What is the U.S. saying?


Washington-- In holding together the international coalition against Saddam Hussein, the United States is forging strategic ties and making concessions that some experts and politicians here worry will allow other dictators to increase their own power in the future.

For the duration of the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam Hussein was "America's S.O.B." who gained an advantage from U.S. intelligence and weaponry and amassed an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, with the assistance of Western companies, that he has since used to threaten other neighbors.

He was useful as a counterweight to the violent anti-Western forces in Iran, whose sponsorship of terrorism was coupled with the long-term goal of becoming the dominant power in the Persian Gulf.

After the long war weakened Iran to the point of neutralizing it, for the time being at least, Iraq emerged as the major threat to the region. But by then it was too late to dismantle Mr. Hussein's military might, and the Reagan and Bush administrations underestimated his aggressive intentions.

Once the gulf crisis is settled, some here worry that the role of regional bully will be assumed all too quickly by Syria.

President Hafez el Assad has already become a key beneficiary of the crisis. By virtue of dispatching troops to Saudi Arabia to join in confronting his archenemy Saddam Hussein, Mr. Assad has seen a vast increase in his own prestige.

Syria is the most glaring of the strange bedfellows created by the gulf crisis, but not the only one. The United States has maintained indirect contact with Iran -- like Syria a neighbor of Iraq -- to assure itself that Tehran would uphold U.N. sanctions and not side with Iraq in a conflict.

Other countries participating in the anti-Iraq coalition, assembled with a strenuous combination of effort, blandishments and pressure, may have exacted prices from the United States that will only emerge long after the gulf crisis is over.

Some, such as Syria, are countries the United States had dealt with warily before the crisis. China, toward which the United States had been cool since the Tiananmen Square massacre, got high-level diplomatic massaging on the gulf issue.

Others, such as Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan and Morocco, are countries with which the United States had been friendly, but which may expect additional favors as a result of their assistance.

At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing last week, Sen. Larry Pressler, R-S.D., asked Secretary of State James A. Baker III: "Have there been implied promises for further aid for the countries that have sent troops or military assistance at your request from the United States to those countries?"

"There have been some, senator," Mr. Baker replied, but he answered "no" when asked whether the United States would have "a large bill to pay" in a year or two.

Mr. Baker has gone to President Assad's hilltop palace in Damascus to confer with him. The Syrian leader has been photographed, one on one, with President Bush, who met with him in Geneva. His regime has received a reported $1 billion from Saudi Arabia, money presumably available to make up for the cutoff of Soviet military assistance.

In addition, Mr. Assad was able to use the world's distraction over the gulf crisis to subdue opponents in Lebanon with relative impunity.

All this despite his brutal suppression of any internal opposition, his longtime enmity toward the United States' principal ally in the Middle East, Israel, and his sponsorship of terrorism against Westerners.

Damascus has been the headquarters of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, the terrorist group believed to have played a key role in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103.

Vincent M. Cannistraro, who formerly headed the CIA' counterterrorism center, told reporters recently that Syria had "been involved in a number of terrorist operations over the last couple of years." He expressed fears that the United States was repeating the "terrible mistake" it had made in overlooking terrorist sponsorship by Baghdad.

A member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Representative Sam Gejdenson, D-Conn., contended last week that Mr. Assad may have played a role in more killings of Americans than has Mr. Hussein.

"And I think what troubles me most is that we were virtually on ZTC the same track with Iraq until Iraq invaded Kuwait, and that one of the dangers I see here . . . is that a rush to embrace others who may be just as bad as Saddam Hussein may come back to haunt us again," he told Secretary Baker during a hearing.

Mr. Baker replied, as he had in Damascus, that "the foreign policy of the United States can never be and will never be immoral."

"We're going to talk to countries, though, where we think it is important to our goals in the gulf, particularly when we have the number of men and women, American men and women, that we have over there." Later, he said cooperation with Syria was important to protecting American lives.

But the potential cooperation with Syria goes beyond mere tactics in the gulf crisis. Other U.S. officials have spoken of the possibility of a Riyadh-Cairo-Damascus axis that would help restrain future Iraqi aggression.

Such talk clearly alarms Israel's supporters in the United States. The view is balanced in part, however, by the view that Mr. Assad, while violent, at least is predictable, has a healthy respect for Israel's military strength and knows the limits of what Israel will tolerate in terms of threats to its security.

Israeli sources also question whether Syria, with so little in common with the United States culturally and politically, will be able to maintain its relationship with the United States.

The crisis also has hastened the U.S. rapprochement with China. Less than 18 months after the Tiananmen Square massacre provoked a congressional and public uproar in the United States, President Bush held a meeting at the White House with Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen.

National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft has argued that the meeting enabled Mr. Bush to explain personally the concern he feels over China's continued human rights abuses. Still, the meeting was widely seen as a reward for China's willingness at least not to veto the recent U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing force against Iraq.

The gulf crisis has obviously deepened the United States' longtime friendship with Saudi Arabia and the other oil-rich monarchies of the Persian Gulf. The skilled Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, has arguably become one of the most influential figures in town.

Apart from the strategic necessity of keeping gulf oil production in friendly hands that will ensure a steady and reasonably priced supply, this relationship is bolstered by the argument that none of the gulf states is considered a threat to other nations in the region.

Their failure to accept a formal peace with Israel is a continued sore point, however. Over the long term, Israel's supporters in Congress question whether even Saudi Arabia will be able to resist the pressures buffeting autocratic regimes worldwide. Given the turbulence of the Middle East, there is fear that its ever-growing stock of sophisticated military hardware could fall into radical hands.

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