The Limits of US Power in the Mideast Have Become All Too Obvious

Argument continues over the deal between UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and President Saddam Hussein of Iraq redefining the terms of UN arms control in Iraq. It leaves important questions open. Yet, accusing Mr. Annan of "giving too much" or even selling out to Iraq is wildly unfair.

Annan is an honorable man and a talented diplomat. His mission to Baghdad was a high-wire act in gusty cross winds, doing the essential work of his unique office. He prevented a seemingly inevitable collision. Neither the United States nor Saddam appeared ready to back down. Annan gave them a way out of the crisis. Saddam had earlier thought he could bluff his way through, but by Feb. 23, when he met the secretary general in Baghdad, he must have known that the blow would fall and that his military assets would be badly battered.

The US also had cause for second thoughts. President Clinton had acknowledged that the massive air strike would solve nothing. It would not destroy but only diminish Saddam's ability to make poison gas and pestilential germ weapons. There also was no hope that the dictator would be removed from power by anything less than an unthinkable ground war.

Indispensable intermediary

Annan was the indispensable intermediary, separating the parties without loss of face and gaining some time. The UN disarmament inspectors remain on the job. But - and everything hinges on this - unless Saddam unexpectedly abides by the strict, long-term, supervised limitation of his armed forces that he has now reconfirmed, the man and his ambitions remain a problem.

The US has a chance to reexamine its own position. Political objection to the military option has remained highly vocal at home and abroad. The Clinton administration, unable to explain the purpose of such a drastic operation, is isolated. Only Britain and Kuwait were ready to join in combat. All the other friends and allies importuned to come along offered no more than laughable tokens of cooperation and some less than that.

Remarkably, Saddam capitalized on the misery he had inflicted upon the Iraqi people, gaining the sympathy of neighbors who would be the first victims of his revived power. This was not just a propaganda coup. It reflected a deep unease among Arab nations about the perceived impulsiveness of American leadership, a sense that Washington had not properly weighed the consequences of forceful intervention for the most volatile region in the world.

Clearly, what made a US strike inadvisable in February is still valid today. There is a course, however, that meets the continuing menace of Saddam. It is neither quick nor easy. Washington must rouse a consensus among states in the region and present itself as a leader worth following. That happened in 1991, and then the surge of victory in Desert Storm was hitched to a try for a broad-based Middle East peace.

Today, there is no such thrust, and America's record in the area over the past seven years inspires neither confidence nor respect. The US-sponsored peace process between Israel and the Palestinians is dead in the water. The dual containment policy for Iraq and Iran has only tied Washington's hands where Iran is concerned. The hasty and ill-considered truce in 1991 left Saddam with enough strength to smash rebellions that the US had summoned.

Revive the peace process

This can't be turned around with chest-thumping or saber-rattling. Military power is assurance, not policy. Yet, a real start can be made. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process can be revived, with the US presenting its own proposals and actively seeing them through.

As for Saddam, he intends to stay in Baghdad until he dies. (Where could he go?) And an immense, brutal security system is meant to guarantee it. An Iraqi resistance must get rid of him, but finding and helping one is not a parlor game.

The US has made one serious attempt. It bankrolled the Iraqi National Congress, to the tune of $100 million, between 1992 and 1996. The INC operated in the Kurdish security zone, established by the allies in northern Iraq. But it was scattered when intra-Kurdish rivalry flared into civil war and one faction invited Saddam to send in his troops.

The CIA then reportedly transferred its patronage to an "Iraqi National Accord," another flat tire, based in Jordan, which promised a military uprising. Only one group is credited with small-scale sabotage and ambushes, mainly in southern Iraq. It is supported by Iran.

If the INC has a presence in Iraq today, it is invisible. In Washington, however, it is conspicuous, working Capitol Hill and visiting the State Department. Right-wing figures want the US to recognize it as the legitimate government of Iraq, finance it, arm it, and give it military help in gaining territory.

The conundrum of Iraq is too tough for that kind of fantasy. Anti-Saddam forces, to be real, must develop naturally and get help from people in the region. The US has demonstrated, sadly, that it does not have the expertise to play more than a supporting role in the search for an alternative to Saddam.

Recognizing this is not humiliation but a mark of wisdom in strange new times.

* Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on foreign affairs.

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