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Can One US Fence Hold Two Foes?

US effort to contain Iraq and Iran draws fire amid new tensions with Baghdad.

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Two years after Iraq's defeat in the 1991 Gulf War, President Clinton gave his blessing to a strategy designed to ensure access by industrialized powers to the world's largest oil reserves.

The plan: combine American muscle with sanctions and international solidarity to keep both Iraq and Iran - which the US perceived as the biggest threats to stability in the region - weak and isolated. As autocratic rivals and advocates of anti-Western extremism, they would be walled off until their behavior changed.

Now, as yet another showdown with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein threatens to draw the United States into its eighth military confrontation with Iraq in six years, Mr. Clinton's "dual containment" strategy is coming under scrutiny amid calls for an overhaul.

Administration officials say they are sticking by the policy, insisting it has preserved Gulf stability and safeguarded the flow of 62 percent of the world's petroleum supplies. "We are quite comfortable with dual containment," asserts a senior official.

But critics argue that the policy treats two different problems in the same inflexible way, lacks international support, costs billions of scarce defense dollars, and exposes US troops in the region to terrorism. Even some Defense Department analysts appear concerned that the policy has become difficult to sustain.

"It is not clear that a stringent containment policy can be maintained over time," warns the Strategic Assessment 1997, a review of US security challenges by the Pentagon's National Defense University.

Administration officials and their supporters argue there are no better options for dealing with two of the gravest threats to US security and international order.

Despite differences with the European allies, Russia, and China, US officials say dual containment has kept Saddam "in a box," unable to rebuild his army or exert his influence over parts of Iraq covered by two United Nations-decreed no-fly zones that are mainly enforced by American aircraft.

Similarly, they contend, the ambitions of Iran's Islamic rulers have been constrained. With 20,000 US naval, air, and ground forces deployed in the region, they cannot threaten international shipping or the region's smaller pro-West Arab oil kingdoms. The allies are also cooperating in thwarting alleged Iranian-backed terrorism, they say.


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