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How the United States Can Free Itself From a Costly, Unrewarding Gulf Policy : Foreign affairs: Gulf security may be enhanced if the sanctions against the Kurds are lifted and Iran is encouraged to play a stronger role.

August 01, 1993|Robin Wright and John Broder | Robin Wright and John Broder, reporters in The Times' Washington bureau, covered the Gulf crisis for The Times

WASHINGTON — Three years ago this week, the world faced its first post-Cold War test, as Saddam Hussein's forces swept into and then swallowed Kuwait. In its response--a punishing 42-day air assault, then a precision 100-hour ground war--the world supposedly established an efficient new model for future warfare.

In military terms, the stated goals were swiftly and easily achieved. Yet today, the United States remains enmeshed in the Gulf. And the issue is not just Hussein's lingering presence.

There's also no imminent prospect of extrication from Operation Provide Comfort in northern Kurdistan or Operation Southern Watch in the Shiite-dominated south. And the U.S. Navy must keep seven to 15 warships nearby because, under present circumstances, the United States will have to defend the Persian Gulf indefinitely. The area is too vast and too valuable, its strategic assets too scattered and its population too small to go it alone.

Meanwhile, costs are mounting. Since the war ended, Washington has given $48 million just for U.N. monitoring. That sum doesn't include the price of relief efforts, disarming Iraq's deadliest weapons, intelligence gathering and other postwar commitments. And the United States long ago went through the $53.6 billion donated by Gulf and European allies.

In other words, the prolonged and costly sequel to Operation Desert Storm is anything but a model for the New World. Indeed, it's setting dangerous precedents for other post-Cold War crises.

So what now?

In his first six months, President Bill Clinton picked up where President George Bush left off on Iraq, but expanded policy on the Gulf. In May, U.S. officials announced a new policy of "dual containment" for both Iraq and Iran.

In fact, however, it doesn't really "contain" either country. And there's nothing dual or symmetrical about it.

In Iraq, Washington's goal is to see Hussein toppled and his system replaced by a democracy--which is much more than containment. In Iran, it is to pressure Tehran, by restricting its foreign trade, to honor human rights and to abandon arms development and aggressive actions abroad--or less than containment.

As a policy, containment--or preventing the spread of something--is better applied to ideologies than to states. Containment worked against communism, but "dual containment" is unlikely to be a viable or effective policy in the Gulf.

So, three years after Iraq's invasion, the time has come to initiate a more creative postwar policy. It's urgently needed to expedite U.S. interests in Iraq and Iran, to ensure broader Gulf security for free flow of oil and to cut costs and manpower.

But it's also needed to show how the world can--and should--deal with the endgame of post-Cold War crises.

Two initiatives suggest the kind of approaches to help end the Gulf impasse.

In Iraq, the United States could advocate lifting United Nations economic sanctions against the Kurds--a step serving many functions.

First, the Kurds live under greater restrictions than any group in Iraq. Besides U.N. sanctions, they must cope with Baghdad's sanctions that isolate Kurdistan from Iraq's resources.

The squeeze is now so severe that Hussein may achieve by economic means what he couldn't militarily or politically--force the Kurds back under his control. Relief agencies predict the number of aid-dependent Kurds will soar from 700,000 to a million this winter.

But under U.N. provisions, help is restricted. Since the 1991 flight of more than a million Kurds to Turkey and Iran during Hussein's reprisals for their uprising, intervention has been limited to humanitarian aid and monitoring Iraq's skies. The world, for example, can't buy Kurdish wheat--forcing the Kurds to sell to Baghdad at low prices and to accept Baghdad's questionable new currency.

Lifting sanctions would help the Kurds fend for themselves. They could sell their current harvest for real money to the outside world, thereby helping to jump-start their economy, avert another humanitarian disaster this winter and diminish the financial drain on donors.

Second, liberating Kurdistan economically tightens the economic squeeze on Hussein, since Kurdish crops would no longer be available to him on his terms.

It might also force Baghdad to comply with U.N. resolutions 706 and 712, which allow Iraq to sell oil to pay for humanitarian goods. Hussein has balked, since profits would also compensate Kuwait and defray U.N. costs.

Third, a healthy Kurdistan linked to and doing business with the world could have political impact. It might motivate other Iraqis to do what the world has been long awaiting. Alternatively, to avoid losing the Kurds politically, it might force Hussein to act on reforms to accommodate Iraq's non-Sunni Muslims.

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