- The Washington Times - Monday, March 12, 2001

Exactly what will be the outcome of the review of U.S. policy towards Iraq has been the cause of much debate and conjecture here in Washington. Spurring that debate was Vice President Dick Cheney, who said in an interview with The Washington Times that not only did the sanctions regime need an overhaul, but perhaps also American thinking on U.N. weapons inspections. Last week, Secretary of State Colin Powell was on Capitol Hill, and in testimony before House and Senate panels, took pains to deny that inspections were to be taken off the table. Furthermore, on Friday President Bush delivered the message himself.

In an interview with Bill Sammon of The Washington Times, Mr. Bush denied that his team was being soft on Saddam Hussein, but said, "What we are doing is taking a weak policy and strengthening it." That sanctions are a leaky and unpopular policy is indeed the case, and Mr. Bush says, "Our mission is to be realistic about the problem we face." Mr. Bush again brought up the subject of smart sanctions, targeted at weapons-related technologies, as more palatable to Iraq's Arab neighbors, whose support would be needed in the effort to contain Saddam long-term. Mr. Bush also issued a warning to Saddam not to take courage from the debate going on here in Washington. "Saddam should not read into our discussions about making the policy more effective any weakness in our position," he said. "As a matter of fact, instead of standing by and having a sanctions regime that's weak, we are going to put a sanctions regime in that is strong. And our policy will continue to be containment of Saddam."

It is good to get these reassurances from the president himself, but more will be needed in fairly short order. Saddam is most certainly watching and has in the past proved himself an expert on exploiting weakness and uncertainty, both at the White House and the United Nations. Furthermore, there is much at stake here, indeed, more even than decisions about Middle East politics and containment of an unscrupulous dictator.

In a sense, this was also the new administration's first encounter with the reality of a complex foreign policy issue, but it will not be the last, and there is still a way to go before policymaking becomes a smooth operation for the Bush foreign policy team. Before the election, when all were united in the goal of winning, it was still clear that differences would necessarily arise, particularly among the Reaganites and the Bushites. The conflict between an ideological and a pragmatic approach to policy-making will probably keep playing itself out, resulting in uncertainty. The rest of the world is watching as mixed signals come and go from NATO enlargement to the Balkans to Korea to the Middle East. The sooner the Bush White House can arrive at a consistent policy and consistency with its highly credibly foreign policy program outlined during the presidential campaign the better.


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