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Perennial Problem: Iraq

February 23, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


KWAME HOLMAN: All week long thousands of Iraqis have protested last week’s bombing raids by U.S. and British warplanes. The attacks were President George W. Bush’s first military action as commander in chief.

They targeted radar towers and other facilities outside an area they patrol regularly, the so-called no-fly zone in southern Iraq. It was established by the first Bush administration a year after the 1991 Gulf War. The government of Saddam Hussein said the bombing killed two people and wounded others. President Bush defended his decision at his press conference yesterday.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We had two missions; one was to send a clear signal to Saddam, and the other was to degrade the capacity of Saddam to injure our pilots. I believe we succeeded in both those missions.

KWAME HOLMAN: Mr. Bush said he also sent a signal to China, which is believed to be sharing radar technology with Iraq, in violation of U.N. sanctions.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We’re concerned about Chinese presence in Iraq, and we are… my administration is sending the appropriate response to the Chinese. Yes, it’s troubling that they’d be involved in helping Iraq develop a system that will endanger our pilots.

KWAME HOLMAN: Yesterday, news reports suggested many state of the art bombs missed their Iraqi targets last week.

REAR ADMIRAL CRAIG QUIGLEY: Did each weapon perform perfectly during the strike? No, it did not. But we feel that, on balance, the strike had good effectiveness.

KWAME HOLMAN: The President used the term “Swiss cheese” to describe the leakiness of U.N. economic sanctions first imposed on Iraq after it invaded Kuwait. The trade embargo is supposed to allow Baghdad to sell oil only to purchase food and medicine.

The sanctions are to remain in place until Iraq proves it has gotten rid of weapons of mass destruction.But a number of western and Arab nations now are permitting commercial flights into Iraq, buying Iraqi oil, and making diplomatic overtures to Saddam’s government. And U.N. weapons inspectors who left the country in late 1998 have not been allowed to return. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who left today for a Middle East trip, has raised what he calls smart sanctions. They would target Iraqi military sales instead of blocking general economic transactions, a policy that’s come under wide criticism as punishing Iraqi civilians. Today at the Camp David news conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, President Bush said the two leaders discussed changes in the sanctions on Iraq.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Our beef is not with the people of Iraq; it’s with Saddam Hussein. And secondly, anytime anybody suffers in Iraq, we’re concerned about it. And I would, however, remind you that Saddam has got a lot of oil money, and it would be helpful if he would apply it to helping his people.

Having said that, to the extent that sanctions are hurting Iraqi people, we are going to analyze that. Colin is really going to listen, he’s going to solicit opinion from our friends and folks in the Middle East, and prior to formulation of any policy, we will have listened and then I will of course consult with friends and allies, such as the prime minister here, as we develop a policy that we hope and know will be more realistic. The prime minister said something interesting, though: a change in sanctions should not in any way, shape or form embolden Saddam Hussein.

He has got to understand that we’re going to watch him carefully, and if we catch him developing weapons of mass destruction, we’ll take the appropriate action, and if we catch him threatening his neighbors, we will take the appropriate action. A change in a sanction regime that is not working should not be any kind of signal whatsoever to him that he should cross any line of… and test our will, because we’re absolutely determined to make that part of the world a more peaceful place by keeping this guy in check.

SPOKESMAN: Thank you very much.

JIM LEHRER: Ray Suarez takes it from there.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on Iraq we get three views; Robert Pelletreau was Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs during the first Clinton administration, and ambassador to Tunisia and Egypt during the Reagan and Bush administrations. Clovis Maksoud was the League of Arab States ambassador to the U.N. from 1980 to 1990. And Richard Butler was executive chairman of the United Nations special commission on Iraq from 1997 to 1999. Well, Robert Pelletreau, you heard it there. Leaving the door open for loosening sanctions, yet being unequivocal about the need to continue pressure on Iraq. How do you read that?

