How US Must Change Mideast Policy

CHASING THE BIRDS OF DOOM

In Iraqi Kurdistan, birds of doom incubated by years of wrongheaded United States policy in the Middle East have been coming in to roost. They look poised, too, to start clustering elsewhere in a region whose peoples' fortunes are always closely intertwined.

First, the Kurds. In the closing days of the Gulf war, President Bush called openly on "the people and army of Iraq" to rise against Saddam Hussein. When the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south responded, Mr. Bush left them to face Saddam's repressions alone.

Shamed by that fiasco, Bush - with broad domestic support, and under some urging from London - gave explicit US guarantees for the security of refugees who returned to homes in the "safe haven" in northern Iraq.

Now, five years later, it is clear the Kurdish safe haven has given its residents no more security than the UN "safe havens" in Bosnia. "We have been fooled and misled by the Americans," says the heartbroken head of the Kurds' office in Washington.

What went wrong? Let me count the ways:

1) The US commitment to the welfare of haven residents was always minimal. It is inexplicable that they were never given an exception to the economic embargo slapped on the rest of Iraq. As resources became ever tighter in the "haven," it was predictable that internal tensions would rise. But woefully few US resources were then spent on helping the residents resolve these. It was predictable, too, that Saddam, the Iranians, and the Turks would all work to exploit these differences as soon as the US patron was seen as unforthcoming.

2) Even after these differences came to a head at the end of August, forceful action by the United States could still have kept the haven "safe." Instead, the administration redefined the issue, tried to erase Americans' memory that there had ever been a safe haven in northern Iraq, and conceded to Saddam the power to do what he wanted on the ground there.

3) The creation of the safe haven was never part of a coherent American policy to resolve the broader political problems in Iraq. The United States, whose influence in the Middle East is greater than that of any other single power since the height of the Ottoman Empire, chose not to use this influence for effective political termination of the Gulf war. Instead, the past five years have seen US-led military buildups, cloak-and-dagger silliness, and, as a result, the continuation and growth in power of Saddam.

4) The additional folly of President Clinton's "dual containment" means that in Kurdistan, as in the Gulf, Washington has ceded the ability to deal directly with two of the three major local actors: Iran and Iraq. (The third, Turkey, and other US allies in the area continue to see value in having their own direct links to Tehran.)

At a broader level, the Kurds' latest chapter of tragedy points to deep structural problems in Washington's Middle East policy.

The first of these is the fragility of Arab-Israeli peace efforts: This has undercut the administration's ability, this time around, to forge a region-wide consensus against Saddam's aggression.

A second problem is the apparent support given to "might makes right" as the major guiding idea in the region. It is outrageous that Secretary of State Warren Christopher should express understanding for Turkey's latest attempt to carve out, and depopulate, a "security zone" inside northern Iraq.

But then Mr. Christopher expressed understanding of similar Israeli actions against Lebanon earlier this year - and no one in the Clinton administration has yet openly criticized the new Israeli government's bully-boy transgressions against the peace process.

So the problems in Washington's Middle Eastern policy run much deeper than those in Kurdistan.

But is it too late to seek some redress for the Kurds? The best answer to Saddam's actions would be a redoubled US effort to do whatever it takes - militarily, financially, politically - to show that, for Kurds or other Middle Easterners, an alliance with Washington is something worth having. Opening a highly visible channel to Tehran and recommitting Washington to a tough pursuit of "land for peace" in the Arab-Israeli peace process would also make a real and lasting contribution.

Will any of that happen? I doubt it. If it does not, America's position in the Middle East will continue to go down the tubes.

*Helena Cobban writes on foreign affairs from Washington.

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