Newsreal: Finish the job? Not in our lifetime

The U.S. can't "go all the way" in Iraq because Saddam Hussein's neighbors need to keep him around.


Jonathan Broder
February 24, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)

WASHINGTON -- The deal that United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan struck with Saddam Hussein over the weekend may have diffused the Iraqi crisis, at least temporarily. but diplomats acknowledge it is probably only a matter of time before the world community is nose-to-nose again with the Iraqi strongman over yet another of his violations of international law.

What is not so readily acknowledged is that absent a cohesive American strategy, Middle Eastern leaders wouldn't have it any other way.

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The dirty little secret of the Iraqi crisis, whether it simmers at the United Nations or threatens to boil over into armed conflict, is that the Middle East, the region that would seemingly have the most to gain from Saddam's quick dispatch, needs the petty tyrant.

Why? As long as Saddam remains in power, other leaders in the Middle East look good by comparison. For Syria's President Hafez-al Assad, for example, the focus on Saddam means less attention paid to his own repressive policies. Neighboring Iran, these days regarded as the lesser of two evils, can rebuild its economy and its military undisturbed, secure in the knowledge that either the U.N. or the U.S. will periodically slap down the Islamic republic's most fervent enemy so long as Saddam is around.

Even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earns dividends. Most Israeli intelligence experts have concluded that Saddam no longer has the capability to rain scud missiles on the Jewish state, as he did during the Gulf War. but the memory of those attacks is very much alive in the Israeli mind. Netanyahu, ordering the distribution of gas masks to the general population during the recent crisis, artfully manipulated those memories to deflect attention away from the stalled Middle East peace talks, and he can be expected to utilize the Iraqi threat again if the pressure for concessions becomes too uncomfortable.

Then there are the Kissingerian "balance of power" considerations. Ever since World War I, the stability of the Persian Gulf has depended upon a balance between its two largest nations, Iraq and Iran. But unlike Iran, an ancient and homogeneous culture, modern Iraq is largely a creation of colonial British cartographers and encompasses three distinct regions: the Kurdish north, the Sunni Muslim center and the Shiite Muslim south. If the U.S. toppled Saddam, Iraq could fracture along those ethnic and religious lines, throwing the entire Middle East into turmoil.

Under this scenario, diplomats fear Iran, coming to the aid of its Shiite co-religionists, might grab the south, extending its influence up to the borders of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia -- a prospect that neither desert kingdom, not to mention the United States, relishes. In the north, the breakaway Iraqi Kurds would likely set their sights on a long-sought independent Kurdistan, which would include Kurdish areas of Syria, Iran and Turkey. To preempt such a development, all three countries might tear off chunks of northern Iraq to serve as buffers.

Even if Iraq were to hold together after Saddam's fall, certain Middle eastern
countries
would not be happy at the prospect of new pro-Western regime in Baghdad.
Aligned with Jordan, which has a peace treaty with Israel, Iraq would
become part of a powerful new pro-Western bloc extending from the
Mediterranean to the frontiers of Persia. Not only would this new alliance
greatly upset Iran and Syria, it would also outweigh Iraq's other
traditional rival, Egypt. For all these countries, Saddam's survival is
an insurance policy against their own marginalization.

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The third factor is oil. Ever since the United Nations embargo after the
Gulf War halted most Iraqi oil exports, Saudi Arabia and the other Arab oil
emirates have been pumping more -- and earning more -- to make up for the
shortfall. With a change of regime in Baghdad and the reintroduction of
Iraqi oil into the world market, supplies would increase and prices would
fall. For Saudi Arabia, which is $65 billion in debt, thanks to
overspending on arms and vast public works projects, this would be
especially disastrous. It could even lead to domestic unrest in this
feudally run kingdom. So Saddam serves another crucial purpose: He keeps
oil prices, and therefore various governments, stable.

All of these political realities can perhaps be summed up in one phrase:
The devil you know is preferable to the one you don't. As bad as Saddam is
-- and many Arab leaders say that he's monstrous -- the status quo in the
Middle East serves them well. Apart from Lebanon and Qatar, the last time
leadership changed hands in the Arab world was in 1981, when Egyptian
President Anwar Sadat was assassinated. That is why the region's kings,
princes and presidents are so eager to end the crisis through diplomacy. A
familiar today with Saddam seems far better than an uncertain tomorrow
without him.

The question, of course, is whether that status quo is good enough for the
United States. The U.S. still must sign off on Annan's deal, which
reportedly permits unrestricted U.N. arms inspections of previously closed
presidential sites. But what happens if diplomacy ultimately fails and
subsequent American air strikes fail to open Iraq to unfettered U.N. arms
inspections?
More air strikes? If ground troops are deployed, do they march all the way
to Baghdad this time, unaccompanied by any Arab allies? In which case, is
Washington ready for the regional fall-out?

Edward Djerijian, assistant secretary of state for Middle Eastern affairs
during the Bush administration and one of the architects of U.S. policy
toward Iraq after the Gulf War, says The Clinton administration's Iraq policy
suffers from major flaws.

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The first is Clinton's insistence on maintaining U.N. sanctions so long as
Saddam stays around. "Our strategic objective became unclear when the
Clinton administration indicated that even if Saddam complied with all U.N.
Security Council resolutions, the sanctions against Iraq would remain as
long as Saddam stayed in power," says Djerijian, now director of the Baker
Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston. "That was
not the basis upon which the coalition was built. It allowed Saddam
to go to the Russians, the Chinese and others and say, 'The Iraq people are
damned if I do and damned if I don't.'"

The second is American failure to follow through on its commitments to
fellow anti-Iraq coalition members to push through the Middle East peace
process once the Gulf War was over. Specifically, Djerijian points to the
Clinton administration's reluctance to take on Netanyahu, who is
perceived as bringing the peace process to a halt

"Right or wrong, the feeling in the Arab street is that the United States
is ready to bash the poor, suffering Iraq people again, but it's not
willing to pull its weight in confronting Netanyahu. This has made Arab
leaders wary of supporting us," Djerijian says. "We have to handle both
issues. We have to be ambidextrous."

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Finally, before any concerted action against Saddam can be contemplated,
the U.S. has to get firmly behind a political alternative to Saddam.
Djerijian says the Clinton administration essentially abandoned the Iraqi
opposition when it failed to resolve a power struggle between two Kurdish
leaders in U.S.-protected northern Iraq in 1996, prompting one to cut a
deal with Saddam and the other to turn to Iran. Sensing his chance,
Saddam reoccupied northern Iraq that summer, wiping out the Iraqi
opposition. "That shows we have not been serious about supporting the Iraqi
opposition, and we have to be," Djerijian says.

But reestablishing a political alternative to Saddam will take a long
time, possibly years. In the meantime, the question that a veteran from Maine
posed to Defense Secretary William Cohen during the administration's recent
town meeting in Ohio bears remembering. If the U.S. doesn't go in and finish
the job this time, was it going to "come back and ask my grandson and some of
these other grandsons to put their lives on the line" again? The simple answer is yes. Until the United States can come up with a
better plan, containment offers the least disruptive of all possible worlds.


Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

MORE FROM Jonathan Broder

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bill Clinton Egyptian Protests Iran Iraq Islam Middle East Religion Republican Party Syria United Nations

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