Accessibility links

Iraq: U.S. Faces Difficulties Building Coalition

  • Ron Synovitz

As talk in Washington of possible U.S. military action against Iraq intensifies, key U.S. allies in Europe and some Arab states are warning that they will not support an attack aimed at ousting Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein -- at least, that is, without a clear United Nations mandate. RFE/RL examines the issues confronting U.S. President George W. Bush as he tries to bolster international support for an anti-Iraq coalition.

Prague, 7 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has made no secret about the fact that its policy goal on Baghdad is to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein from power, and that it is willing to go to war against Iraq to accomplish that goal.

The current debate among Persian Gulf experts in Washington is not whether U.S. military strikes will be launched against Iraq, but rather when the likely attack will be launched.

Unlike the Gulf War, when then-President George H.W. Bush built a multinational coalition against Iraq that included America's European allies plus most key Arab states, several of Washington's European and Arab allies are now rejecting the idea of an attack on Iraq, particularly in the absence of a United Nations Security Council resolution supporting such action.

Indeed, the UN resolution that helped the United States build an anti-Iraq coalition 12 years ago only authorized a war to force Iraqi troops out of Kuwait. The limitations of that mandate were cited by Washington at the end of the Gulf War as its reason for not removing Hussein from power a decade ago.

Today, concerns about a possible preemptive strike on Iraq and Washington's unilateralist impulses are forcing the Europeans to re-examine the fundamentals of their relationship with the United States.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder on Monday launched the parliamentary election campaign of his Social Democratic Party by distancing his administration from Washington on the issue of toppling Saddam. "Pressure on Saddam Hussein? Yes! We must be able to send the international [weapons] observers into the country. But I can only warn of playing games with war and military intervention. We will not be part of it, ladies and gentlemen!" Schroeder said.

France and Russia also have announced that they will not support a U.S.-led effort to oust Saddam Hussein without a clear UN mandate.

In Britain, where Prime Minister Tony Blair is widely perceived as a supporter of military action against Baghdad, opinion polls show that half of the voting public opposes the idea. And members of the British parliament are demanding debate on the issue before Blair commits British forces to such a venture. Among them are the chairmen of the Foreign Affairs and the Defense committees of the House of Commons.

Patrick Clawson, the deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, is among those analysts who think France, Russia, and Germany will drop their opposition -- whether there is a UN mandate for ousting Saddam or not -- once it becomes clear that the U.S. is intent on removing the Iraqi leader from power.

Clawson said any German support would have to wait until after parliamentary elections are completed in September.

And he noted that oil firms in Russia and France are already urging their governments to be flexible in their rhetoric so that they don't lose their existing contracts with Iraq. "Both France and Russia would much prefer to see some way in which the arms-control inspections could be restarted. On the other hand, very important circles in both countries recognize that may well not happen, and are reconciled to the prospect that the United States is, in fact, going to overthrow Saddam's government. And so we've seen, for instance, important commercial interests in both countries warning [their] governments that they shouldn't take too determined a stand to oppose the United States because that could endanger then the lucrative oil contracts that Russia and France have signed with Iraq in the event there's a new government," Clawson said.

In the Middle East, where the U.S. needs support from some of Iraq's neighbors for logistical reasons, opposition to war is strongest.

Jordan's King Abdullah said during a recent visit to Washington that an attack on Iraq would be a "tremendous mistake," particularly while tensions are so high between Israel and the Palestinians.

King Abdullah also rejected suggestions that Jordan might serve as a staging area for U.S. forces.

Saudi Arabia, the country that has been America's most important Persian Gulf ally since Iraq's invasion of Kuwait 12 years ago, also rejects the idea of an attack being launched against Iraq from its territory.

Other Arab leaders fear that a war to oust Saddam could destabilize their countries.

Clawson told RFE/RL that geopolitical and economic concerns, more than the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, are the main reasons explaining why Saudi Arabia is the most reluctant of the Gulf monarchies to support a U.S.-led attack on Iraq.

