Time to dream the impossible dream for Iraq

A mixture of sanctions and missile attacks has failed to dislodge Saddam Hussein. There is an alternative approach.

Israel is on the state department's collective mind this week as it absorbs the report of the suicide bombing of 19 Israeli teenagers outside a Tel Aviv disco. But the US foreign policy establishment is also reacting to another fresh Middle East setback.

On Thursday, France, China and Russia stymied a US-UK initiative to curtail Saddam Hussein's oil smuggling and military purchases, thereby buying the dictator yet more time to convert Iraq to the Gulf's arms powerhouse. Rueful officials are now sitting down to draw up what must be the umpteenth Iraq sanctions plan.

And to contemplate another path. Last week - between spats with UN partners - officials at both state department and Pentagon played host to the Iraqi National Congress, a London-based group of exiled Iraqis dedicated to overthrowing Mr Saddam and voting in a democratic government in Baghdad.

The idea of an exile force to counter Mr Saddam enjoys wide support on Capitol Hill, with backers ranging from Joseph Lieberman, the former Democratic vice-presidential candidate, to senator John McCain. After Mr Saddam ejected UN inspectors in 1998, big majorities in both Houses voted $100m for democracy-building in the Iraq Liberation Act. But the Clinton administration disbursed just a few millions, with only a fraction of that going to the INC.

Many in the Bush team by contrast seem inclined to join Congress in the push to proceed. Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon is especially interested. And even those Bush appointees who are not committed to the INC or its leader, the University-of-Chicago-trained mathematician Ahmad Chalabi, are showing interest in a broader policy shift regarding the Middle East and developing countries. Waiting for Mr Saddam to run scared is increasingly perceived as a loser's game.

They wonder whether the traditional habit of treating dictators on a par with democratically elected heads of state continues to be the best policy. Perhaps it is time to back efforts to build representative governments in troubled locales. Thus the emphasis by Colin Powell, secretary of state, on African "democracy-building".

Career officers at the state department have not focused on this larger question. But they vehemently denounce Mr Chalabi, whom they deem a divisive upstart, and his Iraq resistance cause. Support for political resistance within Iraq would at the very least be pointless, they say. At its worst, such an effort would infuriate nations from Saudi Arabia to Egypt and do incalculable damage to the US - think Bay of Pigs.

Still, given the news emanating from Baghdad, the very least that can be said is that the old policy of sanctions-plus-the- occasional-airstrike seems ripe for review. Consider its three tenets:

UN sanctions are the best way to stop Saddam. This position had its logic 10 years ago, following the UN-led Gulf War victory. But sanctions and inspections since then have been an unremitting failure. In 1998, Unscom's own researchers reported that the Iraqi regime had "weaponised" deadly VX nerve gas, installing it in artillery shells and missile warheads. Biological and nuclear weapons projects are also proceeding apace: Kidhir Hamza, a defecting physicist, recently published a book on the nuclear arms programme. Some reports say Saddam's nuclear weapons will be ready to fire next year.

Money is, alas, fungible and Iraq is using "oil for food" programme cash to snatch up military items from Amman. Western capitals have stuck to the sanctions tack because it is supposed to preserve unity among UN powers. But as this week's embarrassing UN split demonstrated, even this justification has fallen apart lately.

Supporting the INC will infuriate the Saudis and upset the rest of the Middle East.That argument may have it backwards. One can equally argue that it is Mr Saddam who is the destabilising force, providing dramatic evidence that anti-democratic tyrants will be negotiated with, not spurned. While Mr Saddam never delivered on his promise to send 6m soldiers to fight against Israel, his agents have reportedly handed out $10,000 payments to families of Palestinians who martyred themselves in suicide actions against Israelis.

The INC enjoys no real support within Iraq or elsewhere. INC supporters include the main Kurdish parties in Iraqi Kurdistan. The INC has also had help from eminent people such as Mr Hamza, who joined them in their visit to the Pentagon. To be sure, the group's limited budget has prevented it from providing military training in Iraq - but it has managed to relay valuable information about Mr Saddam's abuses, just as Charter 77 did from the eastern European bloc.

As for the argument that Mr Chalabi is not influential, this is predictable. Resistance leaders nearly always seem like pathetic fronts for propaganda efforts at the beginning. During the cold war years the exiled legations of the old Baltic states were treated as a political joke in both London and New York. Yet when the time came, these superannuated ambassadors helped to inspire revolutions at home.

The diplomatic affection for negotiating on the basis of the status quo is understandable. Diplomats would rather deal with a stable government, even an undemocratic one, than with dreamy, bedraggled individuals more likely to get themselves killed than to topple an armed regime. America's foreign policy establishment also fears repeats of democracy-building failures in Cuba and Vietnam.

Overcoming such collective bad memories would be a challenge for the Bush team. Yet, difficult as it is to fathom, there are worse outcomes than the Bay of Pigs - a wide nuclear or chemical attack by oil-rich Iraq being one. Superpowers spooked by old failures cannot prevent new ones.

© Copyright 2001 Financial Times

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