All alone - A Lonely Crusade Against Saddam

Thomas L. Friedman

The New York Times, Thursday, December 20, 2001

MOSCOW Anyone in Washington planning to take the war on terrorism to Iraq after Osama bin Laden is eliminated should not count on Russia's help, at least for now. The word here when you ask about marching on Baghdad is very simple: Nyet.

President Vladimir Putin has told the Financial Times that "so far I have no confirmation, no evidence that Iraq is financing the terrorists that we are fighting against." He is not alone in this view. If one looks at the core U.S. coalition against bin Laden, what the different countries have in common is both outrage at the terror acts in America and their own national interest in seeing bin Laden and the Taliban defeated. When it comes to Iraq, that sense of outrage is missing for most coalition members. More important, their national interests work against an anti-Saddam crusade.

Turkey, which does a big business selling smuggled Iraqi oil, is concerned that a war in Iraq could lead to the creation of a Kurdish mini-state in northern Iraq that would link up with Turkish Kurds.

Saudi Arabia is unnerved by the thought of Iraq being weakened as the Sunni Arab counterweight to Iran, and of the possible creation of an independent Shiite enclave in southern Iraq that would stir up the Shiites of eastern Saudi Arabia. Jordan, which is badly infiltrated with Iraqi agents and depends heavily on trade with Iraq, fears being destabilized.

Egypt is not eager to see a "nice" leader in Iraq who would fully reintegrate Baghdad into the Arab state system and enable it to resume its natural rivalry with Egypt for influence over the Arab world.

Syria would never support a war on Iraq that could lead to Damascus being targeted next.

Russians were never keen on hitting Iraq. Now that the Bush team has embarrassed Mr. Putin by unilaterally pulling out of the ABM Treaty, he and Russians generally seem even less inclined to help a U.S. attack on Baghdad. And without the Russians, many European and Arab allies would shy away, too.

"What America is doing in Afghanistan corresponds to our interests and understanding of the situation," said Alexander Bovin, a former Russian ambassador to Israel. "Iraq is a different matter. We had well-developed economic ties. We don't want to lose them, and we don't see any danger now from Iraq. Iraqi missiles won't hit either Russia or the U.S.

"I personally don't care for the ABM Treaty, but Bush put Putin in a difficult position that was not necessary. [He scrapped the treaty] right when Putin was saying to people here: 'Look, we're friends with the U.S. now.' It disappointed me and many Russians - as if [Bush] wanted to offend someone on purpose. The next time there is a choice to help America, [Putin] may choose not to help."

There is no love lost here for Saddam. The Russians could, at best, be brought around to what the foreign affairs analyst Alexei Pushkov calls "a negative neutralism" toward any U.S. action against Iraq. But the rubles would have to be sorted out in advance.

Iraq ran up an $8 billion debt with the Soviet Union that Russia wants paid. The Russians want assurances that Washington will back their view that this debt was incurred by Iraq, and not just by Saddam, in case he is removed and a new Iraqi government says it is not responsible. The Russians also want assurances that if a pro-Western regime is installed in Baghdad, Russian oil companies will not be frozen out of lucrative oil exploration there.

Unlike the Taliban, Saddam has real money to buy off adversaries. Unlike Afghanistan, his country is strategically critical to all its neighbors, most of whom fear any change to the status quo. And unlike bin Laden, Saddam may not make himself an easy, obvious target.

That doesn't mean America cannot, or should not, look for ways to oust him. But it does mean America should start by planning to do the job alone.

Copyright 2001 The International Herald Tribune