Clawson noted that a post-Saddam, pro-Western government in Baghdad would make Iraq an extremely attractive place for international oil companies to invest. He said that would reduce the leverage Saudi Arabia has enjoyed over the world's oil markets during the past decade. "With Saddam gone, Iraq is going to become such a major oil producer that Saudi Arabia would lose its position as the most important oil producer in the world and not be the country that can move the market by itself. And that's a problem for the Saudis," Clawson said.

Clawson also described an ironic situation in which Saudi Arabia's help to replace Saddam Hussein with a pro-Western government ultimately would cost Saudi Arabia its unique position as Washington's only reliable friend in the Persian Gulf.

Not all analysts agree with Clawson's assessment that Saudi Arabia is a reliable ally of the United States. "The Washington Post" yesterday reported on a briefing that was given last month to a top Pentagon advisory board by Laurent Murawiec, a Rand Corporation analyst.

Murawiec told the Defense Policy Board that the Saudis are active at every level of the terrorism chain, from planning to financing, and from ideologist to cheerleader.

He also told them that the U.S. administration should issue an ultimatum against Saudi Arabia either to stop backing terrorism or face seizure of its oil fields and its financial assets invested in the United States.

Shortly after publication of the story in the influential Washington newspaper, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker distanced the U.S. administration from Murawiec's analysis. "The musings of private individuals do not reflect U.S. government views or policies and, indeed, briefings by outside individuals are not reflective of views in the Department of Defense, the State Department, or any part of the U.S. government," Reeker said.

In an apparent attempt to deflect potential diplomatic backlash as a result of the newspaper report, Reeker went on to praise Saudi Arabia's role as a key U.S. ally in the Gulf region. "The United States and Saudi Arabia enjoy excellent relations. We share a broad array of interests, including a common vision of peace, stability, and prosperity in the region. We are pleased that we have been able to expand this relationship to include common efforts against the threat of international terrorism. The Saudi government has cooperated in the international campaign against terrorism and we welcome steps taken by Saudi Arabia to help combat the problem of terrorism financing, an important aspect of our war on terrorism globally," Reeker said.

While admitting the differences between Washington and the Saudi leadership on the issue of ousting Saddam, Reeker described how U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and other U.S. officials are now working to convince Arab leaders to support U.S. military strikes. "[Powell and the Saudi foreign minister] discussed [in a phone call Tuesday] a number of issues in terms of bilateral relations. We have a regular dialogue, including discussions about progress in the strategy on the Middle East process. As you know, we've met with the Foreign Minister Saud and other Saudi officials, as well as other Arab leaders."

Some U.S. analysts predict Jordan and Turkey will eventually drop their opposition out of commercial concerns and allow U.S. forces to launch attacks against Iraq from their territory.

But others disagree. Brian Whitaker, a journalist writing for Britain's daily newspaper "The Guardian," said the Arab and Muslim world perceives a double standard from the United States. He says Iraq's military occupation of Kuwait, its flouting of UN resolutions, and its efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction are seen as "similar in nature, if not necessarily degree," to the actions of Israel in the occupied Palestinian territories. But while Iraq is embargoed for its violations, Israel is supported by Washington with money and weaponry.

And like many European experts on the Gulf, Whitaker says that the issue of European support for an invasion of Iraq does depend, at least partly, on whether the U.S. is obliged to seek approval from the UN Security Council, something that he says Washington wants to avoid, if possible, because a less-than-unanimous vote would damage the war's legitimacy.

Whitaker predicts that there could be a Russian veto of a UN resolution on Saddam's ouster. And he notes that apart from the five permanent members of the Security Council, Washington would have to work hard to win the support of some of the council's rotating members: Bulgaria, Cameroon, Colombia, Guinea, Ireland, Mauritius, Mexico, Norway, Singapore, and Syria.

XS
SM
MD
LG