IRAQ UPDATE

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Iraqi Rumbles on the Potomac page 2

Raad Alkadiri, an analyst with the Washington-based Petroleum Finance Group, told AP it appeared the administration was merely trying to deflect some of the criticism of its hard line without making any significant changes in its policy. "The U.S. has decided to back down on an issue it probably was going to come out looking the worst on," he said.

Before the current flurry of activity, U.S. policy on Iraq has been stalemated all year. Stalemate, in this situation, does not imply stability, as conditions in Iraq remain in an actively deteriorating humanitarian crisis and Washington is increasingly isolated from more and more of its allies. While no country or group of countries has been willing so far to go head to head with the U.S. in an overt challenge to the decade-long economic sanctions, support for the policy is rapidly eroding.

While Baghdad has remained ambivalent, Iraq at the end of the day may well refuse to deal with Blix. And if Iraq refuses to allow him into the country, the U.S. will have a field day. The Clinton administration could then use Iraq's rejection of Blix to maintain exactly the status quo it wants -- blaming Baghdad for refusing to allow weapons inspections, and maintaining the crippling economic sanctions claiming that the humanitarian crisis they cause is all Iraq's fault for rejecting UNMOVIC. U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke said in early January that the U.S. would never agree to a candidate acceptable to Baghdad. That means Washington wants a candidate guaranteed to fail in real inspections, but who could serve as a great standard-bearer of Iraqi intransigence. If the Clinton administration can just maintain that for the next ten months, it means getting through the 2000 election campaign without having to worry about a tricky Iraq crisis derailing the hoped-for Gore juggernaut.

It was particularly important that the narrow vote passed the resolution in the face of abstentions by three of the five permanent members of the Council. The UK had taken the diplomatic lead in the Council in pressing for the resolution's passage, largely because of some unease about the increasing sharpness of the contradiction on Iraq policy between London and its European allies, particularly as the U.S.-France contention heated up. (The Netherlands, abandoning its long history of standing for humanitarian principles, chose the pragmatic course of identifying how far the U.S. was willing to go, and limiting its proposals to that. The Dutch joined the UK in much of the pre-resolution negotiating, although they were pointedly excluded when the Perm Five took over the "serious" deliberations.) And it didn't hurt that Britain held the December presidency of the Council, a traditional time for countries (especially the Perm Five) to assert Kodak moments of high-profile diplomacy.

But why is the U.S. still pressing this failed sanctions policy at all -- and why, after a year of status quo in the Council, did Washington feel compelled to at least look like they were prepared to move now? Domestic politics and the elections play a key role. The Clinton administration, fearing attacks from the Republican right-wing as the U.S. moves into election frenzy, is eager to look like it is "doing something" -- anything -- against international enemies, real or imagined (or created). And despite the new year's spate of Y2K Bin-Ladenist hysteria, Saddam Hussein remain the most reliable of Washington's demons du decade. That meant looking like they were getting past the year-long UN paralysis.

Of course the spindoctors can morph anything against Iraq into something against the Iraqi bogeyman. That's always good politics in Washington. In an election year it's even better. As White House spokesman Joe Lockhart put it on the day resolution 1284 was signed, calling on Saddam Hussein to accept the new arms agency, "if he doesn't do that, he continues to live in a world of sanctions." Not the Iraq people, of course, only the ubiquitous "he".

So far in the already frantic run-up to the 2000 election, no candidate is making Iraq an election priority. Among the Republicans and the George W. Bush campaign, condemnation of the Clinton administration for not "being serious" about providing "real" aid to the London-based talking shop known as the Iraqi opposition emerges periodically, but no one has yet raised it to a campaign slogan. John McCain postures a bit more on "standing tall against Saddam," but has not seriously challenged the Clinton policy. As for the Democrats, whatever Al Gore's effort to distance himself from the personal failings of the Clinton White House, he is certainly holding to hard-core Clinton foreign policies. Bill Bradley, before his campaign crashed and burned in early March, showed no indication of any interest in Iraq, beyond claiming to support the current strategy. Criticizing the substance of Clinton's unrelenting anti-Iraq policy of crippling sanctions and just-beneath-the-radar-screen bombings, except perhaps to claim it is not sufficiently "anti-Saddam," is hardly likely to help any candidate in 2000's race-to-the-center campaign.

But that could change if "stalemate" remained a continuing reproach. The long stalemate was also partly caused by Washington's existing policy inertia. Two factors combined to make the years-long sanctions-plus-bombings policy acceptable: First, the lack of viable and politically attractive alternatives (read: it's hard to find a telegenic, risk-free and successful strategy to overthrow Saddam Hussein but keep his regime conveniently in place). And second, the current policy is not yet costly enough to its proponents. The U.S. anti-sanctions movement, while stronger than ever, has not yet created the conditions in which major political figures are compelled to challenge the sanctions policy for their own political survival. What changed over the course of 1999 and significantly in early 2000 has been a growing concern in Washington regarding the dwindling support among UN Security Council members (and other close allies, including in the Middle East) for its increasingly unpopular status quo. That discomfiture is now being magnified by the increasing unease in the Clinton administration over more frequent grassroots-driven media attacks, and the somewhat louder concerns in congress, about the civilian-slaughtering impact of U.S.-driven economic sanctions.

By the first months of 2000, those soft rumbles of future policy shifts had begun to take visible shape. Of course, stalemate could set in again soon. If Blix is not, eventually, allowed into Baghdad, it is certain Clinton will claim credit for holding out for serious arms inspections, the Republicans will lose some of their argument about the dangerous lack of inspections, and economic sanctions will remain comfortably in place. Comfortable for Washington, that is; for Iraqis, it means thousands more children sacrificed to U.S. election spin.


Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. The second edition of her book, Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today's UN, with a new introduction by former Assistant Secretary General Denis Halliday, is forthcoming from Interlink Publishing.