Gulf Crisis Prompts Hard Look At Wisdom of Past US-Iraq Ties

Tougher US line against Baghdad might have held Saddam in check, critics say

WASHINGTON'S relationship with Iraq over the past decade is undergoing a post mortem. From congressional hearing rooms to foreign-policy think tanks, lawmakers and academics alledge that moderate US policy toward Iraq gave President Saddam Hussein reason to believe that the United States would tolerate Iraq's use of force against Kuwait.

A tougher policy, these experts argue, might have kept Iraq within its borders.

When the soul-searching is over, the effects will probably:

Make Washington more circumspect in its policy toward Iraq, Syria, and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

Embolden Congress to more strongly influence US foreign policy.

Questioning the wisdom of the administration's policy toward Iraq just prior to its invasion of Kuwait, experts have turned to statements made by April C. Glaspie, US ambassador to Iraq, and John H. Kelly, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs.

Iraq recently released transcripts of a meeting between Ms. Glaspie and Saddam in Baghdad on July 25, in which Glaspie says that the US had ``no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait.... The issue is not associated with America.''

The State Department has not denied the accuracy of the transcript.

In hearings last week, Rep. Lee Hamilton (D) of Indiana, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee, grilled Mr. Kelly on his remarks during a July 31 testimony before the subcommittee. ``You left the impression that it was the policy of the United States not to come to the defense of Kuwait,'' Mr. Hamilton told Kelly.

This policy toward Iraq has been the norm since Baghdad invaded Iran in 1980, says William Quandt, a senior fellow of the Brookings Institution.

Still fuming over the hostage crisis and fearing that Iran's Islamic fundamentalism fervor would spread into the Arab world, the Reagan administration and Congress ignored Iraq's actions.

``Perhaps Saddam got used to the West acquiescing,'' Mr. Quandt speculates.

The US had the same attitude when Iraq began to use chemical weapons against Iran in 1983, Quandt says.

In fact, the US relationship with Iraq became closer. In 1983, the US removed Iraq from the State Department's list of states that sponsor terrorism. Credits from the Export Import Bank and loan guarantees from the Commodity Credit Corporation began to flow into Baghdad. And according to publish reports, the US began to share intelligence information with Iraq regarding the deployment of Iranian troops.

Senate analysts say the reevaluation of US ties with Baghdad should have begun after Iraq, in August 1988, won its eight-year war against Iran and Tehran was no longer perceived as a threat by the foreign policy community in Washington.

Starting in 1988, they say, Iraq's actions merited stronger diplomatic response. They cite:

Iraq's use of chemical weapons against its Kurdish population in August 1988.

The disenting vote from the Arab Liberation Front, a Baghdad-based Palestinian organization, against United Nations resolutions supporting a two-state solution in Palestine.

Baghdad's intensified smuggling of weapons technology from the West in 1989 and '90.

``This was the point when the US had to start getting tough,'' says Barry Rubin, a senior research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. ``The [US] government had a point of view that there was no need to antagonize Iraq, that they'll become more aggressive.''

US policy toward Iraq failed, says Richard Murphy, former assistant secretary of state in the Reagan administration, when we took ``at face value their description of themselves that they were coming out of an eight-year war badly behind in their development plans, and with so much to develop'' they could not afford foreign adventures.

Defenders of US diplomacy, however, contend that because of Baghdad's isolation - Saddam has rarely traveled even to other Arab countries - Iraq likely would have miscalculated the US position even if its signals had been stronger.

And they argue that the appeasement policy of Egypt and the Gulf states also led Saddam to miscalculate.

Wherever fault lies, the upshot may be a harder line against Iraq.

``Iraq's readmission to the world community,'' says Peter Galbraith, a Middle East specialist on the Senate Foreign Relations committee, ``should depend on the dismantling of its chemical weapon and its incipient nuclear facilities.''

Analysts add that our policy, especially toward Syria and the PLO, is also likely to be crafted with an eagle eye.

Syria is in the US's good graces now, but Congress is well aware of President Assad's record of human rights abuses and acts of aggression.

And the PLO has not made good on its December 1988 statements regarding Israel's right to exist and the renunciation of terrorism.

``The PLO said they changed their policy'' but their current support for Saddam belies the recent moderation, says Mr. Rubin.

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