- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 15, 2001

Colin Powell is calling for a regional strategy in the Middle East, linking Iraq with the Israel-Palestine conflict. This strategy is not only unrealistic; it can lead to disaster.

Mr. Powell believes a "smart" sanctions policy separating Saddam Hussein from his suffering people will help the administration to regenerate an Arab coalition against Saddam. There is no chance in the world that the moribund coalition will be revived. The Arab countries of Syria and Saudi Arabia have re-established economic, political and diplomatic relationships with Saddam Hussein's regime. This reality is irreversible. They are linking with Saddam, and we want to turn them against him.

The strategy of the Arab leaders is to support Mr. Powell's Iraq policy rhetorically, while in reality they establish a moral equivalence between the plight of the Iraqi and Palestinian peoples, hoping Mr. Powell will use a heavy hand with the Israelis in an attempt to achieve his goal of isolating Saddam.

So far, the Arabs have publicly criticized Mr. Powell's plans for the Iraqi sanctions, but Mr. Powell was reported in The Washington Times on March 7 as having assured the House International Affairs Committee in testimony the previous day that "private backing by [Arab] leaders remained firm."

American tradition is to give the president 100 days of "honeymoon" before real political warfare begins. The Bush administration has been remarkably successful in two of its domestic initiatives for education and tax cuts (with modifications). A firm and sustaining domestic policy is being established. Unfortunately, this is not yet the case with foreign affairs. The new administration is blessed with experienced and knowledgeable foreign and defense policy experts: Vice President Dick Cheney, Mr. Powell, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.

Congressional conservative Republicans were hoping the more hawkish members of the administration, especially Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr. Wolfowitz, would develop the Iraq policy. For the time being, their input is not evident. Richard Perle, a colleague of Mr. Wolfowitz, was reported by the March 7 New York Times as having told the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee last week, "Improved sanctions or smarter sanctions, none of them are going to end the threat from Saddam Hussein."

The Washington Times spent all of last week examining the Powell Iraq policy, and clearly identified its weaknesses. For instance, The Times reports, "Mr. Powell said yesterday that the notion the sanctions were killing Iraqi children, combined with U.S. support for Israel during the latest Palestinian uprising, had created a perception in the Middle East that America was anti-Arab. 'There is linkage to the situation between the Israelis and the Palestinians… . This is now a regional situation,' he said." Let us hope Mr. Powell is not already accepting the moderate Arab line on the linkage or moral equivalence with which they hope to trap the United States into putting severe pressure on Israel in return for their joining the U.S. alliance against Saddam. This linkage is fiction.

In an exclusive interview with The Washington Times on March 10, President Bush rejected the claim of a softened Iraq policy. Congressional Republicans perceive Mr. Powell's sanctions strategy to be a softening. President Bush said, "What we're doing is taking a weak policy and strengthening it." He insisted the reassessment of U.S. policy toward Iraq will result in a more effective containment of Saddam. Mr. Bush said rebuilding the coalition will in itself go a long way toward curing Saddam's influence in the Middle East and his potential for mischief.

Thus, the president has buried the position of the hawks, and his campaign promise to "take out" Saddam.

Rhetorically, this policy sounds different and more aggressive than President Clinton's. But, in fact, it is a more moderate continuation of Mr. Clinton's ineffective sanctions policy. Saddam Hussein has always been dedicated to destroying the sanctions regime. He has been successful during the last two years in bringing almost a virtual end to the sanctions. Why does the Bush administration think Saddam will suddenly become so reasonable as to accept a modified sanctions regime, while his aggressive, expansionist motivations remain unchanged?

The Bush administration, composed of some of the veterans of the Gulf war, seems not to have learned the historical lessons. Before the Gulf war Saddam Hussein was obstinate, and he continues to be now. "Smart sanctions" will not deter him from building his WMD arsenal and his nuclear development projects. No sanctions regime in history has succeeded in changing the aspirations and goals of aggressive nations with the exception of UNSCOM, while it was supported by the United States, Britain, France and the anti-Saddam Arab countries.

Those political conditions do not exist today. The greedy Russians and French can hardly wait for the sanctions regime to end. From the standpoint of the Arab rulers, a coalition against Saddam is unrealistic. After 10 years since the Gulf war, the coalition has torn asunder and the sanctions regime has dwindled. Why does Mr. Powell believe this can be reversed when, during the Gulf war, the Arab states were reluctant to join the coalition and did not participate in the fighting?

Building a coalition through softening sanctions is full of pitfalls and will fail.

Amos Perlmutter is a professor of political science and sociology at American University and editor of the Journal of Strategic Studies.

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