Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright sent a blunt message yesterday to foreign governments and corporations waiting or hoping for the United States to give up on the tight economic sanctions on Iraq: Forget it.
As long as Saddam Hussein is in power, she said in a speech at Georgetown University, "Our policy will not change. It is the right policy." But if a new government were to come to power in Baghdad, she said, the United States "would stand ready . . . to enter rapidly into a dialogue with the successor regime."
State Department officials billed Albright's address as a major statement about U.S. policy toward Iraq, and it was a striking demonstration of how diplomatic language is different from plain English. In many ways it did no more than state the obvious, but it simultaneously sought to send multiple signals to multiple audiences.
It might seem self-evident, State Department officials acknowledged, that if Saddam were ousted, the United States would endeavor to work constructively with whoever succeeded him. But the purpose of saying so specifically for the first time, the officials said, was to dispel a growing belief in Arab popular opinion that the United States is keeping the sanctions in place year after year out of hatred for the Iraqi people and their country.
Albright's language also was designed to tell the Iraqi people that the United States would welcome a coup or uprising that got rid of Saddam, a senior official said, but she could not call specifically for his ouster because if she did and he survived, "each day he would trumpet it as a victory."
In insisting that the economic sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council after the 1991 Persian Gulf War will remain in place, Albright stipulated that her "fundamental purpose is to reaffirm United States policy," not alter it.
The news here was not in the content but in the timing and the target audience, officials said. Albright was trying to reach friendly Middle Eastern and European governments and multinational corporations who sense -- or desire -- that what is known as "sanctions fatigue" will soon lead the United States to tolerate a relaxation.
Albright offered little hope to countries such as Turkey and Jordan, neighbors of Iraq, that have suffered heavy economic losses because of the tight economic sanctions, or to the European and other corporate executives who have trooped to Baghdad in the hope of cashing in when sanctions are lifted.
"It is essential," Albright said, "that international resolve not weaken. . . . Iraq's behavior and intentions must change before our policies can change. Otherwise, we will allow the scorpion that bit us once to bite us again. That would be a folly impossible to explain to our children, or to the veterans of Desert Storm."
State Department officials said they undertook a review of the Iraq policy, after President Clinton's reelection. The sanctions policy had been in place five years, and was facing growing criticism from friendly countries such as Egypt that it was punishing innocent Iraqis without inflicting damage on Saddam.
The conclusion was that there is no realistic alternative to the present policy so long as Saddam is in power. The recent start of food deliveries to Iraq under a U.N.-sponsored oil-for-food program should alleviate the distress of the Iraqi population, U.S. officials said.
For most of the six years since a U.S.-led military coalition drove Iraqi troops out of Kuwait, the U.S. position has been that Saddam must comply with all U.N. resolutions, not that he must be removed from power. Albright, however, made clear without saying so in a declarative sentence that Saddam's departure is the price of removing the U.N. sanctions.
"Our view, which is unshakeable, is that Iraq must prove its peaceful intentions," she said. "It can do so only by complying with all of the Security Council resolutions to which it is subject. Is it possible to conceive of such a government under Saddam Hussein? . . . The evidence is overwhelming that Saddam's intentions will never be peaceful." If a new government were installed that complied with the U.N. resolutions, repudiated terrorism, respected ethnic minorities and was not allied with Iran, "a whole range of economic and security matters would be open for discussion in a climate of cooperation and mutual respect," she said.