Why Powell Will Win Washington's Iraq Policy Battle

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Secretary of State Colin Powell speaks at NATO headquarters in Brussels

International support seldom counts for much in a Washington power struggle, but in the looming battle over Iraq policy it may be crucial. Secretary of State Colin Powell appears to be shaping up for a showdown with administration hard-liners such as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and even Vice President Cheney — supported by a number of key Republicans on Capitol Hill — over the question of easing sanctions against Iraq. Powell has used his tour of the Middle East, which ended Tuesday, to build support for a revised sanctions package that lifts many of the economic restrictions on Iraq but tightens implementation of measures designed to prevent Iraq from refurbishing its military or building weapons of mass destruction. To the hard-liners, that may look like going soft on Saddam at a time when they want to see more done to support efforts by Iraqi opposition groups to overthrow the strongman — a policy not favored by Powell, nor by Washington's allies in the region.

But although Powell anticipates difficulties selling the sanctions shift in Washington, in reality it may already be a done deal — not simply because the secretary of state has been building support for it among the regimes bordering Iraq, but because the comprehensive sanctions regime supported by the U.S. over the past decade is near collapse. When such staunch U.S. allies as Egypt are signing free trade pacts with Baghdad, then it's clear that what Powell is proposing may be simply a matter of salvaging the most important components of a sanctions package that has already failed.

Facing mounting domestic pressures

Wherever Washington's foreign policy power players fall on the question of sanctions may be less important than the attitudes of those countries bordering Iraq, whose policing efforts are essential to maintaining an effective blockade. And their disposition is overwhelmingly opposed to continued comprehensive sanctions. They're feeling little threat from Baghdad right now, and the anti-U.S. anger among their own people over both the plight of the Iraqi people under sanctions and of the Palestinians during the current intifada makes them eager to see sanctions lifted. Even then, they retain a residual interest in curbing Saddam's ability to rearm himself.

So while enthusiasts of such Reagan-era proxy warriors as the Nicaraguan contras and the Afghan mujahedeen insist that the way forward in Iraq is to increase pressure and to arm the ragtag collection of opposition organizations gathered under the banner of the Iraqi National Congress, U.S. allies in the region believe such a policy would be at best ineffective, and at worst a recipe for the sort of chaos that has literally reduced Afghanistan to rubble over the past decade. Regional stakeholders such as Saudi Arabia might be more inclined to sign off on a direct U.S. invasion to depose Saddam, but not even the most gung-ho proxy warriors in Washington would dare suggest that the U.S. put tens of thousands of its own troops in harm's way for the foreseeable future in Osama Bin Laden's backyard.

In its confrontation with Iraq, the U.S. has always depended on the support of its Middle Eastern allies, without whom the very purpose of going toe-to-toe with Saddam becomes unclear and sometimes even dangerous to wider U.S. interests. So while he may be up against some formidable power players in debating Iraq policy, Powell has the ultimate trump card — his policy of revised sanctions is the only one capable of winning the support of the Arab regimes who'll have to implement it.