During his three-day Mideast tour last month, US secretary of state Colin Powell left no doubt about what the Bush administration has in store for Iraq and the region. Throughout his visit, Powell remained unrepentant about the recent American and British air-strikes on Iraq. When contrasted with his not-so-eloquent statements dismissing the ongoing violence in occupied Palestine as a "complication," Powell's shrill rhetoric on Iraq strikes one as the epitome of America's proverbial "double standards." Yet his effort to "re-energize" UN sanctions against Baghdad are a futile attempt to square the circle.
Powell's tour took him on lightning visits to Egypt, Israel, the West Bank, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Syria. In Cairo, he met Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and foreign minister Amr Moussa, haranguing his hosts about the alleged threat posed by Iraq to the region. In Israel, he met outgoing prime minister Ehud Barak and prime minister-elect Ariel Sharon, whereas in the West Bank city of Ramallah he held talks with Palestinian 'president' Yasser Arafat. The secretary of state was silent at a joint news conference when Sharon insisted repeatedly that he would neither resume talks with the Palestinians until Arafat publicly renounces violence, nor release millions of dollars in Palestinian taxes levied by Israel on behalf of the Palestinian National Authority. In Jordan he met king Abdullah II. In Kuwait he participated in ceremonies marking the 10th anniversary of the end of the Gulf war. In Saudi Arabia, he held discussions with foreign minister Saud al-Faisal and crown prince Abdullah. In Syria, he held talks with Syrian president Bashar al-Asad, who agreed to Powell's request for the Iraqi-Syrian oil pipeline to be placed under UN control.
In Cairo, Powell said that he intended to listen to Arab concerns and calls for an easing of sanctions on Iraq. The ex-general, who served as chairman of America's joint chiefs of staff during the US-led Gulf War, also emphasized that the military option against Iraq remains central to America's regional strategy.
In justifying this approach, Powell said: "The problem that we have is in Baghdad. It is Saddam Hussein who refuses to abandon his pursuit of weapons of mass-destruction. He threatens not the United States, he threatens this region, he threatens the Arab people, he threatens the children of Egypt, the children of Saudi Arabia, the children of Kuwait with these weapons."
He went on to say: "He used them before so I think we all have a solemn obligation to keep him in check." Powell's stated concern for the welfare of Arab children is bogus; the US did nothing to stop Saddam when he used these weapons against his own people and against Iran in the 1980s. In fact, during its war with Iran, the US financed Saddam Hussein's brutal military machine, whose only attraction to the west was in his anti-Islamism.
In numerous news-conferences during his tour, Powell uttered not a word about Israel's brutalities against Palestinian children. Nor did he refer even once to its weapons of mass-destruction, including chemical, biological and nuclear arms. Throughout the Arab world, and in many other Muslim countries, it is Israel's arsenal of weapons of mass-destruction, especially its estimated stockpile of more than 200 nuclear devices, which are perceived as the main threat to regional security. Above all, Israel continues to refuse to submit to international inspection. Meanwhile, the International Atomic Energy Agency has exposed America's oft-repeated claims that Iraq and Iran are seeking to develop nuclear weapons.
But Powell's attempts to sell the new anti-Iraq policy to Arab countries were shrugged off in most capitals he visited. Even America's "friends" in the Arab world could not ignore popular opposition to Washington's intention to strangle Iraq. In Amman, king Abdullah reiterated in talks with the secretary of state, whose country provided more than two- thirds of last year's total aid to the Kingdom, Jordan's call for the sanctions on Iraq to be lifted. In Cairo, foreign minister Amr Moussa, who has supervised an improvement in trade and other ties with Iraq in recent months, flatly and publicly contradicted Powell's Saddam-is-a-threat assertion.
"For us, I don't see that threat," Moussa, whose country is the recipient of some US$ 2 billion in American aid annually, told reporters, "although if you ask countries in the Gulf region, they do feel it and they say it publicly."
