George W. Bush’s description of the US-British bombing of Iraq as a “routine mission” unwittingly summed up the mechanical nature of the US-British air operations in Iraq, which have been bombing on autopilot since 1992. These sorties continue because no one has a better idea of what US policy toward Iraq should be. The only rationales for the February 16 strike were to tell Saddam Hussein that the mindless air campaign will continue under a new administration and to reduce the possibility that Iraq’s improved air defenses might shoot down a US plane on the eve of Secretary of State Colin Powell’s trip to the Middle East.

But the attack’s main outcome was to remind the world of the emptiness of US policy in the area. The sanctions regime is now widely ignored; US European allies, led by the French, are furious at Washington’s unilateralism (even Tony Blair’s foreign minister was preparing to relax sanctions). Bush spoke of enforcing “the agreement that [Saddam Hussein] signed after Desert Storm,” but the Clinton Administration helped undermine the UN inspection regime instituted after the war by making it an anti-Saddam operation. UNSCOM inspectors pulled out, never to return, just before December 16, 1998, when cruise missiles were unleashed against Baghdad in Operation Desert Fox. Washington’s obdurate support of the sanctions, despite massive suffering among the Iraqi people, eroded the anti-Saddam consensus in the Arab world that developed after his invasion of Kuwait. Finally, the failure of Mideast peace talks and Ariel Sharon’s victory in Israel lend credence to Saddam’s claim to be the champion of the Palestinians, and it provided him with another opportunity to play to the Arab streets and mendaciously blame US-Israel conniving.

Far from strengthening Powell’s mission, the bombings stirred up renewed hostility among the Arab people. The Bush team’s campaign pronouncements on Iraq do not allow hope that Powell brings any new ideas to the region. Indeed, the ineluctable drift of events in the past year has left the new Administration few options. The old, cruel sanctions policy is discredited, and there is scant hope at this point that the Iraqis will agree to accept UN inspectors, who are the best check on Saddam’s efforts to rebuild his war machine. As it happens, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was to meet with the Iraqi foreign minister February 26-27 to discuss reinstating them; the bombing surely hasn’t helped this initiative. And there is virtually no international support for any of the Administration plans to beef up support for Iraqi opposition groups. Without the backing of a wide coalition of countries, no policy has any chance of success.

The wisest future course for the United States is to forge a more modest containment and sanctions policy that might win the support of America’s partners. It should aim to put in place limited and precisely targeted sanctions designed to curtail Iraq’s import of advanced military technology and to contain Saddam. That means abandoning unilateralism (something that goes against the grain of this new White House) and reaching out not only to the UN and allies in Europe and the Middle East but to regional players like Turkey and Russia.

It is ironic that Colin Powell, the architect of Desert Storm, must now deal with its long-term consequences–its failure to bring peace and stability to the region.