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Face-off with Iraq inevitable?

By Donald M. RothbergAssociated Press Published: November 24, 1997 12:00 AM

And each year he has seen signs that the coalition formed after his invasion of Kuwait is weakening.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright insisted Sunday that in his latest test of the U.S.-led coalition, Saddam "ran into this brick wall."

But there are undeniable signs that the diplomatic mortar holding that wall together has lost much of its strength over the past seven years.

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"This is not a resolution," former Bush administration official Richard Haass said of the agreement under which Saddam allowed U.N. weapons inspectors to return to Baghdad. "It simply papers over the differences between Saddam and the international community on the one hand and within the international community on the other."

After a brief clenched-teeth confrontation over the makeup of U.N. inspection teams, Saddam gave in. But the United States appears far more skeptical than most other major powers about Iraq's new willingness to cooperate with efforts to find and destroy his weapons of mass destruction.

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"It is clear that there is a massive amount of work that has to be done there, especially in the chemical and biological inspection areas," President Clinton said Sunday.

Iraq's U.N. ambassador, Nizar Hamdoon, countered that sanctions should be lifted now because, he said, the Iraqis have destroyed their weapons themselves.

"The sanctions will stay in place. There is no hope of them being lifted" until Baghdad allows the inspectors freedom to enter all sites where they suspect weapons are hidden or are being produced, Defense Secretary William Cohen said.

But at least two members of the U.N. Security Council may be unwilling to back U.S. determination.

Russia and France have enormous financial stakes in Iraq that cause them to support easing of the sanctions the United States insists are essential to force Saddam to destroy his chemical and biological weapons and stop producing more.

Kuwait, the victim of Iraqi aggression seven years ago, strongly opposed the use of force to resolve the crisis caused when Iraq demanded that Americans be barred from U.N. inspection teams.

Once saved by U.S. military force, Kuwait now appears to share the concerns of other Arab states over the emergence of the United States as the unchallenged Western power in the Middle East.

In addition, there is the impact of the passage of time. The 1990-91 coalition was an extraordinary grouping of states that set aside conflicting interests to counter Iraqi aggression.

But how long could that hold?

"Fatigue is a factor," said Haass, a key adviser to President Bush during the Persian Gulf crisis. "It's not the only factor. Clearly, the coalition suffered from lack of consultations, from French unhappiness with U.S. unilateral sanctions tied to Cuba and Iran, Russia unhappiness over NATO enlargement and Arab unhappiness over the U.S. policy towards the Middle East peace process."

Peter Rodman, director of foreign policy studies at the Nixon Center, argues that Saddam came out of the latest crisis a clear winner.

The Iraqi leader was able to portray himself in the Arab world as an implacable foe of Israel and defender of the Palestinians, said Rodman. In addition, he said, "the whole issue of economic sanctions is going to be reopened in the U.N. Security Council, with the Russians and the French trying to get some timetable for the lifting of the sanctions."

As an added factor, he cited "the split of the coalition."

Greater U.S. determination is needed to keep the coalition together, Rodman said.

"We could have acted unilaterally," he said. "We had a unilateral military option, which the administration seemed terrified about using."

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