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Bush team sets ambitious target in Iraq policy
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- With its pledge to restore the vigor of sanctions against Iraq, President-elect George W. Bush's team has set itself a challenging goal which it might live to regret, analysts said on Tuesday.
But the pledge is open to differing interpretations, and some versions would offer concessions to win over countries like Russia and France, which are skeptical about the effectiveness and moral basis for the sanctions system.
Secretary of State-designate Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, made the pledge on Saturday when Bush announced his appointment.
He repeated the Clinton administration mantra that the sanctions, now in their 11th year, should remain as long as Iraqi President Saddam Hussein does not meet the cease-fire conditions imposed on Iraq at the end of the Gulf War in 1991.
"They (the Iraqis) have not yet fulfilled those agreements and my judgment is that sanctions in some form must be kept in place until they do so," Powell said. "We will work with our allies to re-energize the sanctions regime."
Coupled with Bush's remark in a campaign debate with Vice President Al Gore on Oct. 11, that he wanted the sanctions to be tougher, Powell added to the impression that a Bush administration would try to tighten the screws on Iraq.
Some Bush advisers, as well as Republicans in the U.S. Congress, have also openly advocated arming the Iraqi opposition in an attempt to overthrow the Iraqi leader -- a step that the Clinton administration carefully avoided.
Some analysts said the Bush administration would be going down a blind alley if it seriously expected to restore the cohesion of the alliance which defeated Iraq in 1991 and to plug all the gaps breached since then in the sanctions.
Sanctions continue to erode
Against U.S. objections, a long list of countries have started flights into Baghdad. Iraq exports more and more oil outside the U.N. supervision system, through Turkey, Iranian territorial waters and now the pipeline to Syria.
"It is a reality that although the U.S. can try to buttress the sanctions, they are going to continue to erode and there will be steadily less effective control over the normal flow of imports and exports," said Anthony Cordesman, a military and Middle East specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
"Tightening the sanctions is not in the realm of feasible realism. The idea also shows traces of unnecessary provocation," added Clovis Maksoud, director of the center for the Global South at American University.
Ruth Wedgwood, a specialist on U.N. affairs at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that in the long term it would not be possible to restore the integrity of the sanctions.
"Given the tenor of the U.N. Security Council -- unless they get a short spurt of goodwill -- but otherwise it's just a long and grinding decay," she said.
But other analysts say there are steps the Bush administration can take to try to stop the erosion and put together a package that would win the support of U.S. allies.
Cordesman said the United Nations could impose restrictions on travel by Iraqi leaders and focus the embargo on "dual use items" -- goods that have both civilian and military uses.
Meghan O'Sullivan, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the best approach would be to give up sanctions which do not work in exchange for allied support for those which do.
"They should bargain away what's not in place for what is in place, to show we are willing to play ball," she said.
The United States could offer, for example, to let foreign oil companies invest in the Iraqi oil industry in return for a commitment that their governments would stick to the rules.
In the case of Russia, the United States could offer to let it take Iraqi oil to pay down the huge military debt which Iraq owed to the Soviet Union, O'Sullivan added.
"It's open to question to what extent a proposal that has something in it for everyone can be cracked, but that should be one of the focuses of the new administration," she said.
Guy Caruso, an oil specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said it would be tough to restore the credibility of sanctions. "But there are some things they can do to stop the salami tactics," he added.
Caruso speculated that the Bush team might tell the U.S. Navy in the Gulf to intercept a tanker loaded with Iraqi oil for which the buyer has paid a covert surcharge.
That would deter other companies tempted to go along with Iraq's surcharge proposal, which is designed to put more of the country's oil revenues outside U.N. control.
Caruso said another idea would be for the U.S. air force to bomb one of the pumping stations along the Iraqi-Syrian oil pipeline, which appears to be carrying Iraqi oil.
But Jon Alterman of the U.S. Institute of Peace said that "smart sanctions" may be just a grand way of saying "sanctions other than the ones we have now" and that the smartest sanctions would do little without smart implementation.
Even if the Bush administration does try to work on a concerted Iraq policy with Europe and Russia, some countries would continue to try to "push the envelope" on sanctions.
"The Europeans only want to cooperate on the basis of the five percent possibility of Iraqi good behavior, not on the 95 percent possibility of Iraqi bad behavior," he added.
The analysts dismissed proposals to overthrow Saddam through the opposition Iraqi National Congress (INC).
"There's a universal feeling in the region that support for the INC and an overt effort to overthrow Saddam Hussein borders on the ridiculous. The INC is greeted with total contempt outside the Beltway (the Washington area)," Cordesman said.
"But there are many true believers (in the Republican Party) who have never had much to do with Iraq so it would be foolish to assume it won't be tried," he added.
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