BETHLEHEM, PA. — The spread of sanctions fatigue from the Middle East to Europe is threatening the essence of U.S. policy toward Iraq. Increasingly, friends and foes alike are disregarding the containment policy, convincing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that he will soon be rehabilitated. In the last few months, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez visited Hussein, Europeans sent flights into previously closed Baghdad airport, Syrians have reopened a major oil pipeline from Iraq to the Mediterranean and the Turks are preparing to send a senior ambassador to Baghdad.
To head off Hussein's success in the propaganda war, current U.S. policy should be dramatically reformulated. Specifically, the economic aspects of the sanctions regime should be traded away for a robust and multilateral effort focused at undermining the regime in Baghdad.
The military and economic sanctions imposed on Iraq had two basic aims: weaken the regime and force it to comply with U.N. resolutions, including those calling for Iraq to eliminate its weapons of mass destruction. Hussein refused to cooperate with U.N. arms inspectors. In the mid-1990s, sanctions were modified because of deteriorating conditions inside Iraq. Under an oil-for-food program, Iraq was allowed to sell oil and use the proceeds, closely monitored by the United Nations, to buy food and medicine. By 2000, the upper limits on oil exports through the U.N. system were eliminated.
As a regional military power, Iraq is weaker than it has ever been. But at home, Hussein's hold on power is stronger than ever. The regime's rationing system to distribute food and medicines has become a tool of control and a mechanism to punish people suspected of disloyalty. Moreover, while Iraqis are deprived of basic commodities, Hussein and his cronies, through the contraband of medicines and oil, have enriched themselves. The new oil exports to Syria will directly contribute at least $2 million a day to Hussein's coffers.
Military sanctions, by contrast, have prevented Iraqis from rearming. But the regime has refused to submit itself to intrusive inspection of its weapons-of-mass-destruction capabilities. Most observers assume that since the departure of U.N. arms inspectors in December 1998, Hussein has been free to rebuild his weapons production facilities. The U.S., in an effort to accommodate members of the U.N. Security Council, reluctantly agreed to revamp the inspection regime. When the Security Council voted for the resolution establishing the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, the new inspections organization, three of the five permanent members abstained. Baghdad viewed the split as a victory, and in the year since the resolution was adopted, it has steadfastly maintained that it will not allow inspectors in.
Baghdad's success at keeping inspectors out of Iraq is indicative of what has gone wrong with U.S. Iraq policy. Confident that the U.S. is unwilling to commit troops to achieve his overthrow, Hussein has been able to dictate the time and place of crises. In August 1996, he temporarily allied himself with one of the Kurdish leaders in the north of Iraq and attacked the main Iraqi opposition forces and their other Kurdish allies, thereby making a mockery of U.S. efforts to protect the north.
Iraq is a deeply divided country. It is composed of three distinct and antagonistic groups: Kurds in the north, ruling minority Sunnis in the center and the Shiite majority in the south and on the outskirts of Baghdad. While Kurds have always sought independence, Sunnis are the most insecure and fearful. First and foremost, they fear that Shiites will sweep down from the shantytowns of Baghdad and exact bloody revenge for Hussein's brutal rule. Immediately after the Gulf War, when Shiites in the south rebelled, they did precisely that by going after the regime's supporters.
One of Washington's more serious shortcomings was not to articulate a vision for a post-Hussein Iraq. Rhetorically, the U.S. called for a unified Iraq that could rejoin the international community, but it never explicitly stated how it would help Iraq rebuild its infrastructure, deal with the debt burden incurred by Hussein's wars, protect the country's different groups and address security concerns, especially those regarding Iran.