Throughout their long rivalry, the United States and the Soviet Union routinely fought through proxies, pumping arms and money into local conflicts around the world while keeping their own troops out of harm's way.
In a controversial throwback to those days, Congress has sent President Clinton a bill to underwrite the ouster of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. It gives Mr. Clinton, who is expected to sign the measure, 90 days to designate Iraqi opposition groups that could garner up to $97 million for arms, training, and financing.
Aside from deep doubts about the plan's viability, the idea of Washington openly sponsoring the armed ouster of a head of state raises profound moral and legal questions that were largely ignored during four decades of East-West confrontation.
During the cold war, aiding rebels fighting despotic regimes was widely accepted as a legitimate defense against Soviet expansionism and communism. Furthermore, assistance to such groups was usually covert, giving the US some deniability. But considerations that once commanded scant attention have gained enormous importance today, especially with the world now closely scrutinizing every word and action of its sole superpower.
"The bottom line is that this [the anti-Saddam bill] creates a dilemma for US policy," says Sean Kay, a professor of international relations at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn. "During the cold war, these things happened out of strategic necessity. In the post-cold war, one of the Clinton administration's thrusts has been to promote the rule of law."
The bill's supporters envision creating an alliance of Iraqi dissidents and rebel Kurds capable of ousting a tyrant whose pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and regional hegemony makes him the leading threat to stability in the oil-rich Gulf and US global interests.
Under the measure, it would be up to Clinton to decide whether to actually dispense the aid. But he would be under new pressure to adopt a more aggressive policy for dealing with Saddam amid the virtual collapse of the 1991 Gulf War coalition and the United Nations' weapons inspection regime.
"Our goal should be to support Iraqi freedom fighters and expand the area under their control," asserts Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi, a cosponsor of the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998.
Yet openly backing an uprising against a foreign despot, even one as dangerous as Saddam, risks backfiring for Washington. Storms of opprobrium could prompt other states to reconsider ties with the US. It could particularly alienate moderate Arab states, whose people are already irate over Washington's efforts to keep "Saddam in a box."
The legality of such a policy is certain to be disputed as well. Some experts say that absent a specific UN resolution, the new anti-Saddam measure violates international law. This debate has been taking place in another form lately, with many US allies and other governments opposed to NATO airstrikes against Serbian forces in Kosovo without UN approval.
"There is a triumvirate in the UN charter: political independence, territorial integrity, and sovereignty," says Paul Williams, a former State Department legal expert who teaches international law at American University in Washington. "It would appear that some type of armed intervention absent a Security Council resolution would violate these three principles, which are the foundation of international law."
Such arguments could be used by US allies - Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Turkey - to justify their opposition to a US-backed uprising against Saddam. These governments yearn for Saddam's demise. But even more, they fear that an Iraqi opposition coalition - Shiite and Sunni Arabs and Kurds - would end up splintering Iraq, plunging the region into chaos.
Arming the Iraqi opposition also raises the question of the criteria the US uses in deciding when to back the removal of a tyrannical regime. Why, some experts wonder, would it embrace such an approach to Saddam, while allegedly restricting aid for rebels fighting the Islamic regime in Sudan to nonlethal equipment, such as boots. The US has branded Khartoum a leading sponsor of international terrorism.
Could not a case be made, they ask, for arming ethnic Albanian rebels in Kosovo seeking independence from Europe's most authoritarian post-cold-war despot, Slobodan Milosevic?
US officials respond that foreign policy must be shaped according to individual challenges, especially those involving vital US interests.
"It is hard to have an approach that fits into all cases," says David Leavy, a White House foreign-policy spokesman. "Saddam Hussein provides almost a unique case given his clear and present threat to his people, the region, and the international community. How that applies to other countries is apples and oranges."
FINALLY, with Iraq there are the same kinds of hurdles and risks the US faced in backing anticommunist rebels in Afghanistan, where they prevailed and then turned on each other, and in Cuba and Angola, where they failed. The US also failed to pull off several earlier covert attempts to foment an uprising against Saddam.
The main proponents of the new plan include the London-based Iraqi National Congress dissident group and former senior US officials. They say that with enough US aid, an opposition force could seize large areas of Iraq and declare a parallel government, which would attract Iraqi Army deserters. Protected by US airpower - and possibly ground units - the coalition would then vanquish Saddam.
Many US officials, however, scoff at the idea. They say proponents have failed to consider numerous questions, including the absence of regional support, enormous logistical problems, and the lack of cohesion among Iraqi opposition groups. "I don't think these questions have been thought out. If they have, no one's asked me about them," says Gen. Anthony Zinni, commander of US forces in the Middle East. He calls the plan "a bad idea."
While Clinton will sign the bill, it is clear the White House shares some of General Zinni's concerns. "Any military support will have to be contingent upon consultations with our allies in the region, with the feasibility of the plan, and the support of Congress," says Mr. Leavy. "We don't envision any transfers [of aid to the Iraqi opposition] in the foreseeable future."