Let's Get Real About Iraq

America's policy toward Iraq is a mess. Everyone in Washington seems to realize this, and yet few have the courage to change it. During the presidential campaign the Bush team criticized President Clinton's approach to the problem as bankrupt. But now that they are in office, the Bush folks seem content to pursue the same patchwork of positions that has so far yielded only failure. They have initiated a volley of airstrikes, talked of "energizing sanctions," called for the return of U.N. arms inspectors into Iraq and increased funding for the Iraqi opposition. In other words, more of the same.

Washington is clinging to the carcass of a policy that has lost all effectiveness. The economic sanctions have impoverished Iraq while doing nothing to dislodge Saddam Hussein. We have lost support for our policies in Europe, in the United Nations Security Council and in the Arab world. Even Syria--a foe for decades--has begun a rapprochement with Baghdad. Every report out of Iraq suggests that people there blame America and not Saddam for their plight. Western experts estimate that between 100,000 and 500,000 children under the age of 5 have died in the last decade as a result of the poor economic and medical conditions in Iraq.

Saddam's cat-and-mouse game with American and British air forces serves his purposes as well. Whenever he wishes to initiate a confrontation with the West, he does so. (All he loses is a few soldiers, which probably doesn't keep him up at night.) Before last Thursday's airstrikes had even ended, Iraq's state-controlled media announced with great fanfare that America had, as usual, killed Iraqi civilians in its continuing war against the Iraqi people. For almost a decade now, our confrontation with Saddam has taken place at points and places of his choosing. It is time to turn the tables.

The United States should offer its allies in Europe and the Arab world a new bargain on Iraq. In return for the suspension of broad economic sanctions, Washington should ask for tighter controls on military imports into Iraq. This would shift our confrontation from the containment of Iraq as a nation to the focused containment of Saddam Hussein. Washington should welcome trade and tourism with Iraq but target the Baath Party's top hundred leaders, who should be charged with war crimes and arrested if they ever leave Iraq. Let the world deal with the merchants and farmers of Iraq, instead of the odious apparatchiks of Saddam's dictatorship.

Such a shift would allow Washington to regain the moral high ground both internationally and within Iraq. Our policies would now be directed against a specific, real danger--that of Saddam Hussein's acquiring weapons of mass destruction and threatening his neighbors. It would also promote dissension within Iraq. One of the cruel, unintended consequences of the economic sanctions is that they have centralized Iraq's economy in Saddam's hands. Today, if an Iraqi businessman wants to trade abroad, he must petition the government in Baghdad. Without the sanctions, Saddam's stranglehold on his country will ease.

"What about the inspectors?" some will ask. Shouldn't we insist that they return to Iraq? Actually, no. The inspections were a fiasco. The simple truth is that after 1993, despite years of expensive effort, the inspectors found nothing. Saddam had gotten good at hiding his handiwork. (The one exception was when they had tips from Saddam Hussein's son-in-law, Hussein Kamel, an event unlikely to recur.) Unsuccessful inspections help Saddam. They wear out the world's patience and erode support even for military sanctions. We know that Saddam Hussein is attempting to build weapons of mass destruction. We also know that he can hide them effectively. Why play into his hands?

Once we put into place a policy of focused containment, we can also react vigorously to any violation of it. That should mean more than pinprick strikes at the time and place of Saddam's choosing or insufficient funding for an ineffectual opposition. Washington should announce that, if seriously provoked, it will use ground forces to take control of parts of Iraq. By pulling back now, we can push forward when we need to.

Such a policy switch raises important questions: how to control Iraq's oil revenues while allowing normal economic activity to resume? What about technologies that could be used for civilian and military purposes? Should the new system be implemented unilaterally or through the U.N.? But these are details that can be worked out. Far more difficult is the basic shift, because it is a change more of heart than of head.

American policy toward Iraq has been dominated by emotion. We hate to appear to step down (in any sense) against an evil man--and one who has flourished in the face of American opposition. But here is the reality about Iraq: it is a medium-size oil country with a tattered army, important simply because it is located close to other oil countries and because it is ruled by a madman. America needs only to deter him from attacking his neighbors and acquiring weapons of mass destruction. Our policy should reflect that reality and not the years of bile we have accumulated against a second-rate thug.