Toppling Saddam Is Not No. 1

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Throughout the current crisis over weapons inspections in Iraq, Washington clearly has been frustrated by the tepid support from friends and allies in Europe and the Gulf. Logic would suggest that the states of the Arabian Peninsula most threatened by Baghdad's arsenal would favor strong action against Saddam Hussein. This has not been the case.

Part of the problem lies in confusion over US objectives. As the Security Council votes have demonstrated, firm international support exists for implementing the resolutions relating to discovering and destroying Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. But ever since the Gulf War, voices in Washington, especially in the press and the Congress, have called for the US to engineer the overthrow of Saddam - and the rest of the world is not prepared to support this goal.

Anti-Saddam rhetoric

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Occasional statements from the executive branch that the US is not seeking to unseat the Iraqi leader are drowned out by the rhetoric of comparisons to Hitler and Munich - with the obvious implications that the status quo must not be appeased. Press accounts of CIA attempts at covert action further reinforce the impression that "getting Saddam" is the No. 1 US objective.

The Clinton administration justifiably insists that sanctions against Iraq not be lifted until, in accordance with UN resolutions, the weapons inspectors have certified that all weapons of mass destruction have been eliminated. Washington is keenly aware that Saddam has done all possible to frustrate the work of the inspection teams, that full certification may be difficult, and that the process will take time.

Nevertheless, the rigidity of the US insistence on maintaining sanctions, viewed against the backdrop of American rhetoric, has given the impression that Washington will not agree to relax curbs on Baghdad until Saddam has gone.

The greatest threat to the security of the region lies in the Iraqi weapons program. Its destruction should be the primary objective of the US - as it is for most of America's friends. Israel, above all, knows that it is a potential target for Baghdad's arsenal. It is time, clearly, for Washington to put aside the dream of overthrowing Saddam. Experience has demonstrated that the US is not very skillful at removing unwanted dictators; Fidel Castro stands out as a close example.

Iraqi exile groups have proved weak and disorganized. Massive air attacks in the Gulf War failed to dislodge Iraq's leadership, and few are confident that such attacks today could either bring down the regime or eliminate weapons sites. Neither the US nor its allies are prepared to suffer the costs and casualties of a ground assault on Baghdad.

Add to this the ambiguity of attitudes among Iraq's Arab neighbors. Even Kuwait, the victim of Iraq's aggression, has been cool toward military action. Saudi Arabia worries about what would follow a political vacuum in Baghdad: Would Iran's power be enhanced?

Many in the area see a double standard in the strong US pressure on Iraq in contrast to Washington's attitude toward Israel - which also possesses weapons of mass destruction. Critics don't accept that Israel, as a responsible power, poses no threat. Neither do they accept that, under the circumstances, Baghdad's suspicion that the US has ulterior motives in the weapons inspection is totally unfounded. And, despite divisions in the Arab world, popular feelings exist against imposing further suffering on the Iraqi people.

The threat of force worked

The US show of force in the Gulf has without doubt been an indispensable corollary to Russia's diplomatic efforts. To this point, it has not been necessary to use that force. The appropriate objective of getting the inspectors back to work appears to have been achieved.

Nevertheless, pressures from Russia, France, and others to accelerate the inspection and end sanctions can be expected. The US will insist on proof that weapons have been eliminated and mechanisms to prevent further development have been created. To keep allies and to remain credible in this effort, however, Washington must keep the focus on the inspections and not on the less supportable and more elusive hope of toppling the regime.

* David D. Newsom, former undersecretary of state, is Cumming Memorial Professor of International Affairs at the University of Virginia.

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