President Bush, Be Cautious with Iraq

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When he ended his visit to the Middle East not long ago, Secretary of StateColin 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 theopposition to mount a credible threat. The United States and its allieshave underestimated Saddam before. At a conference marking the 10thanniversary of the Gulf War, former President George Bush admitted that hedid not expect Saddam to survive his defeat. If uprisings in the immediateaftermath of his defeat could not drive Saddam from power, why should webelieve an opposition force now could do so?

The second difficulty is more difficult to overcome. The coalition that wonthe war has crumbled, and anti-American sentiment in the region is growing."With the shadow of the Gulf War shortening, American forces in the Gulfhave acquired a controversial nature among the local people," a commentatorwrote in Dubai's Gulf News last November. "Their presence, which waswelcomed in the early nineties, is now generating resentment among a largesection 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 After a bomb destroyed a barracks housing American troops in Saudi Arabia in 1996, U.S. forces were withdrawn to a remote area to provide for their security, and a few months ago the USS Cole was the victim of suicide bombers in Yemen.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 againstSaddam on the political stability of U.S. allies? Secretary Powell maybelieve he has regional support for a new sanctions regime. But whateverassurances he might have received in his conversations with leaders, it isquestionable whether the ordinary people in the area are similarlysupportive. "It is difficult, after 10 years, to imagine that the Arabstreet will accept anything less than a complete lifting of all sanctionsagainst Iraq," the Jordan Times editorialized as Powell returned to theUnited States. "And certainly it would not be prudent for Arab rulers toignore the deep popular sympathy for the Iraqis."

In other words, if the Arab rulers listen to the United States rather thantheir own people, they might not be rulers for long. Perhaps this editorialexaggerates the danger. But it is striking that a leading Jordaniannewspaper feels obliged to publish such a blunt warning. It should beremembered that King Hussein did not support the coalition in the Gulf War,presumably because he had the concerns the editorial articulates. If a moreforceful U.S. policy destabilizes America's Arab friends, the consequenceswill be catastrophic not only in terms of containing Saddam, but also forthe 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 iscrumbling, and something must be created to replace it. It is good thatSecretary Powell listened to the concerns of leaders whose support we need if any policy is to be successful, but the administration should also beconscious of the effect Saddam has on ordinary people. Our experience withIran offers a lesson on the dangers of relying too much on leaders and ofbeing inattentive to tensions bubbling beneath the surface.

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

Stanley Kober

Stanley Kober is research fellow in foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and a frequent lecturer for the U.S. Information Agency.