- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 21, 2001

Gosh. We had almost forgotten how it feels to have a Middle East policy, but if Friday's bombing of military installations in Iraq is any indication, we are about to have one again.

This is one of the many welcome results of the change in power in Washington, along with the knowledge that the paintings and silver in the White House are safe for now. For a president who quite recently was ridiculed for not knowing the name of the president of Chechnya (as if any of his tormentors in the media did), George W. Bush grasped the reins of foreign policy firmly on Friday. Not only did he go on his first official foreign trip, to Mexico, he also dropped a bevy of bombs on Iraq.

It was inevitable that Saddam Hussein would want to challenge the son of the American president who defeated him in the Gulf War. Recent months had seen increased Iraqi capabilities develop to counter American and British planes in the no-fly zones above the 36th parallel in northern Iraq and below the 32nd parallel in southern Iraq, probably the result of better communications equipment and software to link radar sites. According to the Pentagon, Iraqi antiaircraft artillery had fired at U.S. and British planes 51 times in the past six weeks and launched surface-to-air missiles on 14 occasions. Air Force commanders knew it was just a matter of time before one of our planes would take a hit and requested urgent action against the radars.

President Bush called the air strikes against five radar installations "a routine mission." They were surely more than that, a no-nonsense signal from the new American leadership. The strikes came while the new National Security Council is yet in the process of formulating Iraq policy, but contours are emerging within an overall regional approach, requiring collaboration with moderate Arab states. The first step will be Secretary of State Colin Powell's trip to the Middle East beginning Friday, which will include Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait and Syria.

As for Iraq, the policy will have three major pillars: inspections, sanctions and support for the internal opposition with a recognition that sanctions have been and will be the least effective, considering Iraqi outlets for smuggled oil. While the Clinton administration allowed the weapons inspections to lapse, the Bush White House is clear about the problem posed by the chemical and biological weapons developed by Saddam in the intervening two years, and the need to restore those crucial U.N. inspections. Furthermore, aid for the internal opposition forces is finally being treated seriously. Aid is being channeled through the Iraqi National Congress, which had been promised millions, but received next to nothing from the Albright State Department.

As Mr. Powell has stated about regional cooperation: "I think we all have a common objective, and I think we can rally everybody around a common objective. And it is an arms control objective to not let this regime get access to weapons of mass destruction."

Domestic criticism of the Bush administration's actions has more or less been limited to questions regarding the timing on Friday. Indeed, Mr. Bush was stepping a bit on his own message, which on that day was to have been improved U.S.-Mexican cooperation and neighborliness. For those who recall the last time the U.S. government took the Iraqis to task, this is modest criticism. It was in December 1998, the eve of the first day of impeachment hearings in the U.S. House Representatives. (President Clinton that same August had bombed Sudan and Afghanistan just after going on national television to offer his non-apology to the American people for the Lewinsky affair.) The timing smelled to high heaven. Not surprisingly, Iraqis took to the streets waving pictures of Monica Lewinsky and blue dresses in the air. Thankfully, those days are over and Mr. Clinton is reduced to disgracing himself, as opposed to the entire nation.

The Bush administration has also been faulted for provoking reactions abroad. Here the benefits of a show of strength have to be weighed against the chorus of carping critics. The usual suspects have found their voice again in opposition to U.S. and British military actions. French President Jacques Chirac was in full throat as might be expected. "We have frequently made known our incomprehension and unease over the repeated air strikes carried out by U.S. and British aircraft," said a first French statement. A second followed up with "These raids… create tensions that damage efforts to reach an agreed solution to the Iraqi problem on the lines proposed by the U.N. Security Council." Arab countries expressed dismay; even Turkey huffed disapproval because the U.S. administration had failed to give advance notice.

There is no doubt this is a coalition in need of a lot of work; The Clinton administration allowed the Gulf War alliance to erode to the point of disappearing altogether. Honest dealing and consultation, along with the common goal of containing Saddam, could help heal the fractures. However, it is also true that the United States with our trusty ally Britain has a responsibility and an interest in keeping peace and stability in the Middle East. Ambiguity is the worst signal we can send. The good news is that Saddam has been placed on notice that the United States is again paying attention to Iraq very close attention.

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