The Clinton administration should take a firm stand against Saddam Hussein, but its decision to freeze the recent UN-Iraq oil-for-food deal is a mistake. Suspending the deal punishes the Iraqi people and may actually benefit Saddam. The US should confine itself to military means to punish Saddam's current misdeeds in Kurdistan.
The oil-for-food deal, painstakingly negotiated between the UN and Iraq over many months, allowed Iraq to sell up to $2 billion of oil (about 700,000 barrels per day) every six months. Proceeds from the oil sales would be used to buy humanitarian goods such as food and medicine, to pay for the costs of UN weapons inspectors working to remove Saddam's capacity to build weapons of mass destruction, and to compensate victims of the Gulf war.
After Saddam sent 40,000 troops into the northern Iraqi no-fly zone two weeks ago, the Clinton administration suspended the deal in retaliation. However, a permanent or long-term suspension of the deal is not the best way to achieve US goals.
The deal should be temporarily postponed because the fighting in the Kurdish region of Iraq threatens the safety of UN monitors. Hence distribution of humanitarian supplies cannot now be ensured. However, the deal should be implemented as soon as conditions improve.
Why does it serve US interests to let the oil-for-food deal go through? First, it would provide an opportunity to show support for the Iraqi people while attacking Saddam. This would shore up regional political support for the broader US economic sanctions that continue in place against Iraq and that are vital to further US goals of destroying Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and ousting Saddam.
Second, implementing the deal will not bolster Saddam. The agreement was carefully constructed so that Saddam could not control the distribution of relief supplies and use it as a political weapon. Nor could he siphon cash from the proceeds of the oil sales. The Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south would get a fair share of the humanitarian aid. In addition, the presence of UN monitors ensuring aid distribution would be a blow to Saddam's prestige in Iraq. His foot-dragging on the deal was due in part to its severe terms. If the US postpones the deal indefinitely, Saddam can blame the Iraqi people's suffering on the Americans and score a domestic and regional public relations victory.
Third, allowing the limited Iraqi oil sales to go forward will help compensate Turkey for its losses from the sanctions. Turkish support for the UN sanctions regime is essential, but the sanctions against Iraq have cost Turkey $300 million a year in lost revenues from oil transit fees alone. This has strained Turkish support for the UN sanctions policy. Under the oil-for-food deal, a majority of the Iraqi oil sold would flow through Turkey via the Kirkuk-Yumurtalik pipeline, restoring some of Turkey's lost revenue stream.
Finally, allowing the deal to go through is the right thing to do morally. While the current sanctions impose hardships on both the guilty and the innocent in Iraq, the innocent suffer disproportionately. The oil-for-food agreement would lessen the injury to the innocent.
Saddam may welcome the chance to escape the oil-for-food deal while casting all blame for its cancellation on others. Like Br'er Rabbit in the tales of Uncle Remus, he wants us to throw him in the briar patch. Let's not oblige.
*Elizabeth S. Rogers is a research fellow at the Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University.