Squeeze Iraq's wallet

Vice President Dick Cheney's trip to the Middle East is at best quixotic in light of reality. One major purpose is to gauge the prospects for support when (not if) the United States attacks Iraq. But, whatever they whisper in Mr. Cheney's ear about hating Iraq's Saddam Hussein, most of the Arab countries he visits have already said they oppose military intervention.

Furthermore, even Americans who advocate armed force say it can hardly be used decisively for something like two years. In that time, the Afghan war would have to be won, and the arsenal of advanced weapons expended there must be replenished.

A combined political and military effort must be pressed against Al Qaeda branches in 60 countries. Intensive diplomacy must create a favorable climate, primarily an end to the murderous Israeli-Palestinian war. This is quite a plateful! Meanwhile, Saddam Hussein would be building up his weapons of mass destruction and pushing closer to possession of a nuclear capability.

Mr. Hussein has legally obtained more than $50 billion by selling oil through a rigorously supervised United Nations program. This money pays for food and medicine, electric power generation, water purification, and oilfield maintenance, helping the people but also taking that much of a load off Hussein's finances.

In addition, he also earns money illegally, taking in more than $2 billion a year by smuggling out oil and other goods. This is money that he uses to buy forbidden commodities and parts on the international arms market. His secret services have set up front companies around the world to procure and ship them. And he can count on the connivance of neighbors to bring them to Iraq. These illicit funds are Hussein's oxygen. Cutting them off would, without any two-year delay, crimp his arms and security programs and shrink him down to size.

Diplomacy, not invasion, is the course to pursue. It would avert the death, devastation, and unintended consequences of large-scale military action, a heavy mortgage on the building of a post-Hussein Iraq.

But diplomacy requires an imaginative and nuanced strategy that is not much in evidence in Washington. Enlisting countries now helping Iraq should not be done by threats or pressure, but through incentives to see their self-interest in a new light. This diplomatic effort would probably cost billions, but almost certainly not nearly as much as a military campaign.

A textbook case is Iran. This nation has every reason to hate and fear Hussein, who invaded Iran in 1980. He waged war for eight years with poison gas and rocket attacks on cities. Yet Iran has been helping Iraq smuggle oil out of the Gulf, its Revolutionary Guards collecting fat rakeoffs from Iraqi tankers and oil barges hugging Iran's coast, beyond the reach of the Multinational Interception Force created to seize them. There is no telling what moves across the remote Iranian border into Iraq.

Iran sees the United States as an enemy, which moves it closer to Iraq and also suits its hard-liners, who block internal reform by harping on this external threat. The ill-conceived American policy of "dual containment" prevents Americans from doing business in Iran and cuts Iran out of it natural role in a pipeline route for the oil and gas of Central Asia.

Overall, Iran wants US military forces out of the Persian Gulf. Once Washington has amended its containment policy, it could assure Iran that it has no reason to be in the Gulf when Iraq is normal and the flow of oil secure.

The US would need to pay Syria to shut its oil pipeline from Iraq. It would need to pay Jordan, heavily dependent on Iraqi oil, to close Aqaba as a free port for Iraq and to eliminate the front companies Jordan now harbors. The US could assure the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain of compensation for clamping down on illicit trade in Iraq.

Turkey, which also passes on Hussein's private oil, says that sanctions on Iraq are costing Turkey billions. Washington could reassure Russia, with the prospect of earning $20 billion in the future development of a major Iraqi oilfield, that American companies would not snatch the prize when Hussein goes; and that the $8 billion in Iraqi debts to Russia would be paid. France, also owed billions for past services to Iraq, is an analogous case.

ONE thing emerges from this picture. The United States, no matter how super a power, cannot handle it alone. It needs the active cooperation of many foreign governments and their intelligence, banking, and commercial services, above all in policing Iraqi deals by their private business sectors.

The unilateral swagger that has marked Washington in recent times is of no help whatever in getting rid of Saddam Hussein.

• Richard C. Hottelet was a longtime correspondent for CBS.

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