Sanctions vs. Settlements — Powell's Impenetrable Minefield?

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Apples, not bombs: Fruit on display in a market near downtown Baghdad

Being a military man, Secretary of State Colin Powell knows a thing or two about minefields — but negotiating a minefield may look easy compared with the challenges of Middle East policy right now. Washington's attempt to reinvigorate sanctions against Iraq by transforming them from a comprehensive economic embargo into a tighter arms-control regime has highlighted the inherent contradictions among the Bush administration's stated aims in the Middle East.

The Bush team criticized President Clinton for focusing too narrowly on trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the expense of a comprehensive policy based on U.S. interests in the region as a whole. But the new Iraq policy may highlight the extent to which the President's stated aims of being a stronger friend of Israel, rebuilding relations with the Arab states that had supported Washington during the Gulf War, and getting tougher on Saddam Hussein are mutually exclusive.

The new Iraq sanctions proposals — Powell bristles at the suggestion that sanctions are being eased, preferring to emphasize the tightening up of arms control in order to soothe hawkish skeptics in Washington — was designed to avert the total collapse of a sanctions regime that has lost support where it matters most: in the Arab regimes bordering Iraq. The policy shift is based on a recognition that Saddam scores propaganda points throughout the Arab world by blaming the misery of his people on the U.S. as the prime backer of continued sanctions, which, together with his efforts to cast himself as the champion of the Palestinians, earns him considerable sympathy on the Arab streets. Meanwhile, of course, hostility to the U.S. among the overall Arab population has risen sharply during the current Palestinian uprising because of Washington's support for Israel.

Easing sanctions against Iraq would certainly help Washington mend fences with Arab regimes that have come under pressure from their own citizenry both because of the humanitarian situation in Iraq and because of the ongoing Palestinian uprising. But it's not going to be that simple.

The "smart sanctions" package being pushed in the U.N. Security Council by Britain and the U.S. combines the easing of trade sanctions with a more tightly-monitored arms-control system. (It also will keep control of Iraqi revenues in the hands of the U.N.) The regime in Baghdad has very little reason to play along with the new sanctions package — the wellbeing of his people has never been Saddam's priority — and has already warned its neighbors that it will cut off discount oil supplies to them if they do. So while the moderate Arab regimes may be enthusiastic about those aspects of the new proposals that ease the burden on Iraq, they may be reluctant to go along with tightening up border controls to police the elaborate smuggling economy and more open trade to stop Iraq procuring weapons components.

Early indications are that the French and Russians, who have long been at odds with the U.S. over sanctions, are responding positively to the new proposals, details of which are yet to be revealed. But with Baghdad kicking and screaming against all sanctions, Washington may yet need considerable powers of persuasion to make them work on the ground. And that's where the Israeli-Palestinian situation complicates matters.

The depth of unhappiness over the Bush administration's Mideast policy among Washington's key Arab allies was recently highlighted when Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, declined an invitation to visit Washington after his trip to Canada in June, saying he won't come to Washington until the U.S. does more to curb Israeli military action against Palestinians.

Winning Arab support for a renewed sanctions package that would require them to do more of the direct policing may therefore force the Bush administration to become more involved in the Israeli-Palestinian situation than it might otherwise have done. President Bush had held off inviting Yasser Arafat to Washington until the violence in the West Bank and Gaza is subdued, but the recent invitation to Washington of Yasser Arafat's Number 2, Mahmoud Abbas (a.k.a. Abu Mazen) and efforts by Secretary Powell to arrange a meeting with Arafat himself during a trip to Africa suggest that the administration may be feeling the pressure to engage more directly with the Palestinian side.

The U.S. is also mulling the dilemma created by the fact that the two cease-fire formulas currently on the table — an Egyptian-Jordanian proposal and the report of ex-Senator George Mitchell's inquiry into the causes of the current violence — both list a freeze on Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza as one of the preconditions for ending violence, a position strongly supported by the moderate Arab regimes but unacceptable to Israel. And whatever its own views on settlements, the Bush administration is also likely to feel somewhat restrained by pressure from Washington conservatives from putting any direct pressure on Israel over the issue.

And if U.S. conservatives are to swallow the revised sanctions regime, they'll want to see more action from the administration in respect of efforts to overthrow Saddam — a policy objective that has little support among Washington's Arab allies.

Thus the minefield of Middle East policy. And with the new sanctions proposals in play at the same time as Israeli-Palestinian violence is showing no signs of abating, the tension between the administration's various objectives in the region may become even more acute in the coming weeks. Because just as hard as Washington works to de-link the Israeli-Palestinian question from Iraq policy, Saddam Hussein will be doing his utmost to link them.

With reporting by Jay Branegan/Washington