U.S. Policy Gap Offers Saddam an Opportunity

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Iraq's probably the last thing anyone in Washington is thinking about during this election season, and that may be making life easier for Saddam Hussein. The U.S. and British air raids on the southern Iraqi city of Samawa over the weekend, which Iraq alleges struck civilian targets, highlight the problem posed by Washington's strategy — or, perhaps, the absence of a strategy. Besides maintaining U.N. sanctions in the face of growing concern in the Gulf War alliance that these have no positive effect, the U.S. and Britain remain militarily engaged against Iraq by policing the "no-fly" zones they have declared in northern and southern Iraq. Although these zones aren't recognized by the United Nations, allied planes bomb Iraqi air defenses at the first hint that ground radar is locking on, supposedly to help keep Saddam on the defensive so that he can be overthrown. But while nobody's expecting that to happen any time soon, the bombing policy does create opportunities for Baghdad's campaign to end its isolation.

Last week Saddam entertained Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, the first head of state to visit since the Gulf War, who defied pressure from Washington in order to meet the Iraqi leadership for a chat about oil policy. And in a further sign that Western attempts to keep Baghdad isolated are crumbling, Indonesia's President Aburrahman Wahid announced last week that he, too, plans to visit in the coming weeks. Neither Chavez nor Wahid can be considered influential statesmen, but their moves are in line with recent comments by France's foreign minister Hubert Védrine that sanctions against Iraq are "cruel, ineffective and dangerous."

With doubts mounting over sanctions, Saddam can simply order a few air-defense batteries in densely populated areas to target allied planes and provoke retaliatory bombing, and sooner or later he'll get the sort of "collateral damage" images that make the U.S. and Britain look like the bad guys, even among their Arab allies. And that will further embolden others to begin breaking the sanctions regime, cheered on by France and Russia, who both have considerable commercial interest in bringing Iraq back on line. Because with Saddam's power probably even stronger a decade after he invaded Kuwait, it's becoming harder to sell a policy based on sanctions and bombing. Indeed, unless London and Washington come up with something a little more creative, they may actually be increasing Saddam's chances of ending sanctions on his own terms.