Gulf war coalition is not solidly with U.S. Fraying of alliance limits options in crisis with Iraq

November 12, 1997|By Mark Matthews and Tom Bowman | Mark Matthews and Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- As American diplomats try to rebuild the once-powerful coalition that drove Iraq from Kuwait in 1991, they are being undercut at almost every turn.

Russia declared its adamant opposition yesterday to the use of force against Iraq, and China appeared to agree.

Egypt highlighted the general Arab unhappiness with the United States by announcing that it would boycott a U.S.-promoted Middle East economic conference.

And France, while critical of Iraq, granted Baghdad's deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, a high-level meeting in Paris while he was en route to the United Nations on Sunday. As a result, the White House has been forced to go along with the mildest of punishments against Iraq for blocking U.N. inspection of Saddam Hussein's dangerous weapons programs.

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Bill Richardson, said he expected a "resolution with teeth." But the measure likely to be adopted by the U.N. Security Council today would tighten sanctions against Iraq only slightly, by blocking travel by senior Iraqis. It would stop short of even threatening force.

The fraying of the U.S. alliance at the United Nations has severely limited U.S. options in a potentially explosive crisis with Iraq.

One defense official said it was doubtful that the United States would launch any military action without some hostile measure by Iraq or a request by the United Nations. So far, Iraq has refrained from such a provocation.

Sharp contrast

This is a sharp contrast to the solid bloc of nations that in 1991 supported military action to end Iraqi aggression against Kuwait and for years afterward kept Baghdad in the grip of tight economic sanctions.

The reasons the coalition has weakened are various. First, there is the six years that have elapsed since President George Bush -- working the telephone and sending his secretary of state around the world -- managed to corral leaders of several nations with widely disparate interests into supporting the use of force against Iraq.

"You have to remember how tough it was to keep the coalition together," says Bush's secretary of state, James A. Baker III. "It requires constant care and feeding and attention."

In the years since the Persian Gulf war, relationships between Washington and a number of its coalition partners have been buffeted by disagreements. France and Russia both want to develop commercial ties with Iraq once U.N. economic sanctions are lifted, helping Baghdad exploit its oil wealth.

France, along with other European powers, has been angered by the Helms-Burton law in the United States, which is intended to punish companies that do business in Cuba.

'Profound disagreement'

But the most profound disagreement appears to be with moderate Arab governments over the U.S. role in the Arab-Israeli peace process. In much of the Arab world, Hussein is no longer the No. 1 target of criticism, says Mohammed Wahby, a prominent Arab commentator who was formerly Egypt's spokesman in Washington.

"The rallying point now is Netanyahu," he says, referring to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. Netanyahu's hard-line Likud government has frustrated moderate Arab states and the United States with its refusal to halt Jewish settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Frustration with the peace process in the Arab world has left many U.S. allies there feeling exposed, Baker notes.

"Moderate Arab governments put a lot into supporting" the U.S.-backed peace process," says Baker, who launched the 1991 process. "Then, when [the peace process] goes in the tank, those moderate Arab governments are subjected to criticism and pressure by radicals in their own countries."

The decision by Egypt to boycott this month's Middle East economic conference stems from this pressure and cannot be separated from U.S. efforts to isolate Iraq. The conference, set for Doha, Qatar, is an outgrowth of the peace process launched after the 1991 defeat of Iraq. Its intent is to spur trade and business deals between Israelis and Arabs and in doing so, promote a cooperative new Middle East.

Besides Egypt, countries that plan to boycott the conference include Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates -- two Persian Gulf powers with a big stake in containing Hussein.

An Israeli spokesman in Washington, Gadi Baltiansky, acknowledges the connection between the gulf crisis and the peace process, but said it was wrong to blame Israel.

'Everything is linked'

"Of course, everything is linked," he says. "Of course, there are feelings, but Israel can't be blamed for everything. If Palestinians in the West Bank supported Saddam Hussein -- and by the way, they supported him seven years ago -- it's not our fault."

Baker says the Clinton administration needs to adopt a more aggressive posture in the Middle East peace process, putting its own proposals forward and pushing for a halt to Israeli settlement activity. Meanwhile, he says, it makes sense for Washington to take the time to rebuild the coalition.

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