WASHINGTON -- For the United States, the job of containing Saddam Hussein is getting to be a lonely affair.
Of all the nations arrayed against Iraq after its August 1990 invasion of Kuwait, only Britain, Israel and a few others gave strong, unequivocal support yesterday for the cruise missile strikes launched by President Clinton against southern Iraq.
Two of America's crucial partners in the 1991 Persian Gulf war, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, blocked use of their territory for the attack, thus narrowing the military options available to the president. Britain provided a base in the Indian Ocean as a refueling stop for B-52 bombers carrying the cruise missiles.
France -- always a single-minded North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally -- was mildly critical of the U.S. attacks. Moscow, whose condemnation of Iraq in 1990 marked a post-Cold War turning point, called the U.S. action "unacceptable." Much of the Arab world was sullen -- Egypt, for example -- or silent, like Saudi Arabia.
"The use of force will not have an impact on reining in Iraq," said Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa.
Clinton seemed uneasy when asked about the lack of allied backing during an early-morning television appearance in the Oval Office yesterday.
"I believe we have historically -- at least in recent history -- taken the lead in matters like this, and I think this was our responsibility at this time," Clinton said.
At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary William J. Perry sought to play down the disagreements.
"We expect most of our allies to be supportive," Perry said. "And most importantly, I would point out, we did not need their participation in this strike."
Officials pointed out that neither Turkey's nor Saudi Arabia's help was needed once the United States decided to launch cruise missile attacks.
But the reaction from allies revealed new weaknesses in the international bond that has squeezed Iraq militarily and economically for the past 5 1/2 years.
"I would submit there isn't much of a coalition operating," said Chas. W. Freeman Jr., former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. "You can see from the Arab League criticism the extent to which the United States is bereft of avid supporters of its policy."
A new climate
The coalition has been a victim of time, economics and a changed political climate in many of the nations involved, according to experts and diplomats.
In the years since Saddam Hussein's defeat, Arab neighbors have watched anxiously as he clung to power while the mass of Iraqis suffered under United Nations-imposed economic sanctions designed to weaken Iraq.
Arab leaders are particularly reluctant to be seen supporting the United States now that America's chief ally in the region, Israel, has adopted a harder line against the Palestinians, diplomats said.
These leaders also fear that Iran, which they see as the other menacing power in the region, may take advantage of renewed instability in Iraq.
Lucrative ties await
Turkey, Russia and France, among others, are anxious to resume lucrative economic ties with Iraq once the U.N. sanctions are lifted.
"The French have always been looking more keenly [at] opportunities for restoring relations with Iraq," said Sir John Moberly, former British ambassador to Iraq and consultant to the Middle East Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs.
"They are worried that this particular action in this not quite clear-cut situation could create a lot of hostility in the Middle East. Also, they have their eye on the importance of Iraq in the longer term as a market, a field for cooperation in the oil business, and so on."
Russian leaders, instead of reflexively cooperating with the West, now want to assert their independence in world affairs.
Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov said the U.S. attacks "cannot be supported by anyone at all, except those who put domestic politics, including pre-electoral questions, above all else."
Opposed gulf war
Primakov, a Mideast specialist, tried unsuccessfully to prevent the 1991 Persian Gulf war as a special envoy for then-Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
"The world is increasingly convinced that this is not the way to solve problems, especially the sort that exist in the north of Iraq," he declared at a news conference in Berne, Switzerland.
Turkey has pressed repeatedly for Iraq to be allowed to resume selling oil, thus helping to restore at least some of the trade with its neighbor that was halted by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.
Many of the countries in the region, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, face powerful domestic discontent from conservative Islamists that is fueled by anti-American feeling.
Saudi Arabia is still reeling from two recent terrorist attacks against U.S. facilities there.
Turkey's Kurdish problem
In addition, Turkey has a measure of sympathy for Hussein's problem with the Kurds.
The United States had no objection when Turkish armed forces entered northern Iraq to attack camps operated by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a Kurdish guerrilla group seeking autonomy from Turkey.
"The Turks want someone controlling Kurdish nationalism and an end to the power vacuum [in Kurdish territory] that allows the PKK to freely attack Turkey," said Alan Makovsky, an expert on Turkey at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
In addition, officials of a number of countries said Iraq was supporting one warring Kurdish faction against another, and thus defensible.
A French Embassy spokesman, contrary to American claims, denied that Iraq had violated any U.N. resolutions.
"The current crisis is seen by a lot of allies as falling into a gray zone," said Richard Haass, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution.
"But even if others feel a sense of fatigue, it's important that we not contribute to that perception."
Whatever the world reaction, he said, "you need to keep your eye on what matters most: [Iraq's] strategic threat to the region."
Pub Date: 9/04/96