Sometimes it's best just to let a problem solve itself VTC

September 09, 1996|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- The Persian Gulf war alliance could not be put together again by Bill Clinton, which should have surprised no one in Washington. It was an unlikely alliance even in 1991, and today the interests of its individual members have much diverged.

The explanation is easy. The Arab or Islamic governments that were members of the coalition President Bush assembled after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait no longer feel particularly threatened by Saddam Hussein. To the extent that they themselves confront internal opposition, they are made uneasy by the Clinton administration's challenge to the Iraqi government's sovereign authority over its own territory and people.

American political credit has also been diminished by the unqualified support given Israel's invasion of Lebanon earlier this year, and by the general course of events in Israel.

In Europe, the French, Italian and Russian governments think Mr. Clinton is motivated primarily by electoral considerations, which he is, and they regard the basis in international law for Mr. Clinton's actions as decidedly feeble, which also is true.

They are disposed toward a Machiavellian interpretation of anything the United States does in the region, which is reciprocated by Washington. The American government thinks the French and Italians want to rebuild commercial relations with Baghdad -- as they do. Paris thinks Washington wants to keep Iraqi oil off the international market in order to protect the oil-sales income of its ally, Saudi Arabia -- which it does.

No choice for Clinton

What happened last week was nonetheless inevitable, once Saddam Hussein moved north, to support his allies in the Kurdish internal struggle. Mr. Clinton could not have done otherwise, even if this were not the election season.

The question is what all this means for the longer term. What does Washington eventually expect of Iraq -- and of Iran, and the other Persian Gulf states? The current policy rationale is that the U.S. is reinforcing a position as protector of friendly states, producers of the oil which Americans consume.

It is an explanation that does not easily bear examination, since American intervention in support of the existing autocratic governments of the Arabian oil-producing states tends actually to undermine them. An anti-American Islamic fundamentalism is demonstrating itself to be -- for the moment -- the most dynamic political force in the region.

The policy also lacks economic credibility. The ''rogue'' Islamic states, Iraq, Iran and Libya, would all gladly sell oil to the United States today, if the United States would buy it. They would be pleased to have the investments of American oil companies, currently barred by American law from doing business with them.

It lacks pragmatism, since American efforts to manipulate the internal politics of these ''rogue'' nations by sponsoring dissident movements and ethnic minorities -- the Kurds, the Shi'ite Marsh Arabs in Iraq -- and various exile groups, have if anything made matters worse.

The American Congress has never forgotten that the CIA in 1954 was able both to save the shah of Iran from his nationalist opponents, and successfully sponsor a military coup in Guatemala against a newly elected leftist (not communist) government.

Thus Newt Gingrich, during his 15 minutes of adulation following the 1994 congressional elections, promoted legislation instructing the CIA to reorder affairs in the Mideast by ''clandestine'' means. It has yet to succeed.

Belief in the efficacy of clandestine political action survives despite the fact that the shah eventually was driven out of power by forces made even more virulent by a national sense of victimization by the United States. The coup in Guatemala put into power a succession of military governments whose record, ever since, has been of sinister crimes and abuse of the Guatemalan people.

There is often much to be said for the neglect of problems. That other famous ''rogue'' leader, sponsor of terrorism and arch-enemy of America, Col. Muammar el Kadafi, has just observed the 27th anniversary of his seizure of power in Libya. Spectators were scarce and restless at the ''popular festival'' held September 1 in Tripoli's grand stadium; most of them were soldiers ordered to be there. European journalists report that the stores in Tripoli are half-empty, ''not because the country has sunk into poverty,'' according to one diplomat. ''Despite the international embargo, oil sales brought in $10 billion last year. It's simply mismanagement.''

At the festival, the colonel promised the equivalent of $5,000 gifts to 100,000 families -- as he has done repeatedly on past anniversaries. The money is never paid. The people are indifferent. ''The truth is very simple,'' the diplomat said. ''He's no longer popular. The Libyans no longer understand him.''

The regime approaches its end. The Kadafi menace is withered. The flamboyant colonel's power survives chiefly in the imagination of political Washington.

Time disposes, even of rogues and roguery.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/09/96

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