- The Washington Times - Monday, March 11, 2002

Vice President Richard Cheney began his tour of the Middle East yesterday with Saddam Hussein in his sights. Mr. Cheney's trip to Kuwait, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Turkey, Oman, Jordan, Israel and Britain is being driven by a single purpose convincing leaders in the region of the need for regime change in Iraq. In other words, the White House has begun in a deliberate fashion to lay the diplomatic groundwork for action to come.
How easy this will be is a matter of some dispute among the experts. Some believe the administration could easily convince leaders in the Gulf to support ousting Saddam if America demonstrated it was seriously commited to the cause. Others are more pessimistic, given the escalation of Palestinian-Israeli violence. Mr. Cheney is sure to have his work cut out for him. After all, the United States already has a track-record with Iraq that does not inspire confidence among many Arab leaders, who have seen us leave Saddam in place for a decade while the Iraqi population suffered and his neighbors remained under threat.
Mr. Cheney will need to address that credibility problem. His visit follows closely the resumption of arms inspection talks between the United Nations and Iraq, which are likely to buy Saddam more time, but will hardly satisfy the Bush administration's demands for access to Saddam's laboratories and factories. The Arab countries are watching to see what our next step will be when inspections fail, which they almost assuredly will again.
Another significant bit of timing was the White House decision last week to show the U.N. Security Council exactly what Saddam has been up to. The issue here is humanitarian aid. The United States has held up $5 billion in humanitarian goods purchased by Iraq under the oil-for-food program and for good reason. On Wednesday, the White House showed photographs to the U.N. Security Council of Iraqi diversions of humanitarian aid. Slides showed how Iraq had outfitted 1,000 trucks, designated for humanitarian purposes, as missile launchers and other military vehicles. The amount of goods is sizable, representing one quarter of the total value of goods that have reached Iraq since the U.N. program began in late 1996. The White House is correct in applying caution when reviewing the disbursement of oil-for-food items.
But this is also likely to cause friction with Arab countries for whom Iraq's humanitarian crisis is at the top of the aganda. There is indeed an argument to be made that limiting Iraq's access to humanitarian goods plays into Saddam's hands, as evidenced by the dictator's past opposition to any reform of the sanctions program.
Mr. Cheney will also need to stress that Iraqis themselves should have the principal role in an uprising against Saddam. Many Iraqis are willing to risk their lives to be free of Saddam's tyranny if they can be sure that the United States stands firmly behind them. It would be a great step forward, were Mr. Cheney able to bring the rest of the Muslim world onboard.


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