Only the two oil-rich Gulf Arab countries of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait expressed support for Powell's idea of "smart sanctions" to replace the sweeping embargo currently imposed on Iraq. Kuwait's minister of state for foreign affairs, Shaykh Muhammad al-Sabah, underlined his country's preference for "altering the sanctions imposed on Iraq in a way that would maintain a ban on military materials that would directly threaten Kuwait's security."
On February 28, only two days after meeting Powell, Syrian president Asad called for the embargo imposed on Iraq, for its August 1990 invasion of Kuwait, to be lifted. The call was made during a meeting held with a delegation of the Arab Bar Association.
Aside from indifference to Arab opinion on the Iraq question, the Bush administration's new approach is in line with the policy of the new Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, who has called for restructuring Israeli-American relations. The architecture of these relations, according to Sharon's vision, is one in which the US disengages itself the details of the Israeli-Arab conflict and the so-called peace process. This would free Israel of the minor cross-pressures exerted by Washington's Arab "friends" on the US policy-making process when it comes to dealing with the Palestinians.
But despite all the rhetoric coming out of Washington, the new Bush approach amounts to an indirect admission of failure. After years of obstinate denial of the plight of people in Iraq, Washington has accepted what most of the rest of the world has been saying for years: that the sanctions regime on Iraq has devastated the country's civilian population and strengthened Saddam; and that the embargo was an instrument of mass-murder.
Powell's idea of "re-energized" sanctions apparently means that the sanctions will be eased, with restrictions focused more narrowly on the category of so-called "dual use" goods, goods which have both military and civilian uses. According to UN figures, American and British representatives on the UN Sanctions Committee, which is responsible for monitoring trade with Iraq, have so far placed some 1,600 holds on contracts with Iraq, thus blocking about $3 billion worth of goods meant for Iraq. These goods include ambulances, refrigerated trucks, oil-industry spare parts, equipment for chemical detergent-plants, water-pumps and even eggs, which according to US officials could be used to develop biological weapons.
In addition to the idea of "smart sanctions," some Bush administration officials have been talking about arming and bankrolling the Iraqi opposition against Saddam Hussein. Among the propo,nents of this course of action are vice president Dick Cheney and secretary of defense Donald Rumsfield.
It is hard to see how the modified sanctions can succeed where the original sanctions have failed: in toppling Saddam Hussein or in persuading him to let international arms inspectors back into Iraq. To begin with, Saddam has succeeded in penetrating even the stranglehold of the current sanctions regime. Iraqi oil has been flowing out over and above the UN-imposed quota, with the proceeds going directly to the coffers of the regime rather than the UN-monitored escrow-accounts.
For the ideas of "smart sanctions" and military pressure to work, a tighter system of controls on Iraq's borders must be put in place. The problem is that such a system of controls is contingent on the cooperation of Iraq's neighbors. But these countries have become increasingly reluctant to cooperate in such an effort.
The use of military pressure seems to have only strengthened the position of Saddam and hardened public opinion against the US. As for its plan to prop up its minions in the motley of opposition groups making up the Iraqi National Congress (INC) in an effort to topple Saddam, it suffers from one fatal failing: the INC's weakness and lack of credibility and grassroots support. Even some of America's top men have voiced their skepticism about the INC's ability to perform this Herculean task. General Anthony Zinni, the former commander of the US forces in the Middle East, warned the US Senate Armed Forces Committee last September of the failings of the Iraqi opposition, saying: "Some of these groups [have] debilitating quarrels. They fight with each other. They kill each other. They have yet to show cohesion. Before we sign up the American military be careful. Bay of Pigs could turn into a Bay of Goats."
Ultimately, there is no guarantee that the Bush administration's policy change will succeed in lifting America's policy toward Iraq from the quagmire of failure in which it is mired. What is clear is that there are moments in the post-Cold War unipolar system in which even the world's "sole superpower" cannot always have its way in dictating the course of events around the world.