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Iraq: Baghdad Remains Challenge For Next U.S. President

  • Charles Recknagel

One of the toughest foreign policy problems facing any new U.S. administration is the continuing crisis over Iraq. As the United States wrestles with who will be its next president, RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at how either candidate might change America's policy toward Baghdad.

Prague, 14 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- It is still too soon to predict whether Al Gore or George W. Bush will be the next president of the United States.

But regardless of which man takes office, one of the first foreign policy challenges will be what to do about the fraying of U.S. efforts to isolate Iraq politically.

Recent months have seen a stream of high-level official visits to Iraq.

In August, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez became the first head-of-state to go to Iraq since the 1991 Gulf War. This week, Moscow sent its top diplomat, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. And earlier this month, Egypt upgraded its interest section in Baghdad as a step toward restoring its full diplomatic relations with Iraq, which were cut during the Gulf Crisis.

All this has added weight to calls from France, Russia, and China -- plus many Western and Arab states -- to ease or lift sanctions against Iraq on humanitarian grounds. An end to the sanctions is opposed by the United States and Britain, which say they are still needed to force Iraq to re-admit arms inspectors and prove it has no weapons of mass destruction.

Andrew Bacevich, an expert on U.S. foreign policy at Boston University, says the growing number of visitors to Baghdad will confront the next U.S. president with a tough challenge shortly after he assumes office January 20.

"Regardless of which candidate ultimately prevails, he is likely to find that he faces something like an 'Iraq crisis' soon after coming into office. The Clinton administration has done its darndest to keep Iraq out of the headlines, but the result of that has been that over the past several months, the U.S. policy really has begun to unravel and the sanctions regime is collapsing."

The Clinton administration rejects suggestions that sanctions are eroding, saying that all the recent flights into Iraq have carried humanitarian aid and not commercial goods that are explicitly banned by the United Nations sanctions. But Washington and London have expressed concern over the flights, most of which have taken place without waiting for approval from the UN sanctions committee.

Analysts say that either Bush or Gore is likely to use the fresh start of a presidency to try to rebuild a consensus on Iraq in the UN Security Council.

Kenneth Katzman of the Congressional Research Service in Washington says Bush gave clear signs of that goal during his presidential campaign.

"My read of Bush's stance is that he wants to rebuild a strong Security Council consensus that will force Iraq to readmit weapons inspectors. The issue is over rebuilding those alliances so that we can get a working consensus in the Security Council which shows Iraq that it cannot divide the Council and hope to gain concessions by exploiting a divided Council."

The analysts say Gore has been less vocal than Bush in calling for new initiatives on Iraq because, as outgoing vice president, he is closely identified with current U.S. policies. But they say that he, too, would focus on ending divisions in the Security Council.

Katzman predicts that either Bush or Gore also would be likely to consider further expansion of humanitarian aid for Iraqis as a way to bridge the Council's divisions.

"It may involve perhaps further expansions of the oil-for-food program such that the Iraqi people benefit and the U.S. is not perceived as harming the Iraqi people. And then, once we defuse the harm to the Iraqi people as an issue, the U.S. ability to rebuild the Council consensus will increase. The Council consensus fell apart because the U.S. was perceived as being too tough on the oil-for-food program [and] putting holds on humanitarian contracts."

Some analysts also predict that either a Gore or Bush presidency would continue unilateral U.S. and British efforts to militarily contain Iraq, including patrols of no-fly zones. But Katzman says any new administration could seek to decrease today's almost daily clashes in the no-fly zones as another gesture toward healing Security Council rifts. "I think both men would continue conventional military containment through overflights, perhaps occasional strikes, pre-positioning [U.S. forces] in the Gulf, strong alliances with the Gulf states. [But] I would expect, no matter who takes office, that we will see decreasing frequency of air strikes in the no-fly zones because that inflames the Security Council."

Another issue facing either Bush or Gore is what to do about the Iraqi opposition. The Clinton administration has offered political support and limited non-military training, but rejected calls by some congressmen from Bush's Republican Party to arm opposition fighters.

Many analysts predict a Bush presidency would not go substantially further in supporting the Iraqi opposition than the Clinton administration has. Bacevich says the reasons are Washington's perception that the opposition is weak and divided, plus a U.S. reluctance to raise tensions in the Middle East.

"The Republicans have talked of the necessity of moving to an effort to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Notwithstanding that rhetoric, a Bush administration would be unlikely to make any major effort in that direction. Doing so would rely on an Iraqi opposition which still does not amount to a hill of beans. Secondly, given other developments in the region, particularly the Palestinian uprising, the last thing the United States needs to do now is undertake some kind of major initiative which could risk further inflaming Arab sentiment against the United States in the region."

Bacevich also predicts that if Bush becomes president, Republicans in Congress who have advocated arming the opposition will moderate their positions in the interest of party unity.

"[Bush] intends to call the shots in foreign policy. And especially given the fact that the Congress is going to be so evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, that even division creates incentives for the Republicans to be very disciplined. Therefore, I would think -- for those Republican members of Congress who want to take a stronger stand against Saddam Hussein -- unless that is Bush's inclination -- they would probably swallow those notions in order to support their president."

Katzman says a Gore administration would also favor a quiet approach to helping the opposition -- again in the interest of healing rifts in the Security Council.

"If anything, Gore has talked very publicly in even stronger terms [than Bush] about helping the Iraqi opposition. Helping the Iraqi opposition is fine, but it is not a policy blessed by any Security Council resolution, and if the U.S. wants to pursue it, it probably should be done more quietly."

But even as analysts try to look ahead to what a Bush or Gore administration's strategy on Iraq might be, they caution it is almost impossible to anticipate how events might modify the next U.S. president's plans once he takes office.

The reason is that any strategy depends not only on what the new president does but also on how other world leaders react to it. And that assures that strategies announced in a presidential campaign can change once a candidate becomes president.

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