ROBERT PELLETREAU: Nobody in Washington believes that Saddam Hussein has changed his intentions or his ambitions to be the dominant force in the Gulf or his intention to reacquire weapons of mass destruction just as soon as he’s able to do so. I think the president has signaled a determination by the United States and the United Kingdom to react strongly if there’s evidence that that’s happening.

RAY SUAREZ: But also signaled along with Prime Minister Blair an intention to relieve the pressures on the population of Iraq?

ROBERT PELLETREAU: That’s right. There’s been a crumbling of sanctions under propaganda pressure and under realization in the region and throughout the world that the Iraqi people have been bearing the brunt of the hardship more than the Iraqi regime. So there’s talk about some smart sanctions now, sanctions that will be targeted more directly at the government, at its efforts to reacquire military strength or weapons of mass destruction and lessening or relieving the burden that’s on the Iraqi people, allowing them to get back on their feet and lead more normal lives.

RAY SUAREZ: Clovis Maksoud, what do you make of the president’s remarks?

CLOVIS MAKSOUD: Well, I think the president’s remarks are on the one hand they seem to be saying that Secretary Powell is going to go to the region to listen, and I think that he’s going to hear certain policy recommendations, I hope, and certain assessments that should be factored into the decision making and policy making processes in the United States and maybe in the United Nations also. I think that the question arises is how to deal with the new elements that have been introduced, especially in the last couple of years with diplomatic and commercial relations raising between and among many Arab states which were part of the coalition.

There is a deep crisis of conscious throughout the Arab world and in many other parts of the world about the suffering and the nature of the indefiniteness of the sanctions on the people of Iraq, and this has now become superseding much of the anxieties and concerns that many regimes have about Saddam Hussein’s regime itself.

I mean, irrespective of the judgment that many countries in the Arab world have about the regime, they do have a major concern about the people of Iraq and then there is also the anxiety arising out of Sharon’s elections in the region, and the fact that this is being subordinated to the geopolitical context, which President Bush seems to imply about how to deal with the regional affairs as a whole. And in that respect I think the visit might be a learning lesson as well as an unlearning lesson, and I think that is necessary at the beginning of the new administration of President Bush.

RAY SUAREZ: Richard Butler, in today’s news conference with the prime minister and the president implicit in all of their remarks was the assumption that Saddam Hussein and his regime in Iraq is still a danger to the region. Is he?

RICHARD BUTLER: Yes, he certainly is, Ray. I find it curiously almost historically appropriate that the new President’s first entry into the harsh world of international politics is on the Iraq issue. You think about how the wheel of history turn from his father ten years ago, and next Monday is the 10th anniversary of the liberation of Kuwait, and now to another President Bush.

And here he is on the world stage for the first time dealing with Iraq. I believe that one of the things that we’ve seen in the last 18 months, when the previous administration put Iraq policy somewhat into limbo, is the truth of the principle that if you postpone a truly serious problem, then the solution of it only gets harder. Now, what we heard from the president, I think, was a very encouraging start to find the new policy that the United States clearly needs. It emphasized fundamentally the thing that is of basic importance, that is, Saddam is still a very dangerous man. He remains connected to, I would say addicted to weapons of mass destruction, and the need to get that under control will be the core of a new policy.

But there was also a realistic recognition that the sanctions instrument, I think, is irretrievably broken, and that he and Prime Minister Blair have indicated that they’re prepared to look at that. I think it was very important that the point was made earlier that Saddam Hussein holds a very serious responsibility himself for sanctions.

Clovis Maksoud a moment ago talked about not only the impact but their duration. Ray, they could have been removed seven or eight years ago because they’ve always been tied to disarmament — if Saddam had given us the illegal weapons seven or eight years ago, as was hoped and expected, those sanctions would have been removed. Nevertheless, sanctions are now a broken instrument, and they need to be part of a new policy mix — the core of which has to be arms control, but clearly for that to be acceptable to get those inspectors back in there, there will have to be a revisiting of, an adjustment of the sanctions regime. I see a good start towards that new policy being made today.

