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When he ended his recent visit to the Middle East, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell implied that sanctions against Iraq needed to be revised to make them more acceptable to other countries in the region. He noted, however, that such a revision would be viewed as a softer approach to Iraq and might be opposed by those who favor overthrowing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Indeed, it appears the Bush administration is divided on this issue. It already has increased support to Iraqi opposition groups that claim they can topple the dictator. “I haven’t seen a plausible plan today,” Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense, told the Senate Armed Services Committee, “but I would be very interested in seeing one.” Before he joined the government, Wolfowitz wrote that the United States “should be prepared to commit ground forces to protect a sanctuary in southern Iraq where the opposition could safely mobilize.”

Those statements raise three issues. The first is the ability of the opposition to mount a credible threat. The U.S. and its allies have famously underestimated Hussein before.

The second difficulty is harder to overcome. The coalition that won the war has crumbled, and anti-American sentiment in the region is growing. “With the shadow of the Gulf War shortening, American forces in the Gulf have acquired a controversial nature among the local people,” a commentator wrote in Dubai’s Gulf News last November. “Their presence, which was welcomed in the early ’90s, is now generating resentment among a large section of the population.” That resentment poses a risk to U.S. troops in the area.

Finally, what impact would a more aggressive U.S. strategy against Hussein have on the political stability of U.S. allies? Powell may believe he has regional support for a new sanctions regime. But whatever assurances he might have received from leaders, it is questionable whether ordinary people are similarly supportive. “It is difficult, after 10 years, to imagine that the Arab street will accept anything less than a complete lifting of all sanctions against Iraq,” the Jordan Times editorialized as Powell returned to the U.S. “And certainly it would not be prudent for Arab rulers to ignore the deep popular sympathy for the Iraqis.”

In other words, if the Arab rulers listen to the U.S. rather than their own people, they might not be rulers for long. Perhaps this editorial exaggerates the danger. But it is striking that a leading Jordanian newspaper feels obliged to publish such a blunt warning. Remember: Jordan’s King Hussein did not support the coalition in the Gulf War, presumably because he had the concerns the editorial articulates. If a more forceful U.S. policy destabilizes America’s Arab friends, the consequences will be catastrophic not only in terms of containing Iraq, but also for the security of Israel.

The Bush administration must make some critical decisions regarding Iraq, and its choices are not enviable. The existing regime to contain Hussein is crumbling, and something must be created to replace it. It is good that Powell listened to the concerns of leaders whose support we need, but the administration should also be conscious of the effect Hussein has on ordinary people. Our experience with Iran offers a lesson on the dangers of relying too much on leaders and of being inattentive to tensions bubbling beneath the surface.

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