to do — move on its gulf neighbors. Hussein swallowed Kuwait and eyed Saudi Arabia.
The gulf monarchies are ugly bastions of privilege in which antiquated royal families leech off their poor subjects. But the various sheikdoms and emirates have oil, so the United States intervened to make the region safe for monarchy.
Yet an enfeebled Iraq raised the worrisome prospect of a resurgent Iran. So Washington left Iraq unconquered.
The earlier Bush administration established economic sanctions, created an inspections regime to forestall development of weapons of mass destruction, and imposed a “no‐fly” zone throughout much of Iraq to inhibit military action against Shiite and Kurdish rebels. The United States also backed a motley assemblage of Iraqi dissidents, hoping for a coup.
A decade later, American policy has failed. Completely. Sanctions have killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians but proved to be only a minor inconvenience to Hussein. Iraq has ended U.N. inspections.
The United States (backed by Great Britain) continues to regularly bomb Iraq, yet America’s attempt to protect Iraqi Kurds contrasts with America’s support for brutal Turkish suppression of Kurds in that country. And factional infighting has doomed Kurdish resistance.
Washington’s support for other opponents of the regime has been even less successful. Hussein has hung many an alleged coup plotter from the nearest Baghdad lamppost.
The lack of results has sapped support from allied states. France and Russia have tired of the ineffectual containment game and hope to profit from renewed commerce. Mideast states like Egypt and Turkey have begun to rain criticism down upon the United States.
Now what? Explained President George W. Bush: “We will continue to enforce the ‘no‐fly’ zones. The ‘no‐fly’ zones are enforced on a daily basis. It is a part of a strategy, and until that strategy is changed, if it is changed at all, we will continue to enforce the ‘no‐fly’ zone.”
That’s really helpful. The administration will continue to pursue a strategy that has manifestly failed unless it changes that strategy.
Doing more of the same doesn’t deserve to be called a strategy.
Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies was reduced to endorsing the attacks because “America cannot afford to show any weakness in dealing with Mr. Hussein.” Containing Iraq militarily apparently means haphazardly bombing forces and installations that in no way threaten Iraq’s neighbors.
Were Washington policy‐makers not wedded to failure, they would try something different.
First, drop the “no‐fly” zone. No purpose is served in preventing Iraq’s air force from flying throughout Iraq.
Second, recognize the limits of U.S. power. Washington can’t force a change in Baghdad.
It certainly won’t do so by funding groups like the Iraqi National Congress, which has so far used American aid to set up offices, hold a conference and generate publicity. Just a guess, but Hussein, one of the nastiest brutes to control a country, probably isn’t scared.
Third, negotiate to drop sanctions in exchange for inspections and import control regime that limits Baghdad’s access to the tools necessary to develop weapons of mass destruction. The effectiveness of such a system would be limited, but with sanctions fraying daily and inspectors barred by Iraq since 1998, almost anything would be an improvement.
Fourth, expect friendly nations to develop militaries and build popular support to contain Iraq. The United States, with security dependents strewn about the globe, shouldn’t add another set of permanent wards.
Patrick Cronin of the U.S. Institute of Peace lauds the latest attack for sending a message that other Arab regimes “are not left alone at the time of the 10th anniversary of the gulf victory.” But only the prospect of being alone will move them to cooperate against Hussein.
And, to adopt the sort of political reforms that would make them less vulnerable. The obvious illegitimacy of regimes like that in Saudi Arabia poses as great a danger to stable oil supplies as does anything being concocted by Saddam Hussein.
Washington has tried and failed in its attempt to transform Iraq. It’s time to instead transform U.S. policy toward Iraq.