Posted on March 03, 1998 in Washington Watch

In the end, President Clinton did the right thing and deferred to the United Nations Security Council in an effort to diffuse a dangerous standoff with Iraq.

It had been dangerous for the United States to be out on a limb virtually alone threatening “sustained and decisive” bombing against Iraq. The negative consequences to the people of that country and to U.S. allies and interests were too great. And the prospects of any positive outcome were, at best, negligible.

From the outset, the President had said that the confrontation was not between the United States and Iraq, it was between the United Nations and Iraq. And he repeatedly affirmed that a diplomatic solution, was the preferred solution. Therefore, when Secretary General Kofi Annan succeeded in securing written Iraqi compliance with weapons inspections, the Administration could not but accept the agreement.

No sooner had the success been announced in Baghdad, however, than Republican Senate leaders began attacking both the Secretary General and the President. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott criticized Clinton for having “subcontracted U.S. foreign policy out to the UN.” Other Senators began plotting to make Clinton’s “weakness” an issue to exploit in the 1998 elections.

The blatant partisanship of these attacks was as shocking as was the absurdity of the arguments used by these Senators. For example, the night the agreement was reached in Iraq, I debated Republican Senator Arlen Specter on CNN’s Crossfire. Specter, parroting the party line, had just announced that he would introduce a “feel-good, do-nothing” Senate resolution calling for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Struck by the Senator’s remarkable inconsistency on this issue, I reminded him of his record. In 1990, he, like many of his colleagues, had visited Baghdad and supported the Iraqi leader. More recently, I noted that on January 28 of this year, the Senator had cosponsored the Senate bill that was to authorize the President to use force against Iraq. But on February 12 Specter noted that he would not support the effort for three reasons:

· after attending four meetings in his state he noted that his constituents were not supportive and “had concerns about our goals” in Iraq;
· recalling his travels throughout the Middle East, he noted that many in the region had commented on our “abuse of power” and our “arrogance” in dealing with other countries, and
· he noted that “we do not have the cooperation of others” in this attack on Iraq.

Now, less than two weeks later, with the Secretary General of the United Nations having secured an agreement, the Senator had somehow decided that it would be neither “arrogant” nor “abusive” for the Republican Senate to criticize the President and the United Nations.

When one of the show’s hosts, Robert Novak, asked the Senator how he felt about the suffering of Iraq’s people, Specter indicated no sympathy because, he said, “they are responsible for Saddam”!

This Rambo-like mentality is running rampant among some of the so-called “experts” as well. With the crisis somewhat subsided, they have allowed their fantasies to run wild. For the most part, their views share a number of common denominators: they have no understanding of the reality of Iraq or the broader Middle East; what they propose are largely attempts to transpose Reagan-era Afghanistan and Nicaragua adventures onto Iraq; since none of these schemes will ever be used, their proponents can, without any sense of responsibility, propose whatever they will.

A former U.S. ambassador, Edward Peck, made the most incisive comment of the week. When asked by the host of one TV show to evaluate one of these right-wing proposals, Peck said: “Well, I’ve been hearing such things from a number of people – people who don’t know anything about Iraq, which, of course, is nothing to be ashamed of, unless they’re talking about Iraq”.

But with little shame and even less knowledge and responsibility, the Senate and their supporters will continue to challenge the president and the Secretary General. The Administration will resist these efforts, but resisting is not enough. Kofi Annan created a framework for the resolution of the crisis, but the crisis has not yet passed.

Iraq will now be tested, and it must comply. If it were wise, Iraq would not only move decisively to comply and clear all of its outstanding files with the weapons inspection teams, it would also display a genuine readiness to resolve other outstanding UN resolutions. The government in Baghdad should recognize recent gains in ending regional and international isolation. Through reform and reordered priorities, the government of Iraq could help turn a new page in its regional relations, if it were wise.

However, the United Nations and the United States will also be tested. If Iraq complies, the United Nations must signal its readiness to lift economic sanctions at a specified time. The Iraqi people have paid too dearly and too long for the crimes of the regime. While an arms control regimen and some element of containment and deterrence will remain in place indefinitely, food and medicine are not enough. The country must be allowed to rebuild its civilian infrastructure (water, sewage, electricity, health care, educational facilities, etc.).

For its part, the United States must be more forthcoming in its relations with the region. This past crisis should have made clear that the United States has serious work to do to win the “hearts and minds” and trust of the Arab people. This is the battle that the United States must wage and win if its allies and interests are to be secure. The weapons in this war are justice and balance – and they must be applied across the board. A good place to begin, of course, is with a determined and dramatic new approach to the peace process. This will require more than half steps and small percentages (13% is as much an insult to Palestinian aspirations as 9%). The United States must declare its principles and its vision for the future: an end to settlements on occupied land, the establishment of a Palestinian state, security for all based on normalized ties and justice, and a region free of all threats of war and weapons of mass destruction.

With the most recent crisis still fresh and wounds still open there is no time like the present for real leadership to help move the region toward peace.

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