U.S. diplomats plan visits for Mideast, Europe Foreign policy officials to seek support of possible air strikes against Iraq

January 27, 1998|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's foreign policy team is preparing twin diplomatic campaigns in the coming weeks to line up support for possible military action against Iraq and to try to renew stalled Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and others plan trips to Europe and the Mideast in pursuit of the initiatives.

But the administration faces a tough selling job on both fronts.

Important members of the United Nations Security Council -- France, Russia and China -- oppose the use of air strikes against Iraq to force Saddam Hussein to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors.

And anti-American, anti-Israeli opinion in the Arab world could become inflamed if many Iraqis are killed in military action, dealing a new setback to the Mideast peace process.

"We're obviously pursuing both tracks as vigorously as we can, but we won't be deterred from doing what we have to do on Iraq," an administration official said.

Policy functioning 'normally'

The new diplomatic activity comes as the White House struggles to keep up with the nation's business as it battles a sex scandal that threatens to engulf Bill Clinton's presidency.

Administration officials, however, dismiss as absurd the notion that they are launching the foreign policy efforts as a display of business as usual or to distract the public.

"The foreign policy apparatus is functioning normally. Trips to the region and phone calls are not ideas people came up with yesterday in response to a political crisis," one official said.

German Chancellor Helmut Kohn called Clinton yesterday to discuss both Iraq and the Asian financial crisis.

Albright might make two trips in the next few weeks, officials said: one to Europe to shore up support among U.S. allies for military action against Iraq and another either to Europe or the Mideast for talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Leader Yasser Arafat. She spoke Sunday by phone with Netanyahu.

Secretary of Defense William Cohen is to travel to Europe in the second week of February, officials said.

Action would be weeks away

The administration's drumbeat against Iraq follows last week's report to the Security Council by chief weapons inspector Richard Butler, who said Iraqi obstruction had made it impossible for him to do his job of searching for and destroying Baghdad's dangerous weapons.

Officials said military action against Iraq, if ordered, was still weeks away. They also warned that it would not involve pin-prick attacks.

U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia, America's most important ally in the Persian Gulf, are fraught with distrust, according to experts on the region. Nevertheless, Riyadh is expected to cooperate with U.S. military action if it will damage the Saddam Hussein regime.

Other Persian Gulf allies are also growing more hostile toward Iraq, according to diplomats.

But even close U.S. allies voice doubts that military strikes can accomplish much beyond punishment of Iraq. "That's always been the question: What would be the specific purpose, and could it be done in a way to achieve the right reaction?" said a European diplomat whose government supports the United States. "But if you don't use the military option, what else can you do to force him to do what you want?"

Some Washington analysts have tried to counter the argument that, by hitting Iraq, the United States and its allies will doom the peace process.

"If the U.S. looks weak in the gulf, that doesn't help the peace process," said Peter Rodman, who heads the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom. "You gain in general by being strong."

Rodman has urged Republicans on Capitol Hill to line up in support of any use of force against Iraq by Clinton.

On the Mideast, Clinton held lengthy meetings last week with Netanyahu and Arafat but failed to break a deadlock. Officials have pushed both sides to make parallel steps: Israel by withdrawing from 12 percent of the territory it occupies in the West Bank and the Palestinians by incarcerating accused criminals and halting fierce anti-Israeli rhetoric.

Pub Date: 1/27/98

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