Iraq: Forever and a Day

When military units march from one place to another, they often keep time by singing cadences. One of the most enduring of these starts off, “Here we go again, same old [stuff] again. . . .”–a useful cadence for our recurring bouts with Saddam Hussein.

Recently, after repeating (for the fifth time in the past four years) the cycle of buildup/threaten/suspend attacks, President Clinton once again declared victory against Iraq and its ever recalcitrant leader, Saddam Hussein. Hussein, for his part, claimed a win as well. Neither side gained anything really, just a return to an unsatisfactory status quo on the part of both parties. The United States will still rely on continuously harassed UN weapons inspectors to protect the region from Saddam’s worst intentions. And Iraq will still have to live with the sanctions that were imposed soon after the Gulf War of 1991.

To point this out is not necessarily to join the chorus of Monday morning quarterbacks who criticized President Clinton for not pulling the trigger last weekend. Even after a few days of bombing, the situation would most likely have been characterized by the same principle elements: the weapons inspectors would return, Iraq would be chastened, Saddam would be publicly defiant, and the U.S. would pull back and wait for the next round. To be sure, Iraq’s military capabilities would have been greatly diminished (reason enough to carry out the strike in my mind), but the essential calculus of the policy dilemma would remain. Groundhog Day but with more rubble this time.

The current policy of hyperactive containment, bombs or no bombs, is not sustainable for several reasons. First, it is inconclusive. For the past seven and a half years it has not yielded even the glimmer of a solution. Second, it gets more dangerous every round. Saddam only gains more and more breathing space for his weapons of mass destruction programs as the UN inspection program steadily weakens. In the meantime, the continued sanctions on Iraq give Saddam legitimacy and strengthen his hold over the suffering Iraqi people. Third, the policy is expensive and demoralizing. Rushing troops to the Gulf every year costs an overextended American military millions of dollars it cannot afford. Fourth, containment fatigue is setting in. Our allies and other powers have tired of the prudish routine and want to resume normal (read business) relations with Iraq. Finally, and most importantly, the current containment policy leaves many parties other than the U.S. in charge.

During all these crises, America has reacted with great gusto, but the prime determinant of the outcome has been Saddam. Occasionally, an interlocutor has been involved to give temporary direction–such as Russian Prime Minister Yvgeni Primakov last November and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan this past February. Regardless, while the U.S. has had its foot on the gas in all these crises, Saddam has control of the clutch and has done a fair job at grabbing the wheel. Retaining the initiative of action should be the foremost element of a strategy for dealing with a dangerous bully.

There are reasons to doubt the administration’s proclamation that the policy is a success, and that it still might strike without warning. UN weapons inspectors would need to be withdrawn to prevent hostages from being taken (one of Saddam’s favorite ploys). Local allies providing basing and other military support would need to be convinced again that Saddam was worth striking (as they were last week, but not in February). Our international allies would need to be mobilized, at least to abstain from interfering in U.S. and British action. All this is eminently possible, but would take time.

What is needed is a serious policy review, one that evaluates containment squarely against other options that could guide America’s long term Iraq policy. Such a policy should match available military capabilities to a recognizable and definable political end-state. For a strategy to be successful, military actions must deliver the political goal (or at least posture the U.S. for success). Last week and in February, the U.S. prepared a bombing campaign that was a good military plan, but not a complete strategy. Anybody can throw the first punch; the key is to win the fight. One of the reasons the current policy is so inconclusive is that there is little confidence that U.S. military action, while competently undertaken, will actually produce the goods.

A top to bottom policy review would examine options such as containment, but in different forms. Bolder departures from current policy might include a deterrence strategy. In this plan, the U.S. would keep a small force in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in order to deter major Iraqi aggression from over the horizon. This plan explicitly allows Saddam to remain in power, but de-emphasizes his conflict with the United States while clearly delineating the conditions under which U.S. power might return in order to strike Iraq. For this policy to be a success, it would have to combine a more laissez-faire approach with an iron resoluteness to use massive force if ever Iraq truly steps over the line, as it did in 1990 when it invaded Kuwait.

Alternatively, there is the option to undermine Saddam’s regime. In his speech last Sunday, President Clinton tacitly endorsed this approach. Thus far, Congress has come up with $97 million to support the efforts of Iraqi opposition groups, although how useful that money might be is a matter of considerable debate. Having observed the Shiite rebels in action against Saddam in April of 1991, I am not optimistic that any Iraqi opposition group could mount an effective campaign against Saddam without considerable U.S. military help. As the botched Kurdish rebellion of 1996 showed, many dissident groups are more interested in fighting each other than fighting Saddam.

With Iraqi opposition groups being just good enough to get themselves into trouble, the U.S., having encouraged them to rebel, would have to ride to the rescue. In this case the next President might have to face a similar set of decisions that confronted John Kennedy when the Bay of Pigs invasion was unraveling. Should the U.S. chose to pursue this policy, as President Clinton hinted he might, all involved (and especially conservative critics of the President blithely calling for this solution) must understand that it is not a free lunch. Undermining or overthrowing Saddam’s regime through the use of Iraqi opposition groups will not happen without a major U.S. political, financial, and military commitment that could involve ground as well as air support in fighting Saddam. You get what you pay for in the military business, and too many leaders (liberal and conservative) who have never been in a fight like to pretend that it can all happen without cost.

If the situation in the Persian Gulf is worth fighting for, as apparently most of America’s political elite think it is, the U.S. should gain something decisive and sustainable from that fight. The President should do the hard work of investing political capital in mobilizing an international and domestic political consensus for changing the regime in Baghdad. It is time to stop treating the symptoms. We need to attack the problem–Saddam Hussein. Securing America’s future requires real leadership, the kind all too often missing from White House these days.

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