US, Iraq Tensions Cooler, But Were Gains Worth Price?

After two weeks of military confrontation, the United States and Iraq appear to be retreating from the prospect of further fights in the Gulf - at least for now.

Tensions could still spike upward as fast as an antiaircraft missile rising from Iraqi defenses. But both sides have reasons to calm geopolitical tempers: The US needs to rally domestic and international support for its Gulf policies, while Saddam Hussein may want to avoid truly punishing American air attacks.

Whether these latest maneuvers have improved Saddam's long-term strategic prospects remains an open question. He's regained influence in the northern, Kurdish portion of his country - something most analysts rate at least a short-term gain. But his ability to threaten Kuwait and other oil-rich neighbors may not be any greater than it was before his tanks rolled into Kurdistan.

"Saddam may be intent on consolidating his gain in the north, while we look at the south - where there isn't a crisis," says William Quandt, a Middle East expert at the University of Virginia.

As of this writing, a US military buildup in the Gulf theater of operations was continuing. On Sept. 16, President Clinton signed an order allowing 3,000 US soldiers from Ft. Hood, Texas, to fly to Kuwait for exercises in the desert. This action followed a US air buildup unprecedented since the Gulf war, with both Stealth and F-16 fighters deployed to bolster forces already present in the region.

Meanwhile, Clinton administration officials were receiving a lukewarm response from their efforts to win more allied and domestic support for their Iraq policies. Secretary of Defense William Perry, dispatched to allied capitals over the weekend to explain US positions, received several notable snubs - his French counterpart, Charles Millon, pointedly declined to appear with him at a news conference, while Turkish Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan avoided him entirely.

At home, Mr. Clinton met with congressional leaders restive about being left out of the Iraq policy loop. Republicans, in particular, have complained that they have not been consulted during the latest crisis and that Clinton has failed to carefully prepare allies for his actions - something George Bush spent months doing in advance of the Gulf war.

GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole has been somewhat measured in his criticism of Clinton's moves on Iraq. Statements from others in Mr. Dole's party aren't always so subtle. After the Sept. 17 meeting with Clinton, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona complained that the US has looked weak by promising to respond "disproportionately" to Iraqi provocations, and then not doing it.

"Saddam Hussein is far better off than he was two weeks ago," charged Mr. McCain."When your allies become very uneasy, and in fact nonsupportive, except for the British, then you have a very serious challenge."

THE White House, unsurprisingly, judges matters in a different manner. "The response we gave was designed to improve the strategic position of the US and our allies to keep Saddam Hussein in a box and limit his ability to threaten his neighbors," the president said after his conference with congressional leaders.

With the desert dust now appearing to settle, is Saddam better off, or boxed? The views are mixed on that question, though many judge that Iraq has played its hand well in recent weeks.

"Despite [Clinton's] claims of victory, this is a defeat," says Joshua Muravchik, an American Enterprise Institute foreign policy fellow who has been critical of White House leadership.

The reluctance of Arab nations to follow the US lead is very indicative, says Mr. Muravchik. They likely judge that Saddam has emerged stronger from the two-week crisis. After all, he's reasserted sovereignty over the northern section of his nation, while rounding up many of the dissidents who were attempting to destabilize his regime.

"There's no question that Saddam looks stronger, and we look weaker," Muravchik says.

But the unity of such Gulf war allies as Saudi Arabia and Egypt may have been affected by the stakes of the Kurdistan crisis. While important, they were clearly not as high as those of Desert Storm - when the fate of Kuwait and perhaps Gulf oil supplies hung in the balance.

"The coalition can only be reconstructed if there seems to be the same threat as there was before," says the University of Virginia's Mr. Quandt.

And in the south - where Clinton has expanded an Iraqi no-fly zone - Saddam may be no more a threat than he was in August.

"What's happening is that he's reasserting slowly - and perhaps without too much fanfare - his control in the north," Quandt says.

Some analysts have suggested that with Saddam perhaps flexing his military muscle again, the US needs to rethink its whole policy in the Gulf region. And that raises the question of Iraq's regional rival, Iran.

Is it time to make overtures to Iran as a regional counterbalance to Saddam? True, it remains something of a theocracy. But the country has a presidential election coming, and it's likely to be fairer than Bosnia's recent polling, for instance.

Still, the history of the relationship - plus Iran's continued support for terrorism and its attempts to gain weapons of mass destruction - rule against any rapprochement in the near future.

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