Israel Factor May Bedevil Colin Powell's Iraq Operation

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Secretary of State Colin Powell has done an admirable job of reviving the morale of the U.S. diplomatic corps, but it was beyond even his motivational powers to inject much enthusiasm into this past weekend's Gulf War anniversary party. Few of the original coalition members bothered to attend to celebrate the tenth anniversary of their successful ejection of Saddam Hussein's troops from Kuwait, and the minds of most of those who did turn up were focused less on their achievement of a decade ago than on how to deal with the man they'd supposedly vanquished.

The best Powell could manage was to emphasize that while Kuwait was now free and prosperous (if not exactly democratic) and had the backing of many allies, the former invader remained isolated "in a prison of its own making." Hmmm. Not quite.

As the general knows only too well now that he has spent some time touring the region, Iraq may be actually a lot less isolated than Kuwait when it comes to the battle over Arab support for U.S. policy. Indeed, the oil-rich emirate rescued by a U.S.-led coalition a decade ago was conspicuosly alone among Arab countries in supporting Washington's latest air strikes against Iraq ten days ago.

Indeed, U.S. policy on Iraq is subject to increasing criticism not only from the Russians, Europeans and the Arab street, but also from such key regional allies as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and even Turkey. And the recent air raids may make it increasingly difficult for Arab governments to be seen to be doing Washington's bidding. Which makes Secretary Powell's mission to shore up support for U.S. positions on sanctions against Iraq something of a long shot. Indeed, Washington may have tacitly recognized the inevitability of comprehensive economic sanctions' collapsing — and the fragile situation of its Arab partners — in the fact that it plans to focus more narrowly on enforcing an embargo of all military equipment to Iraq.

A policy of containment

Those Arab partners are also central to an overall policy shift. Mindful of the mistakes of the Clinton administration, the Bush foreign policy team has been careful to reorient its Middle East policy away from a single-minded pursuit of the ill-starred Israeli-Palestinian peace process toward a more integrated regional approach, in which it has made Iraq — rather than peace talks between Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon — its immediate priority. Indeed, the new administration appears to recognize that there's no short-term prospect for a comprehensive peace agreement, and has therefore set out to contain the continuing conflict and minimize the danger of regional spillovers. Powell told Sharon and Arafat to do more to reduce the level of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, but also emphasized that the U.S. would no longer be playing mediator of first resort in their daily disputes. (Don't expect the Bush administration, for example, to be in any hurry to appoint a successor to Dennis Ross, President Clinton's permanent envoy to the Middle East talks.)

It's going be tough, however, to put distance between the failed efforts of the prior administration; in fact, the Clinton legacy and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may now actually bedevil Powell's efforts in respect of sanctions against Iraq. It's difficult to see what political rewards Powell has to offer the Egyptians, Syrians, Saudis, Jordanians and others as a reward for toeing the line on sanctions. It was self-interest, after all, that had led most of them to sign on for the Gulf War coalition in 1991 — moderate Arab regimes were quite happy to see a regional bully with Nasser-like aspirations to pan-Arab nationalist leadership stopped in his tracks, because he represented a threat to their own interests as much as to Washington's.

Worries about the intifada

But that was 10 years ago. Today, those same regimes have little interest in maintaining sanctions, and they now see Israel as a far more immediate threat to their interests than Saddam. It's not that they believe Israel directly threatens their own territories; it's that the intifada ultimately challenges their own sometimes tenuous hold on power. The deaths of some 350 Palestinians during the five months of the intifada has been broadcast in daily, live TV feed throughout the Arab world, and had inflamed popular sentiment against Israel and its U.S. patron to the point that being seen to make common cause with either Israel or the U.S. has become politically risky for the not-exactly-popular regimes in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. And they don't, for the most part, believe Saddam's weapons of mass destruction are that much more of an immediate threat to their own well-being than is Israel's nuclear arsenal.

Even as it built the last Gulf War coalition on the basis of Arab self-interest, Washington had been aware that Israel was the one factor that could make it instantly unravel — which was why the U.S. persuaded Israel to stay out of the war even when it was being showered by Scud missiles from Iraq (Saddam, after all, was as aware as his adversaries of the power of the Israel factor). And after the war, mindful of the concerns of its Arab allies, the Bush administration put pressure on Israel to stop settlement activity in the occupied West Bank and Gaza — a policy dispensed with in the Clinton years. So what Secretary Powell is likely discovering while making his rounds of the Middle East is that the failure of sanctions to have any positive effect on Iraq has shattered the consensus in the 1991 coalition. And that the "Israel factor" may now preclude its being restored.