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Is Diplomacy Really Exhausted?

The current impasse between the United States and Iraq demonstrates how limited US diplomatic options have become in the Middle East.

Washington is frustrated by two circumstances. First, despite the punishment of the Gulf War and subsequent military strikes, Saddam Hussein remains in power. Second, the Arab states in the region that would be most threatened by his weapons of mass destruction do not appear to share the deep US concern over such weapons' existence.

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In this situation, the Clinton administration, with strong congressional encouragement, has concluded that the only option left is substantial air attacks. This conclusion has been reached despite strong doubts among military experts that such attacks can either eliminate the weapons of mass destruction or bring about a change of regime. The military option is justified on the basis that "diplomacy has been exhausted." But is that the case?

Saddam is a wily megalomaniac. His primary aim is to remain in power. Beyond that, he sees himself as a great leader, another Nebuchadnezzar. Whatever his true motives for creating weapons of mass destruction, he sees them as security and, ultimately, as instruments with which he can dominate the Arab world and, possibly, destroy Israel.

Saddam doesn't seem worried by the threats against him. He seems to think Russian and Chinese opposition in the Security Council will prevent the Council from authorizing a massive military strike. He can read the reluctance of neighboring Arab states to support US military actions in the cautious words that followed the recent visit of the US secretary of state. He is aware, too, that Iraq's neighbors, including Saudi Arabia, don't want to see Iraq thrown into chaos.

He also knows that US military resolve doesn't extend to using ground forces against him. And, in the worst case, he probably believes he can sustain whatever damage may be done from the air. His demonstrated callousness toward the Iraqi people means that he need not fear their reaction and can exploit their suffering to gain sympathy and, perhaps, an easing of sanctions.

US diplomacy to date has been directed to discouraging the diplomacy of Russia, France, and others that might give Saddam a "way out," and building support among Gulf allies and Saudi Arabia for a military strike. Such diplomacy apparently hasn't swayed the Iraqi leader. Would any other approach be more effective?

If Saddam were to worry about any external actions, it likely would be those that, in his mind, could threaten his hold on power. He might be worried by indications the US and its friends in the region had established better relations with Syria and Iran and had reestablished contact with one of the principal Kurdish factions in Iraq. A sense of growing isolation and uncertainty about links being forged with such groups might give him pause. But he is aware that such maneuvering is today beyond Washington's capacity.

Any effort at a better US-Syrian relationship immediately encounters the stalled Middle East peace process. Strong feelings against Iran in Washington and divisions within Iran's ruling group preclude any real dialogue with that country. And after the debacle of the failed CIA plot with Iraqi Kurds in 1996, that option is probably also out.

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Perhaps this is not the moment for a broader US diplomatic approach. The military option may need to play itself out. But whatever the success or failure of this option, after the bombs have fallen, the politics of the region will still need to be understood and sorted out. If the US is to remain a major player in the Mideast, it will need to build a more inclusive strategy than it has today.

* David D. Newsom, former undersecretary of state, is Cumming Memorial Professor of International Affairs at the University of Virginia.


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