US and Iraq, Revisited

THE Gulf war, which a few months ago seemed an unqualified plus for the Bush administration, is now veiled in doubts. Few question the victory at arms or the quality of presidential leadership during that brief conflict. It's what came before and after that causes problems.

The probing of Bush and Reagan administration policies toward Iraq before the war is a Washington growth industry. Serious miscalculations were made regarding the ability of the United States, or anyone else, to direct Saddam Hussein toward a more responsible role in his region.

In the late 1980s Iraq was seen as a counterbalance to Iran. Even when the rhetoric out of Baghdad turned particularly bellicose in 1990, the established policy of winning over Iraq prevailed.

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In retrospect, one lesson seems clear: Nationalist dictators like Saddam will never be in anyone's camp but their own.

Post-Gulf-war developments have only confirmed that. An unrepentant Saddam is striving to cement his political base. He still tries to stonewall United Nations weapons inspectors.

Current reports of a crushed coup indicate that Saddam's security apparatus still works. American hopes that the regime will collapse from within seem thin, though the administration continues to talk about Saddam's weakness.

Economic and political isolation is the main weapon against the Iraqi leader. Saddam can't live on his reserves indefinitely. Attempts to strengthen the embargo by plugging leaks through Jordan, however, have to take into account that country's volatility, as well as its key role in Middle East peace talks.

Other measures could include the forced grounding of Saddam's Air Force, which is flying again in southern Iraq, and stronger support for opposition elements within Iraq.

The Bush administration is cautious. Saddam's presence in Baghdad is an election-year embarrassment, but bold moves to depose him carry a high risk of failure. Everyone remembers Jimmy Carter's botched rescue mission in Iran.

Events, however, could force tough decisions. What if Turkey, for example, should withdraw its support for the UN/US operation to protect the Kurds in northern Iraq? Saddam's troops are poised to storm northward. Could the US stand by?

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