RAY SUAREZ: Robert Pelletreau, you heard Clovis Maksoud talk about the powers in the region, Saddam Hussein’s neighbors, and Mr. Butler talk about a broken sanctions regime. How do you uncouple the sanctions that hurt the rank and file Iraqis and those that seek to keep Iraq from developing weapons of mass destruction?

ROBERT PELLETREAU: I think you revise the list of permissible imports to expand those imports which directly affect ordinary people’s lives, including such things as water treatment systems, the electric grid, things like that, but you remain absolutely rock solid on anything that has a direct bearing on increasing military power, any spare parts, any new weapons systems, and certainly any precursors to weapons of mass destruction.

RAY SUAREZ: Can inspectors ever get back into the country?

ROBERT PELLETREAU: I’m very dubious myself that Iraq is ever going to let inspectors back into the country and I don’t think you should put too much weight of your policy on that. The worst danger would be to have an inspection system back in that is ineffective and that cannot uncover what Iraq has now had months and months to prepare for and to be absolutely covered up about. Chemical weapons and biological weapons can be produced in very small, very remote bathroom/bathtub-like facilities. I think a weapons inspection regime would have a great deal of difficulty trying to track them down, and we shouldn’t be lulled into a false sense of security.

RAY SUAREZ: Richard Butler, how do you answer that?

RICHARD BUTLER: The fundamental requirement, if there’s to be any chance of getting inspectors back into Iraq is that a consensus in the Security Council, which disappeared two and a half years ago, be restored. Saddam Hussein has been the main beneficiary of this division in the Council. If that were healed, if it were put back together, his political position would be changed overnight. The first step towards putting that consensus together is for the U.S. to develop a new policy and I see those first steps being taken now.

But just a quick word on inspections themselves: This is not understood by many people. We are in the most shocking situation with Iraq today; not only do we not have the inspections that were specially mandated after the end of the Gulf War, but Iraq is even below the normal standard, because as a party to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, like 160 other countries in the world, it should be the subject of normal, regular inspections from the international atomic energy agency in Vienna. It’s not even receiving those. And people should understand that.

Some of what’s being asked of Iraq is what’s being asked of all manner of countries around the world, not just the special post-Gulf War arrangements. And, with all respect to Robert Pelletreau, I know it’s difficult in the biological field in particular, but absent human beings on the ground with their eyes and ears to watch what is happening in Iraq’s manufacturing industries, we don’t have a chance of knowing what is going on. And I think the core of a new policy has to be absolute insistence that those eyes and ears be put back on the ground in Iraq.

RAY SUAREZ: Ambassador Maksoud, in the time that we have left, let’s look forward to Secretary Powell’s trip. You already suggested he’s going to get an earful. Is it significant to you that this is a trip by a major American policy leader that is not focused on the Arab-Israeli problem?

CLOVIS MAKSOUD: Well, there’s no doubt that the question of Arab-Israeli conflict is going to be factored in, whether it is American priority or not. There seems to be a lopsided priority. The Arabs are more concerned about the growing right-wing efforts in Israel, the new government of Israel, and between the anxieties that they fear about the Iraqi situation.

They’re trying to normalize… maybe not successfully as much as they would want with Iraq, but they’re trying really to sharpen their strategy concerning the rise of Sharon and the failure of the peace process. I think at this moment there are three landmarks which we must focus on: One is that there is going to be a summit meeting on the 27th of — this is an institutionalized summit meeting of the Arab League in March.

Secondly, there is going to be a dialogue between the Secretary General and the Iraqis and I hope that in this dialogue that there is a formula where the Iraqis don’t talk at the Americans and the British in the same way as the Americans don’t talk at the Iraqis in the same way. So I think a simultaneity — a formula, a resolution in the Security Council of a simultaneous nature between lifting the sanctions on the people of Iraq and having the compliance with the inspectors’ presence in the Iraqi to monitor the fact that there is no production of mass destruction. I think this simultaneity has to be worked out, and I think there is enough room to do so.

RAY SUAREZ: Gentlemen, thank you all.