Time for a Rethink on Iraq?

Editorial of Middle East International
31 March 1995

London - Turkey's massive military operation in northern Iraq ought to prompt a rethink of Western, meaning primarily American, policy towards Iraq. But it probably will not. The Clinton administration has settled into a mode of behaviour that may suit its immediate political considerations, but risks inflicting a disaster on Iraq and exasperating some of its friends in the region (with the notable exception of Israel) almost as much as its foes.

By justifying the Turkish offensive as a legitimate act of self-defence against the PKK, Washington has endorsed the invasion of one sovereign state's territory by another and made a mockery of the Kurdish 'safe haven' in Northern Iraq. The scale of the operation indicates that it is more than just another of Ankara's attempts to 'annihilate' its own Kurdish insurgents. In addition to serving domestic Turkish political needs (notably those of the military), it appears to be targeted as much against the Iraqi Kurds as the PKK. Turkey has made no secret of its desire to press them into suing for an accomodation with Baghdad to curb their separatist ambitions and pave the way for Iraq's political and economic rehabilitation. This is totally at odds with Washington's approach, which seeks to bleed Iraq dry until President Saddam Hussein exits the scene. Yet it relies on Turkey as an essential partner in this endeavour.

Washington has in the process turned the maintenance of the economic embargo against Iraq into an obsession. According to the letter of the UN's Gulf war resolutions, which after all were authored by the US itself, Iraq should be relieved of the oil embargo once it fulfills UNSCOM's disarmament demands, which it is close to doing. But Washington has made clear that it intends to stretch the interpretation of those resolutions, using its veto power if need be, to ensure that the sanctions remain in place as long as Saddam remains in power. Its latest 'offer' to permit limited Iraqi oil sales under stringent conditions is a transparent attempt to avert a complete lifting of the embargo, which it has started resorting to some pretty thin arguments, coupled with some heavy arm-twisting, to justify maintaining.

The paradox (sic) is that this has not been accompanied by any serious US endeavour to engineer Saddam's downfall, a goal which in any case promises to be extremely messy to achieve. The Iraqi opposition factions favoured by the US claim to be trying, but their credibility has become flimsy, and many of Saddam's most vehement Iraqi opponents are now as adamantly opposed to sanctions as they are to the regime.

All of which raises the question of why the sanctions are really being kept in place. Some analysts, like the oil expert Dr Fadhil al-Shalabi, suggest that they have more to do with sustaining the Gulf states' oil revenues - and their ability to foot huge US arms and 'protection' bills - than enforcing UN resolutions or undermining the regime in Baghdad. And while it is debatable to what extent sanctions are actually weakening Saddam - the argument is frequently made that they in fact strengthen his hold on power - there can be no doubt that they have reduced most ordinary Iraqis to penury, wrought havoc on Iraq's social fabric, and sown the seeds of a future political backlash.

And they are not the only measures that in effect target Iraq as a country more than they do the regime. For example, the provisions for potentially massive reparations payment will hang like a sword of Damocles over every future Iraqi government to ensure that it remains beholden to the US, a sure recipe for trouble. The redrawing of the border with Kuwait may have been intended to humiliate Saddam, but it too will almost certainly come back to haunt his successors one day. So will the potentially open-ended curbs on the Iraqi military and industrial sectors.

The US policy of 'dual containment' of both Iraq and Iran also begs many long-term questions, not least the effect on the Pax Americana that Washington seeks to impose on the Middle East with so little consideration for basic issues of justice and public acceptability. There must be something seriously wrong in a strategy that is to reorder the region and establish the basis for a long-term peace when it is predicated on isolating, if not throttling, two of its most important and influential countries.

Yet remarkably little thought has been given in the West to the consequences of these policies. Perhaps this is because a serious re-evaluation might lead to the conclusion that the resort to war against Iraq in 1990-1, without seriously trying other options, was more fraught with long-term problems than decision-makers were prepared to concede at the time.

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