President Bush, Be Cautious with Iraq

June 27, 2001 • Commentary

When he ended his visit to the Middle East not long ago, Secretary of State Colin Powell implied that sanctions against Iraq needed to be revised to make them more acceptable to other countries in the region. He noted, however, that such a revision would be viewed as a softer approach to Iraq and might be opposed by those who favor overthrowing Saddam Hussein.

Indeed, it appears the Bush administration is divided on this issue. It already has increased support to Iraqi opposition groups that claim they can topple the dictator. “I haven’t seen a plausible plan today,” Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense, told the Senate Armed Services Committee, “but I would be very interested in seeing one.” Before he joined the government, Wolfowitz wrote that the United States “should be prepared to commit ground forces to protect a sanctuary in southern Iraq where the opposition could safely mobilize.”

Those statements raise three issues. The first is the ability of the opposition to mount a credible threat. The United States and its allies have underestimated Saddam before. At a conference marking the 10th anniversary of the Gulf War, former President George Bush admitted that he did not expect Saddam to survive his defeat. If uprisings in the immediate aftermath of his defeat could not drive Saddam from power, why should we believe an opposition force now could do so?

The second difficulty is more difficult to overcome. The coalition that won the war has crumbled, and anti‐​American sentiment in the region is growing. “With the shadow of the Gulf War shortening, American forces in the Gulf have acquired a controversial nature among the local people,” a commentator wrote in Dubai’s Gulf News last November. “Their presence, which was welcomed in the early nineties, is now generating resentment among a large section of the population.”

That resentment poses a risk to American troops in the area. After a bomb destroyed a barracks housing American troops in Saudi Arabia in 1996, U.S. forces were withdrawn to a remote area to provide for their security, and a few months ago the USS Cole was the victim of suicide bombers in Yemen. It is reasonable to conclude that an increased American presence in the region would lead to further attacks against U.S. forces.

Finally, what would be the impact of a more aggressive U.S. strategy against Saddam on the political stability of U.S. allies? Secretary Powell may believe he has regional support for a new sanctions regime. But whatever assurances he might have received in his conversations with leaders, it is questionable whether the ordinary people in the area are similarly supportive. “It is difficult, after 10 years, to imagine that the Arab street will accept anything less than a complete lifting of all sanctions against Iraq,” the Jordan Times editorialized as Powell returned to the United States. “And certainly it would not be prudent for Arab rulers to ignore the deep popular sympathy for the Iraqis.”

In other words, if the Arab rulers listen to the United States rather than their own people, they might not be rulers for long. Perhaps this editorial exaggerates the danger. But it is striking that a leading Jordanian newspaper feels obliged to publish such a blunt warning. It should be remembered that King Hussein did not support the coalition in the Gulf War, presumably because he had the concerns the editorial articulates. If a more forceful U.S. policy destabilizes America’s Arab friends, the consequences will be catastrophic not only in terms of containing Saddam, but also for the security of Israel.

The Bush administration must make some critical decisions regarding Iraq, and its choices are not enviable. The existing regime to contain Saddam is crumbling, and something must be created to replace it. It is good that Secretary Powell listened to the concerns of leaders whose support we need if any policy is to be successful, but the administration should also be conscious of the effect Saddam has on ordinary people. Our experience with Iran offers a lesson on the dangers of relying too much on leaders and of being inattentive to tensions bubbling beneath the surface.

Whatever the Bush administration decides, it should be careful not to make a bad situation worse.

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