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U.s., Mindful of Long-term Threat, Seeks Security Arrangement for Gulf

The Bush administration is seeking “new regional security arrangements” that would protect the Persian Gulf against future invasions from aggressors such as Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Secretary of State James Baker told Congress this week.

“I don’t know any reason we can’t develop a regional security structure that can constrain this man or any other leader who might have the same ambitions and desires. It worked in Europe,” Baker told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday.

But on Wednesday, the secretary said the security structure would not follow any particular model, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which is credited with preserving the peace in Europe since World War II.

The United States is not “calling for a NATO of the Middle East,” he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

He also said such arrangements could not be worked out until after the current crisis in the Gulf is resolved.

Baker said there could be some security benefit to Israel in such a pact, because it could be used to deter any Iraqi biological or chemical weapons attack.

The secretary also assured pro-Israel members of Congress that the United States remains committed to maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge in the Middle East, even as it provides new sophisticated weaponry to Saudi Arabia.

When pressed on that concern by Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.), Baker said, “We’ve not only given thought to that. Mr. Gilman, that’s a commitment of the United States that has existed as far I can remember, for the 10 years that I have been in government, and it’s a commitment we intend to honor.”

REJECTS LINKAGE TO TERRITORIES

On the current crisis, Baker said there is no sign that Iraq’s effort to unite Arab public opinion against Israel will succeed. “The message is not selling,” he said.

Baker also termed as “unacceptable” Iraq’s proposal to link resolution of the Gulf crisis with an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and a Syrian and Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon.

“While they relate to each other and impinge upon each other in some ways, they are nevertheless two separate issues and should be dealt with separately,” he said.

The secretary was asked about Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze’s call Tuesday for an international peace conference to resolve the various Middle East disputes.

Baker did not respond directly, but observed, “There’s quite a bit of support out there around the world for that.”

The United States has never ruled out the possibility of such a conference, he pointed out. But previously, it told its European allies, who support the idea of such a conference, that it “would make sense first to see if we can’t get some sort of a dialogue established between Israelis and Palestinians.”

Since such a dialogue “offers the best chance” for progress on the peace process, the United States has told its allies that “plans for an international conference should be put on the back burner,” he said.

Baker said that the United States might welcome a more active Soviet role in the Middle East, given its support of the U.N. sanctions against Iraq.

“I think this proves that it is not only not a bad thing to do, but it is quite fortuitous, at least in this instance.” he said.

Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa) suggested to Baker that one way to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict would be to declare any liberated Kuwait the new Palestinian homeland.

The secretary did not have any direct response. But Rep. Henry Hyde (R-III) later said he would “hate to see” Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat “with all of that oil.”

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