Archive for Friday, March 2, 2001

U.S. needs strategy on Mideast

March 2, 2001


— Don Rumsfeld and Colin Powell have responded to the urgent, sticking fingers in the leaky dike of U.S. foreign policy. Now they and President Bush must concentrate on the important: developing long-term strategies for the Middle East.

The Feb. 16 bombing of Iraq was a correction to U.S. policy, not a strategic point of departure. Iraq had been allowed to strengthen its air defenses and increasingly threaten American and British pilots. China, it turns out, was helping the Iraqis, with no protest from the departing Clinton administration.

This raid was antithesis to the Clinton-era imperative of keeping Iraq out of the news. A televised Pentagon press conference spotlighted the strike. Also revealing was Bush's decision to leave the timing of the raid to the military even though it meant bombs fell as he met with Mexico's Vicente Fox, and the diplomatic message of the day got stepped on.

Bush passed the test that Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and/or his generals set for the new president. Bush did not wimp out. Security won out over public relations. That should be a guiding theme for the Bush team in confronting Saddam Hussein, regularly and frontally, politically and when necessary militarily.

Powell's quieter dike-plugging came in Syria, where the secretary of state met this week with Bashar Assad, the Arab country's relatively inexperienced president. Assad's propensity for miscalculation has been sending shudders through the Pentagon and the State Department for months.

The Syrian has told other Arab leaders that Israel has become a paper tiger. The Jewish state withdrew from Lebanon last summer because of weakness, according to Assad, and no longer has the will to carry out massive reprisals on Arab countries.

Powell's main job in Damascus should have been to dispel such suicidal delusions about Israel's capabilities and determination, under Ariel Sharon or anyone else. The chatter about resuming peace talks now sounds like a public cover story for the warning to Assad to back away from the brink on Israel, and perhaps on Iraq.

Powell says he got Assad to promise in private to put under U.N. control the money the Syrians have been illegally paying Iraq for oil. That will be a real advance if and when Assad actually does it. No Syrian has yet confirmed Powell's statement.

The rest of Powell's Middle East journey centered more on public relations than on security, in an unfortunate reversal of the priorities Bush adopted on Feb. 16. That reversal poses big pitfalls.

Powell spoke vaguely of easing U.N. sanctions to enable Iraqi civilians to get water pumps, refrigerators and other consumer goods. That is a laudable goal. I wish him well. The problem is Powell is making a promise that is not in his power or that of the United Nations to keep.

Determining if refrigerators get to Iraq and who gets them are sovereign decision in that country. Saddam Hussein will not let Powell or U.N. representatives decide whether Iraq's biological weapons experts will be denied refrigerators so they can go instead to destitute Shiite families who oppose Saddam.

This reality is laid out in U.N. documents: The more oil the Iraqi government has sold under the oil-for-food program, the less money it has spent on medicine, education, water, sanitation and other humanitarian items that Iraq is free to buy right now.

Saddam deliberately imperils Iraq's civilians to heighten his propaganda assault on sanctions and Washington. Some diplomats at the United Nations speculate that Saddam is now cutting back Iraq's spending on vital goods and services as a deliberate strategy to reinforce his control over the civilian population.

The numbers are spelled out in a Jan. 16 letter from Benon Sevan, executive director of the U.N.'s humanitarian project on Iraq, and elsewhere. On Feb. 14, Secretary-General Kofi Annan made an extraordinary plea to the Iraqis to spend more on their people's health and food to lessen their suffering.

A half-billion dollars that Iraqi oil sales earned and the U.N. cleared for humanitarian purchases from last June to December languishes unused today. A total of $4 billion has accumulated in the U.N. account since the oil-for-food program began in 1996.

Powell's strategy of repackaging sanctions to mollify Arab and European critics will bring no direct relief to Iraq's citizens, who are held hostage by a brutal dictator. Worse, it may encourage Saddam to join Assad in seeing paper tigers all around. That's a recipe for keeping Don Rumsfeld's fingers busy.

Jim Hoagland is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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