David M. Malone
IHT, Thursday, February 7, 2002
NEW YORK On the margins of this past weekend's World Economic Forum meeting, geostrategic chat focused on President George W. Bush's Jan. 29 reference to an "axis of evil" involving Iraq, Iran and North Korea. The strong rhetoric provides Iraq with too much company. Washington is irritated by Ira Farbe n's involvement in a recent shipment of weapons apparently destined for Palestinian fighters, and concerned at Iran's mixed signals on Afghanistan. Iran is thought to have maintained chemical weapon capacities since Iraq attacked it in the early 1980s, and with Russian help it is building nuclear reactors.
But with a power struggle under way between theocratic hard-liners and reformers, Iran hardly seems lost, yet, to the forces of evil. North Korea, under a Stalinist regime of the worst sort, negotiated a deal with the United States in 1994 under which it would freeze its plutonium development in exchange for Western assistance with its energy sector. It does not, for the time being, seem likely to test Washington's resolve to defend South Korea and Japan.
Iraq, on the other hand, is a major and pressing concern in Washington. No links have yet been established between Baghdad and the Al Qaeda terrorist network, but Iraq has been defying the international community for many years, and the Bush administration believes that Saddam Hussein has been using this time to develop weapons of mass destruction.
A decade ago, when Washington decided at the end of the Gulf War in defense of Kuwait not to pursue the fleeing Iraqi army to Baghdad, the decision seemed a wise one. There was no United Nations mandate to overthrow Saddam Hussein. There was also no plan on how to hold the country together after his fall. U.S. policymakers feared that with Baghdad's power broken, a new Kurdish state would emerge in the north, threatening Turkey with irredentist claims, along with a Shiite state in the south closely allied with Iran and possibly threatening the Gulf emirates, Saudi Arabia and U.S. oil interests.
Instead, a policy of forced disarmament was imposed on Iraq, monitored by United Nations personnel and buttressed by severe economic sanctions. Washington, London and Paris established no-flight zones over northern and southern Iraq. The United Nations was successful at uncovering some Iraqi weapons sites.
However, the sanctions regime gradually lost the support of most countries, while the Clinton administration vacillated over possible responses to the end of Iraqi cooperation with UN inspectors in 1998.
The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have changed the prism through which Washington views Iraq. America's belief in its own military capabilities has been reinforced, with a new generation of weapons proving highly effective in Afghanistan. The United States constructed a broad coalition of political support around the world, not least because its seriousness of purpose was clear.
Disappointment over the unwillingness of Arab governments assertively to counteract the theocratic propaganda of Osama bin Laden and other extremists now runs very deep in the United States. A sense exists that America cannot return with its erstwhile Arab partners to the situation that existed before Sept. 11 - a cynical co-dependency resting mostly on trade of Middle East oil for U.S. weapons. That arrangement turned out to provide a fertile breeding environment for Al Qaeda supporters.
The Bush administration now seems quietly committed to finishing off Saddam Hussein, although this will be difficult. U.S. allies, including Britain, are queasy at the prospect, fearing an upheaval in the Arab world. Arab governments worry that America will again leave the job half done. Large sections of the Pentagon are not keen on the militarily daunting task of invading Iraq. U.S. generals know that while air attacks can severely weaken Iraqi military capabilities, only ground action can remove Saddam Hussein. Having failed to support a Shiite rebellion that it had encouraged in southern Iraq in 1991, the United States cannot count on significant internal help in any military campaign. Iraqi opposition groups in exile are widely seen in the Middle East as a bad joke.
What is to be done? A sure-fire military strategy, relying at worst on active British and Turkish support only, will need to be developed. Arab regimes must be convinced that Washington will not fail. To limit Arab street solidarity with Baghdad, the current spiral of violence between Palestinians and Israelis will need to be broken. The outlines of a new Iraqi government, possibly federal in nature, should be worked out in advance to avoid fragmentation of the country. Saddam has recently signaled that he is open to negotiations on the return of UN inspectors. He is clearly aware of the danger that his regime faces.
If they were sure that America would achieve its objective of eliminating Saddam Hussein, would Arab governments, European allies, Russia and China oppose the United States in this venture? Probably not.
The writer, on leave from the Canadian Foreign Service, is president of the International Peace Academy in New York. He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.
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