THE punitive air strike on Iraqi military installations will certainly not put an end to Saddam Hussein's provocations. But it could be the catalyst for a badly needed United States strategy in the Persian Gulf.
The great danger to Western interests in the Middle East emanates from Iran, not Iraq. Combating the Iranian Islamic fundamentalism which threatens the stability of many Arab states, restoring the traditional balance of power between Iran and Iraq, and fostering regional stability, must be the Clinton Gulf strategy.
Due to size, composition, and proximity, Iraq is in a unique position to check Iran's export of Islamic fervor. This was the rationale for supporting Iraq during the Iraq-Iran war. The rationale is still valid. Since the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Iran has been nurturing fundamentalism throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Moreover, while Iraq's military capability has been reduced since 1990, Iran has been acquiring sophisticated weapons - including submarines from Russia, Scud missiles from Nor th Korea and nuclear technology from China. It is no secret that Iran is bent on building a formidable military machine that will threaten its neighbors, including Israel.
President Bush's obsession with Saddam prevented him from developing a coherent strategy that could restore stability to the region. In the wake of the latest flare-ups with Iraq, President Clinton can choose from a number of policy options. Many of the options now floating around will not solve the Gulf problems, however.
For example, supporting the establishment of an Iraqi government in exile while seeking the overthrow of Saddam through covert action is risky, with unpredictable consequences. Mounting another massive attack by coalition forces, occupying Iraq and installing a new Iraqi government is also a quagmire America is not likely to enter. Tightening up the economic sanctions with the hope of accelerating Saddam's downfall will further hurt the Iraqi people and intensify the Arabs' outcry about the Iraqis' pligh t. Bombing Iraq's military installations on a continuing basis until Saddam resigns or is overthrown would outrage many countries, especially the Arab states, and fracture the coalition. Finally, leaving things the way they are, taking punitive action against Saddam's provocations while maintaining the sanctions is a policy that has already proven to be counterproductive and could further strengthen Iran, to the detriment of the Gulf states.
Mr. Clinton needs a clear policy requiring a balanced approach to the region's changing complexities. The Arab-Israeli peace negotiations are tenuous and could falter. Egypt is under siege internally. Fundamentalism is rife. Hamas and Hizbullah are waging a holy war against Israel. Lebanon could plunge into a new civil war.
Following a brief goodwill gesture, Saddam is likely to continue resisting United Nations sanctions and pressure the Clinton administration to rethink US policy. Clinton would be advised to consider a four track policy:
1. Depart from the Bush policy, motivated by Saddam's ouster. Instead, the Clinton team must deal with Saddam in a way that allows him to meet UN terms, while gradually easing the economic sanctions and demonstrating greater sensitivity on matters that affect Iraq's sovereignty. But Clinton must act swiftly and decisively in case of further violations of UN resolutions by the Iraqi leader, putting him on notice that defiance will not go unpunished. This is a quid-pro-quo relationship, linking Saddam's be havior with the severity or the easing of sanctions.
2. Develop regional security arrangements that encompass all the elements of a regional defense. This would include a Gulf Defense Force under a joint command willing to meet any outside threat to a member state. Other Arab states in the region could be invited to join, depending on the progress made on the Arab-Israeli front. America's backing would deter not only Iraq but Iran as well and encourage internal stability in the Gulf states.
3. Controlling the arms flow to the region is a priority; US leadership is key. As the major supplier, the US must act. Without US leadership, arms suppliers hungry for cash and recipients thirsty for deadly weapons will set the stage for future wars. The US should also help build a consensus among the states in the region and the principal outside nuclear powers in favor of making the Middle East free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.
4. Finally, the US must help and encourage each state in the area to move gradually toward democratization, the key to political stability. Democratization in the Arab world faces tremendous obstacles due to economic disparities. Supporting the states in the region in the development of major regional projects that could benefit every participating country will create a new outlook for peace and stability.
The Middle East has changed dramatically in three years. What is needed now is a long-range strategy that shapes - not reacts - to events. It must keep Islamic fundamentalism in check and foster stability.