Int. Herald Tribune
Who wants a new regime in Iraq?

Jim Hoagland

Paris, Monday, July 3, 2000

WASHINGTON - During its brief, bumbling covert war against Saddam Hussein, the Clinton administration spent bundles of cash on the Iraqi opposition and pretended that it had not. Today the White House pretends to fund Saddam's foes and makes sure that the money never arrives. Pretense has become the only constant of this president's Iraq policy.

Seven years of failure have to be explained away or buried in foreign policy spin. Worse, American pilots and Iraqi civilians are put at risk daily to keep up political appearances, and not to bring strategic change to the Gulf.

Waiting for Saddam to go away has emerged as the most daring strategy that President Bill Clinton will pursue in Iraq.

He has extended that strategy to the Iraqi opposition in the past two years, apparently hoping that it, too, will just blow away if it is not given meaningful U.S. help.

Mr. Clinton and his national security team have either permitted or encouraged the State Department to flout the clearly stated intent of Congress to fund and equip the Iraqi National Congress in an expeditious manner. The midlevel bureaucrats assigned to "help" the INC continue to denigrate and thwart the organization rather than genuinely help it overcome its divisions.

Why would they do that? Ahmed Chalabi, a senior INC official, was asked that question at a Senate committee hearing last Wednesday. Mr. Chalabi initially sought to avoid trouble with the White House. But he finally yielded a response: Turning the Iraqi opposition into a serious force to confront Saddam is seen by this administration as too risky.

Confirmation of the condescending, culturally arrogant attitude with which the INC is treated by its U.S. "handlers" was provided by a senior State Department official who anonymously briefed reporters last Monday:

"Last year was a year spent helping them get their act together politically. You have got to deal with lawyers and accountants, get offices leased, hire personnel, install telephones, do a lot of travel and travel arrangements. These sorts of things are new to them."

Mr. Chalabi happens to possess a doctorate in mathematics from the University of Chicago, and he studied at MIT. He owns an international credit card company in London. New to travel arrangements?

Like Saddam, the INC has managed to survive the Clinton "let's pretend" school of foreign policy, which mixes calculated neglect with insincere declarations of commitment to regime change. But the disconnect comes sharply into focus with the arrival of the U.S. presidential campaign.

INC leaders were in Washington last week primarily to meet Vice President Al Gore, who showed early interest in helping Saddam's opponents but has quietly gone along with Mr. Clinton's Iraq finesse.

Mr. Gore's problem on Iraq is his campaign problem in microcosm. The meeting with the opposition was the right thing to do. It was intended to suggest that a President Gore would do more to bring down Saddam and to check his development of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. But the choreography of the meeting as an official occasion at the State Department (rather than a political meeting, where promises would have to be made) gave Mr. Gore a pretext for not saying such words. Once again, he seemed to lack the courage of his convictions.

Mr. Clinton lacks the courage of his cynicism. He has authorized the U.S. Air Force to bomb and strafe Iraq on slim provocation in the longest active military campaign conducted by the United States since Vietnam. But he has not come before the nation to explain the 18-month-long air war.

If Iraq is worth bombing, it is worth a presidential speech that lays out the problems and prospects of constructing an effective anti-Saddam policy.

Enormous problems still confront the Iraqi National Congress, the United Nations inspectors trying to get back into Iraq and other forces that would work against Saddam. But patronizing Iraqi democrats, the American people and Congress only prolongs and intensifies those problems.

Mr. Clinton is unlikely to change his spots this late and finally offer honesty on Iraq. But Mr. Gore and George W. Bush have not only the chance to come clean on what they will (or will not) do to reverse this ignominious failure. They have an overwhelming obligation.

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