Once again, Saddam has managed to put his finger in Washington's eye. The U.S. has been huffing and puffing, trying and threatening to blow Saddam's house down for more than a decade now, and he's still there doing stuff that makes America mad. The reason isn't that American policy is completely wrong; it's just that it's a very difficult situation. It's easier to make plans and wish lists than it is to execute them, particularly since it's not a bilateral U.S.-Iraq conflict. It's a multilateral conflict, involving Arab states that are allies of the U.S. but are also friendly to Iraq, as well as European powers and Russia are major players in this conflict but have a different approach from Washington. So containing and trying to get rid of Saddam is easier said than done.
Things like this shooting down are to expected when you consider that the "no-fly zone" has been in effect for more than a decade. But it is a reminder that he's still there, defying American-led attempts to isolate him. Saddam has been trying to shoot down a manned aircraft, to create a hostage situation where Iraq has a U.S. prisoner of war, which Saddam knows would dominate the front pages for days, weeks and months. So this is another reminder of the risks of the "no-fly zone" policy, which the U.S. and Britain maintain in order to restrict Saddam's ability to move troops around either to suppress domestic opposition or to threaten to invade another neighbor. Because the 1990 invasion caught everyone by surprise the U.S. had good relations with Saddam before that, on the grounds that Iraq was the strategic underpinning of the containment of Iran. The "no-fly zone" makes it hard for Saddam to spring any more surprises.
At the same time, Washington appears to be struggling to win support for continued sanctions and pressure against Iraq. How has the Israeli-Palestinian situation affected U.S. diplomatic fortunes on Iraq?
The Bush administration is right now in the middle of a major policy review on Iraq. Some elements want more aggressive military action, others want more active diplomacy to get the world back on board for efforts to pressure Iraq. The reason for the review is that it isn't easy to maintain the Gulf War coalition indefinitely, and this seems to be the goal America has set for itself. Absent any possibility of rebuilding and reenergizing that coalition, everyone is going their own way.
The Arabs have all but given up interest in sanctions. As long as the intifada rages and there is an Arab perception that America is on Israel's side, it is hard for any Arab government to wave the U.S. flag on Iraq. Not while their citizens charge every day that America is aiding the killing of Palestinians. Secretary of State Colin Powell was given a good hearing when he toured the region promoting "smart sanctions," but as long as the intifada continues it's hard for any government in the region to stick their necks out.
Pro-Western Arab regimes are directing increasingly anxious complaints to Washington about how the deteriorating Israeli-Palestinian situation is threatening regional stability. And, of course, Saddam appears to have quite successfully painted himself as the Arab savior of the Palestinians. Are U.S. interests being harmed?
The lack of a strong American engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian situation has certainly resulted in a temporary lessening of American prestige in the region. But I stress that it's temporary, because it's not in any danger of losing its preeminence in the region. The fact that Washington has been unsuccessful in its diplomacy in trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the fact that Saddam has been able to use that conflict to his advantage on the Arab street shows the important link between the Israeli-Palestinian situation and stability in the Persian Gulf. And for the international community, stability in the Persian Gulf with its huge oil reserves is a much more important strategic concern than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is, at heart, a neighborhood brawl with very few strategic implications. Love him or hate him, Saddam is a very important and provocative element in the question of Persian Gulf stability. And Washington's ability to deal with the Persian Gulf region politically is really being impeded by the failure to calm the situation on the Israeli-Palestinian front.