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New Iraq policy means rethinking on Isreal

Something has changed in the past week about U.S. policy toward Iraq. In the most optimistic reading of Secretary of State Colin Powell’s three-day jaunt to five countries in the Middle East, something is different, too, in the United States’ approach toward the entire region.

Powell returned from a recent trip to the Middle East speaking of restructuring the sanctions to aim them more explicitly at limiting Iraq’s capability to acquire strategic weapons and not at the Iraqi people.

In remarks to reporters on the way home from his three days of talks in five Arab countries, Powell said, “The message I’ve consistently heard is that overdoing it with the sanctions gives [Iraqi President Saddam Hussein] a tool that he is using against us -- and really is not weakening him.”

In other remarks, it was apparent what Powell was hearing forcefully in every Arab capital he visited -- and perhaps beginning to believe -- that the sanctions are hitting the wrong target and causing inordinate harm to ordinary Iraqis. Short of anything else, Powell’s remarks are significant for the at least tacit acknowledgement of what religious groups and human rights organizations have been saying and documenting for the past decade -- the sanctions are hurting only the most vulnerable in Iraqi society and doing little to dislodge Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Powell received high marks from accompanying reporters for candor, for his willingness to listen to leaders he met with and for speaking on the record and not, as predecessor Madeleine Albright insisted, shielded by such State Department conventions as attributing the secretary’s statements to a “senior U.S. official.”

There are good reasons to be cautious. Is this new approach by Powell simply window dressing or did the secretary, who just weeks ago was talking about the need to “re-energize” the sanctions, undergo a change of heart? More important, how would he sell a new approach to the cast of hardliners that make up the administration back in Washington?

Powell seemed to signal those difficulties in that same briefing with reporters when he said he would bring back the information from his trip and “have to talk to people who will see this as ‘Aha; if you move in this direction, aren’t you giving up something, aren’t you letting him loose?’ ”

As if to illustrate the point, Powell’s last stop was in Kuwait to celebrate the Gulf War with two of its other principal architects, former President George Bush and Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf.

In Washington, Powell will have to make a case not only to the son of the president who declared the war and put the sanctions in place, but also to Vice President Dick Cheney who was secretary of defense during the Gulf War, and others, including Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.

Powell, however, may have timing on his side. It is clear that the coalition that held together for so long to make the grinding sanctions effective is falling apart. There is little enthusiasm for revitalizing the sanctions on the part of Western allies and U.N. officials and certainly little enthusiasm among most countries in the Middle East.

Any new approach to Iraq will have to take into consideration the massive amounts of rebuilding that will have to take place to restore basic infrastructure to working order. Water, sewage and electrical systems throughout the country have been destroyed or are working at minimum capacity. Among the items the Iraqis have ordered under the oil-for-food purchase system are long lists of medical supplies that are still being held up by U.S. and British authorities. The sanctions, in a very real way, still work every day to keep life at primitive levels for ordinary Iraqis.

And any effort to keep Saddam Hussein in check by increasing diligence in pinching off military supplies will have to look beyond the Iraqi borders to the rest of the region. The United States cannot hope to have credibility in one portion of that region if it does not rethink its strategy throughout, and that means a serious realignment of our dealings with Israel. Surely that is another point that was repeatedly made during his visits to Arab capitals.

The United States cannot continue to give Israel nearly unrestrained access to funds and hardware to conduct its campaign against Palestinians -- Powell himself termed recent Israeli conduct a ‘siege’ -- and expect cooperation from Arab states on the matter of Iraq and other trouble spots. Rethinking our relationship to Israel will be as important as restructuring the sanctions if the difference in this administration’s approach is to have any long-range effect.

National Catholic Reporter, March 9, 2001