In Gulf, Policy by Catch Phrase

The 'dual containment' of Iran and Iraq won't accomplish what the US hopes and, in fact, it could set the stage for future wars in that volatile region

IT is an unfortunate fact of American politics that the voter is uninterested in foreign affairs. As a result, outside of the photo op and the 15-second sound bite there is no public presentation of foreign policy, and catch phrases take the place of planning for the future: ''twin pillars,'' ''standing tall,'' ''dual containment.''

Consider the last. We need stability in the Persian Gulf. Aside from strategic importance, it holds the sea of oil on which the world floats. The two most powerful countries on the Gulf, Iraq and Iran, have been the source of much instability under dictatorial governments.

Our announced policy toward them is to keep them ''contained,'' bottled up: Iran by putting pressure on suppliers, Iraq by a United Nations embargo that is constantly renewed at US insistence.

Countries with educated, productive populations, enormous amounts of oil and other assets, are to be quarantined and left to perish of inanition.

Iran borders wide expanses of sea and countries with rudimentary customs controls. Any attempt to hem it in is useless. It has oil the world wants to buy, especially in the Far East, where governments are not deterred by America's frowns. Even the US continues to do a considerable amount of business there and keeps dropping hints that it wants to come to terms -- despite the recently announced hard line.

No flexibility on Iraq

With Iraq, the United States shows no signs of flexibility whatsoever -- ''dual containment'' means the beggaring of Iraq. Needles and sewing machines banned; socks and light bulbs banned; anesthetics banned.

In theory this is only until the Iraqis get rid of Saddam Hussein, an absurd feat to ask of an unarmed, disease-ridden, inflation-eaten populace, persecuted by a pervasive ''security'' apparatus. After all, a well-armed US-led force of 700,000 did not manage to achieve it.

What Desert Storm did achieve we know: It all but destroyed Iraq. As the beaten army withdrew from Kuwait, it mutinied, and the south of Iraq exploded in an uprising. But the alacrity with which Iran sent ''volunteers'' and converted that into a sectarian war reminded everyone just how much mischief Iran was capable of. The coalition forces withdrew, leaving those who had revolted at Saddam's mercy.

In the North, the Kurds suffered -- and suffer -- as badly as ever. Egged on to revolt, they too were abandoned when the coalition armies went home. Mired in their own civil war, they are a basket case economically and engage in smuggling and barter to survive. The US Army protects Kurds from savagery in the ''Provide Comfort'' zone, but not from Turkey, which has invaded Iraqi Kurdistan with embarrassed American approval.

Weakness a bigger danger

Saddam is not Iraq. Tomorrow or the day after he will be swept away by the broom of history and the Iraqis will have to put the country back together again. And we will have to deal with the richest, most important Arab country. It cannot be disarmed and deindustrialized when powerful neighbors are armed to the teeth.

Only Iraq stands in the way of the spread of Iranian hegemony to the Red Sea. The ayatollahs are more subtle than the brutal Saddam; they are unlikely to provide the West with a casus belli by taking a military step against the Gulf states, though they will continue their provocations. The Clinton administration recently has been trying to deal with Iranian missiles on the Gulf islands by trying to sell the near-bankrupt Saudis some none-too-reliable Patriot missiles.

A strong Iraq might use its strength to build a war machine and threaten its neighbors. On the other hand, a weak Iraq, fragmented by ethnic and sectarian rivalries exacerbated by years of Baathist misrule, and with a population embittered by inflation, malnourishment, deprivation, and disease, would be even more dangerous.

Washington's failure

The answer, obviously, is that everything should be done to help Iraq throw off its oppressive government and become a democracy, with freely elected representatives from all confessional and ethnic groups who would have an overriding interest in keeping their country prosperous and peaceful. That is what the current administration in Washington, like the one before it, is not doing.

Not one responsible official has said that if Saddam is replaced by a decent government, Iraq will be treated decently. On the contrary, officials have stated publicly that Iraq should remain a pauper outlaw. In these circumstances, few self-respecting Iraqis will consider taking on the task of reconstructing the country. The rhetoric from abroad is against Saddam, but the action is against the people.

Despite platitudes about protecting the territorial integrity of Iraq, after the war Kuwait was rewarded with areas it had not even claimed -- guaranteeing future disaster -- while the Turkish Army crosses Iraq's borders at will. Meanwhile, Saddam grows in power while the sanctions kill the children and ruin Iraq.

We must make up our minds -- do we want to rid the world of Saddam, or do we want to destroy Iraq and prepare the way for the next conflagration?

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