Clinton is right to want a 'different relationship'

Charles William Maynes

January 20, 1993|By Charles William Maynes

BRICKBATS are showering Bill Clinton because he told the New York Times that if Saddam Hussein "wants a different relationship with the United States and the United Nations, all he has to do is change his behavior." Except for his suggestion that U.S. relations with Iraq could be normalized, he was right.

George Bush has left the United States in an impossible dilemma. He has said the Iraqis must overthrow Saddam Hussein before the United States will support a lifting of U.N. sanctions.

Since the Iraqis are unable to meet that demand and Saddam will not agree to it, the prospects for a near-term improvement in the crisis are slim.

Mr. Bush has so personalized his struggle with Saddam that the country faces three impossible policy choices.

First, it can launch a ground war designed to overthrow him. That will require the capture of Baghdad and probably the occupation of the entire country.

The chances of gaining Arab support would be nil, considering that Monday the Arab League deplored the "military escalation against Iraq" and called for negotiations.

Moreover, it is doubtful that we would be able to persuade others to pay for a second Operation Desert Storm.

A second impossible option is to soften the sanctions and reach an accommodation with Saddam. In that case, he could pretend to have won the gulf war.

Perhaps more important, such a move would devastate the concept of collective security as exemplified by the U.N. sanctions against Iraq. If Iraq were to escape the noose that it helped tie, the lesson would not be lost on others.

We are thus left with a continuation of the cat-and-mouse game of Iraqi cheat-and-retreat.

Week after week, Iraq presses for a soft spot in coalition policy; week after week, we look for ways to respond, each time with diminished coalition support.

This option has no conceivable outcome except a growing perception of Iraqi gains. The reality may be repeated bloody noses for the Iraqi military, but Saddam will proclaim his defiance and denounce what he will term Western barbarism in attacking the Iraqi people.

Current policy has other costs. One under-reported effect of the gulf war was that it undermined popular support for all Arab governments that supported the coalition effort.

So long as Washington seems to insist on unconditional surrender, Saddam Hussein can be expected to exploit popular anti-Americanism in the Arab world.

Current policy also risks the dismemberment of Iraq, which no state supports, except possibly Iran. The Turks fear that a Kurdish state could rise from the body of a dismembered Iraq. The Arabs are terrified that a dismembered Iraq might open the way to even greater influence of Iran.

What should U.S. policy be? Whether or not Mr. Clinton uses the same words, he should stick to his intention not to personalize the struggle with Iraq. His goal should be to make it clear to Iraq that U.N. sanctions would be lifted if it complied with Security Council resolutions -- including the way it treats the Kurds and Shiites -- regardless of who is in charge in Baghdad.

Normalization with the United States should be ruled out as long as Saddam Hussein is in power: There will be no political support for it. But we should not stand in the way of the United Nations' lifting the sanctions once Iraq is in compliance, even if Hussein has not been overthrown.

Many are eagerly denouncing Bill Clinton's supposed first foreign policy blunder. But it was not a blunder. It was an effort to avoid Bush's mistakes.

Those who urge unconditional surrender on Iraq should be honest enough to explain to America how the goal can be obtained. In 1945, we had to go to Berlin to obtain such an objective. Do we really want to go to Baghdad?

Charles William Maynes is editor of Foreign Policy magazine.

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