According to President Clinton, last week's cruise-missile strikes in southern Iraq sent a message to Saddam Hussein: "When you abuse your own people or threaten your neighbors you must pay a price."
These latest attacks were allegedly designed to punish Saddam for his army's brutal attacks on a Kurdish faction operating in the northern Iraqi city of Arbil, within the boundaries of a UN-mandated protection zone. But if the United States and its allies had shown consistency in protecting the Kurds of northern Iraq, the current military crisis might have been avoided. And despite Mr. Clinton's claim of "victory" after Iraq withdrew some of its troops from around Arbil last week, Saddam retains the capability to attack the Kurds whenever he wants.
US's strange silence
The real message to Saddam by US policymakers over the past two years has been that Washington is prepared to risk very little to protect Kurdish lives in the area. When Turkey sent 35,000 troops into northern Iraq in March 1995 and used US-supplied aircraft to bomb and burn villages and refugee camps, Mr. Clinton issued only a mild protest. He told Turkey's then-Prime Minister Tansu Ciller that he "understood" her need to pursue activists from the Turkish-based Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) into the area. Last Thursday, Turkey used US-supplied aircraft to bombard alleged PKK bases in northern Iraq, and the Clinton administration once again acquiesced in this violation of the no-fly zone.
Similarly, when Iran intervened in northern Iraq earlier this summer to attack an Iranian Kurdish group with bases there, the US was strangely silent. And despite calls from the rival groups in northern Iraq to help them resolve their differences, the US administration continued to deny its support for a $1 million mediation force to help implement a cease-fire between the two factions. Then it hung back on efforts to create a power-sharing arrangement.
It was only after this long period of US inaction in the face of outside intervention against Kurds in northern Iraq that Masoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, invited Iraqi military forces to assist him in his war against the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. At $1.2 million per copy, each of the dozens of US cruise missiles launched to "punish Saddam" for moving into this power vacuum in northern Iraq costs more than the mediation force that could have headed off the crisis there.
Striking back at Iraq's despotic ruler may be a popular move in an election year, but it will do little to bring enduring peace to the region. That will require long-term preventive diplomacy and increased consistency on the part of the United States and key allies in the region.
Let's not forget that the US helped create Saddam's military machine. The Reagan and Bush administrations transferred over $500 million in weaponsmaking technology to Baghdad from 1985 to the eve of the Gulf war, and turned a blind eye as our European allies provided Saddam's regime with everything from howitzers to advanced fighter aircraft. The argument at the time was that Saddam was the "lesser of two evils" in his war with Iran; once the war ended, sales continued on the wishful thought that he could be "won over" via commercial transactions, many of which were guaranteed by the US government.
Rather than lashing back militarily every time Saddam makes a move within his own borders, the Clinton administration should tackle the harder job of reducing sources of conflict in the Middle East and Persian Gulf.
Arms sales as a weapon
First, the United States should reassert the commitment to curbing the flow of weaponry into the region that it made after the Gulf conflict, so that it doesn't nurture any more Saddam-style leaders in the area.
Second, the US should promote discussions among the states of the region and the various Kurdish factions to come up with a plan for peaceful resolution of current conflicts, whether that entails gradual steps toward independence or greater Kurdish cultural and political autonomy within existing states.
Finally, Clinton's stated commitment to make governments that abuse their own people and threaten their neighbors pay a price should be a part of US policy toward all governments, not just Iraq.
One way to do that would be to adopt the arms sales Code of Conduct bill. The Code, which is co-sponsored by Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D) of Georgia and Sen. Mark Hatfield (R) of Oregon, would sharply curtail US arms sales to regimes that violate the human rights of their own citizens, engage in aggression against their neighbors, or come to power through undemocratic means.
Putting these principles at the center of foreign-policy decisionmaking offers the best hope of breaking the cycle of violence that has driven US-Iraqi relations during the 1990s, and preventing similar outbreaks in other parts of the world.
*William D. Hartung is a senior research fellow at the World Policy Institute at the New School for Social Research in New York.