Middle East

Powell Play

Smart sanctions, stupid policy?

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Colin Powell chose the Middle East as the first place to alight as Secretary of State, and it was no coincidence. That's because the secretary had Washington on his mind, and his perambulations were mainly aimed at imposing his agenda on a Bush administration whose Middle East policy is still ill-defined and potentially malleable.

However, if the past weeks are any indication, what lies ahead is pandemonium. When first taking office, Powell remarked that the United States would deal with the Middle East in its "totality." What he meant was that there would be less attention reserved for a Palestinian-Israeli settlement (which Bill Clinton helped undermine by pushing too hard too soon). Recently, the State Department broke all ties to the past when it announced that the expression "peace process" had been dropped from its lexicon—an admission of rhetorical, and so political, loss of control over the Arab-Israeli negotiations.

The administration's minimalism on negotiations has been accompanied by a consensus to focus on Iraq. But the harmony within the Bush White House ends there. On the one side there is Powell who wants to pressure Iraq but also spare the U.S. growing censure for a sanctions policy that is seen as unreasonably open-ended and cruel. Powell's favored alternative is to introduce so-called smart sanctions, which would prevent the importation mainly of military material into Iraq. The idea is to lessen the burden on Iraqi civilians while targeting Saddam Hussein's weapons programs and security apparatus.

On the other side is Vice President Dick Cheney, and his ally and former patron, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who is assisted by Paul Wolfowitz. All three men regard sanctions as less important than overthrowing Saddam. The best way to do so, they feel, is for the U.S. to amply fund and militarily assist the opposition Iraqi National Congress, thereby reversing the debacle of 1996, when desultory U.S. backing for the INC allowed Saddam to expel the group from northern Iraq.

Here's the crux of the problem: Powell doesn't believe in the INC, and yet it is the State Department that disburses congressional funds to the Iraqi opposition. Money may become an issue elsewhere, too. Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz know that a "smart sanctions" regime may in time lead to the abolition of "no-fly" zones over northern and southern Iraq. The Pentagon could lose billions of dollars available to patrol the zones—$1.4 billion for the southern zone alone in FY 2000—and an attendant loss of influence over Iraq policy.

Bureaucratic skirmishing often conceals latent alliances. Since being president of Halliburton, Cheney has been especially sympathetic to the oil interests. Powell concurs, and both men realize that the U.S. absorbs some 60 percent to 70 percent of Iraqi oil exports. So if there is a compromise to be worked out on Iraq between the different Washington factions, oil may provide the impetus. But before then, Powell will have to clear up several glaring ambiguities.

The first is that he will have to square overexertion in Iraq with minimalism on the Palestinian-Israeli track. Powell needs the Arabs to back his "smart sanctions" stratagem. While most Arab regimes like the idea of less pressure on the Iraqi people, they are reluctant to help the U.S. because they believe Washington is acquiescing in the killing of Palestinians by Israelis. Powell has not found a way out of the dilemma. His only solution may be to reinvolve the U.S. in the details of the Arab-Israeli negotiations, something he has vowed not to do.

A second problem is Iran. Powell cannot fully implement "smart sanctions" without somehow bringing the Iranians in on the arrangement. Recently, the head of State's policy planning staff, Richard Haass, proposed a dialogue between the U.S. and a Tehran-based Shia Iraqi opposition group. The idea was that the U.S. might support the movement's activities in southern Iraq. Haass could be trying to pay off the Iranians to ease them into informally implementing "smart sanctions." However, selling a pro-Iranian movement in Washington could also be suicide.

A third problem is that the sanctions on Iraq are eroding daily. Powell will have a rough time convincing Saddam's neighbors that "smart sanctions" are worth implementing. Everything about the current sanctions regime encourages Iraq's neighbors to benefit from the illegal transit trade. Powell's Washington rivals will be delighted to see him fumble as he tries to corral the Syrians, Jordanians, Turks, and others into a compact most couldn't care less about. If he fails, the hardliners will be on hand to push ever more aggressively for Saddam's ouster.

In administration disputes, a frequent method of compromise is to simultaneously run diametrically opposed policies. There's a good chance the U.S. may end up backing both "smart sanctions" and a regime change. This will mean confusion and more, not less U.S. involvement in the region. Who knows? It could be time for George W. Bush to read up a bit and weigh in on his Middle East priorities.