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Containing a Rogue State | THE MIDDLE EAST

The Iraqi President Isn't Done

September 08, 1996|Howard R. Teicher | Howard R. Teicher, author, with Gayle Radley Teicher, of "Twin Pillars to Desert Storm" (Morrow), served on the staff of the National Security Council from 1982-87

WASHINGTON — U.S. cruise-missile attacks, expansion of the southern "no-fly zone" to include the outskirts of Baghdad and suspension of the U.N. deal allowing Iraq to sell oil again surely "impose a price" on Saddam Hussein for taking sides in the Kurdish civil war. But U.S. action alone probably won't change the Iraqi president's penchant for outlaw behavior or significantly enhance U.S. power in the Persian Gulf. Indeed, keenly aware that most U.S. allies did not back President Bill Clinton, Hussein will try to exacerbate and exploit regional tensions.

By contrast, conventional wisdom in Washington holds that Clinton's decision to punish Hussein will reinforce U.S. credibility, deter future Iraqi adventurism and burnish his commander-in-chief credentials. But in a region vulnerable to dramatic and contradictory political change, resurgent Islamic fundamentalism and growing dissatisfaction with the pace of progress in the Middle East peace process, Clinton must be careful not to provoke the very instability he hopes to deter by striking at Iraq.

No U.S. Arab ally cooperated with Clinton's action to hit Hussein. All publicly opposed his use of force. Saudi Arabia and Jordan would not even permit U.S. aircraft to overfly their territory or to use their bases to launch strikes. Saudi and Jordanian leaders would certainly welcome an end to Hussein's regime, but they fear that supporting Washington would enable Hussein to whip up domestic unrest in their countries.

Arab leaders also fear that Washington's attempt to constrain Hussein's ability to preserve the territorial integrity of his country might encourage either Iran or Turkey to violate Iraq's northern borders in pursuit of their own interests. Both countries have fought Kurdish forces in northern Iraq since the end of the Gulf War. Both are tempted by the area's oil reserves. Arabs worry that Washington would not be as aggressive in resisting Iranian expansion as it has in response to Iraqi aggression, unless U.S. interests were directly threatened.

Saudi religious leaders and opposition figures will likely try to use the U.S. attacks to stoke anti-Americanism in their country. The presence there of U.S. military personnel is already a lightning rod for criticism of King Fahd's rule, in addition to being a target of terrorist attacks. Twenty-three Americans have been killed in the last nine months. Renewal of the Washington-Baghdad feud may prompt more terrorist acts, further eroding the stability of the Saudi regime and creating new political problems for Clinton.

Hussein will not have to work hard to create political problems for Jordan's King Hussein. Opposition to Western-oriented economic reforms recently sparked bread riots in Jordan, and the tensions are still simmering. Moreover, many Jordanians retain goodwill toward Iraq after the Gulf War. And Jordan's peace with Israel is an easy excuse for Hussein to make trouble.

Although a member of the coalition that carried out Operation Desert Storm, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak opposed the missile attacks against Iraq. Mubarak has worked hard to restore his stature as a preeminent Arab leader ready to assert his independence from Washington at appropriate opportunities. With anti-Israel sentiment in Egypt widespread and growing, and with Islamic fundamentalists striking at government officials and foreigners, Washington cannot count on much Egyptian cooperation in its disagreement with Iraq.

Turkey has its own reasons for opposing the U.S. military attacks on Iraq. Given its long-standing Kurdish problem, Ankara was no doubt pleased to see Kurdish civil strife reducing pressure on its southeastern border. But U.S. intervention in the area can only complicate the Kurdish web that already ensnares Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Despite Washington's expressed desire to avoid getting caught in this web, Kurdish leaders will undoubtedly intensify their efforts to exploit U.S. power on behalf of factional interests.

Turkish opposition also stems from the recent electoral victory of Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan. Ever since, Turkey's foreign policy has become increasingly schizophrenic and anti-Western, despite its membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Turkish military's close ties with the United States. Erbakan wants to minimize relations with the West. Last month, for example, he angered Washington by traveling to Iran to negotiate a $23-billion natural-gas deal.

Further east, the fundamentalist regime in Tehran will continue to lash out at Washington's intervention even as it takes quiet satisfaction in any U.S. action that weakens Iraq. The Iranian leadership, having suffered through nearly four years of Clinton attempts to tighten a political and economic noose around Tehran, seems to understand the limits of U.S. power. Despite Washington's best efforts, Iran and much of the rest of the world continue to trade with each other.

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