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Iraq: A New Leaf

A sober reassessment of the American capacity to deal with the Iraqi dilemma is years overdue. Many opportunities have been missed, but it is not too late to avoid the threat of large-scale warfare and the use of weapons of mass destruction that still may lie ahead. Even short of such dreadful events, there is a clear danger of major regional upheavals that could affect the world economy and undermine American leadership. Here I will lay out in summary what I believe our options are, the chances of success of each one, and the cost of trying to implement it.

I base my assessment on over half a century of work and study on the Middle East as a scholar, as a businessman, and as a United States government policy planner. I have lived in Iraq under previous regimes, have closely observed Iraqi society, have visited units of the Iraqi army, have talked with most of the current Iraqi leaders, and have shared observations and insights with British, French, Russian, and fellow American observers and officials.

We have, I believe, theoretically at least, seven options on what to do about Iraq. I begin with the first choice: supporting Saddam Hussein. Paradoxical as it now seems, that was the policy of the Reagan administration and the Bush administration until almost the eve of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. It was also the policy of the British, French, and Russian governments. All of us did it for similar reasons: we opposed the fundamentalist Shi’ite revolutionary regime of Iran; we all sought markets for our arms; we wanted Iraqi oil; and we accepted the beguiling vision of Saddam’s regime as both powerful and pliant (much as John Foster Dulles had done with an earlier Iraqi regime in the 1950s, when he negotiated the Baghdad Pact).

The United States implemented its pro-Saddam policy by providing Iraq with the most sophisticated intelligence then at its disposal in order to enable Iraq to defeat or contain the vastly more powerful Iranians. During the 1970s and 1980s, we competed vigorously both commercially and through government action with our allies over who would supply the Iraqis with weapons and technology beyond what the Russians could or would supply. And we either stood aside or encouraged efforts by the Iraqi regime to increase its domestic and regional power, as, for example, in the virtual coalition it formed with Turkey, our NATO ally, to try to crush the Kurdish revolt.

This policy came apart not because we disliked Saddam Hussein or abhorred his brutal police state. The nature of the man and his regime were clearly evident to any observer in the heyday of our pro-Iraqi policy. What destroyed this policy was a combination of Saddam’s greed and an astonishing diplomatic blunder by the US.

Saddam overspent on arms, development, and grandiose monuments. He needed money. Neighboring Kuwait was a convenient bank. He drew on it and received many hundreds of millions of dollars, but he needed more. So he began in the months before the invasion of Kuwait to free his forces to seize the country. As I pointed out at that time, he solved his frontier problems one by one: starting in the east he negotiated a cease-fire with Iran; he cooperated closely with Turkey in military actions against the Kurds; he patched up his feud with the Syrian leadership; and he achieved a sort of reconciliation with the royal regimes in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which he had previously bitterly denounced. He was now ready to turn aggressively toward Kuwait.

Kuwait was a dangerous objective. After all, it was one of the Middle Eastern geese that were laying golden eggs for the Western economy. Encouraging Saddam, presumably, was the calculation that Western governments would realize that Iraq, once it had taken over Kuwait, would not stop the flow of Kuwaiti oil. All that would be involved was a change of title. Admittedly, that would give him more leverage in the world oil market, but there were many precedents he could observe: Britain and America had fussed and fumed when Iran took over title to oil fields from the British, but after the noise of diplomatic protest had died down the Persians had kept them. True, taking over a recognized state like Kuwait was different from nationalizing an oil field, but, as I heard from several well-placed sources, another analogy came to the Iraqi mind: no one had much objected when India in 1961 had marched into Goa, which was then an “overseas province” of Portugal and had not been part of “India” for four centuries.

Farfetched analogies? Not so farfetched as they might seem to us today. Every Iraqi leader, from the British-imposed king, in 1921, through American-supported leaders of CENTO to the sequence of dictators who seized power in Iraq after 1958, regarded Kuwait as an integral part of Iraq. Kuwait had been set up as an imperial outpost by the British on the eve of World War I, much as Goa had been established by Portugal centuries earlier. Many, perhaps even most, Iraqis believed that Kuwait was rightly and legally an Iraqi province. They could not only quote Nehru’s statements about Goa but follow his example by invading.1 The prize must have been dazzling to Saddam: he needed Kuwait’s vast wealth, he thought he deserved it, and he had the capacity to take it.

Then, at the critical moment, Saddam appears to have concluded that the United States, his tacit but extremely helpful ally in the war against Iran, had given him the green light. The record is still not clear on exactly what took place, but when, under instructions, the newly appointed US ambassador visited Saddam, she was understood to say that America took no position on frontier disputes among the Arabs.2 Saddam took the statement as an invitation to act, and he did.

Even after the destructive and brutal Iraqi invasion of Kuwait but before Operation Desert Storm, there was scope for some diplomatic action. The Russians intervened to tell Saddam that he would have to get out of Kuwait. Yevgeni Primakov, now the Russian prime minister, went to Baghdad and worked out a proposal which he took to President Bush: Saddam would evacuate Kuwait if America agreed to pull back its own forces and to hold a conference to adjudicate all the outstanding regional issues. Primakov was rebuffed in Washington. In February 1991, after the bombardment of Iraq had begun, Gorbachev transmitted Iraqi offers to withdraw. They were not accepted. Some at the time (and today) thought that the Bush administration deliberately sought the conflict.3 True or not, the pro-Saddam policy was dead.

The first of the remaining six options is the elimination of Saddam. Assassination of enemy leaders apparently is rarely far from the thoughts of statesmen. Ancient and medieval history is full of examples. Churchill toyed with plots to have Hitler killed as Kennedy did with Castro. Fortunately or unfortunately, such action is hard to effect. Leaders are usually well protected and trying to kill them is dangerous. Even brave and dedicated German officers bungled several attempts to kill Hitler. Knowing this, US officials turned to the Mafia for professional hit men in their attempt to have Castro killed. They did no better. The only notable modern success was against the weakest conceivable target, Lumumba in Africa.

Deliberate attempts by American government agencies to kill a foreign leader have been made illegal by Congress. Consequently, when US air strikes were made in Libya and Iraq, the government was careful to proclaim that the target was not the person of the enemy leader but the building in which he was believed to be present. Despite the legal obstacles and the poor historical record, a policy of getting rid of Saddam himself has many adherents. But, if the CIA or some other group has tried or assisted others in trying to kill Saddam, they have not come close, so far as we know. Of course it is always possible that we or someone, perhaps a member of his own entourage, will kill him; but, if so, this would be a matter of luck.

Ironically, not necessarily very good luck. Will Saddam’s successor be an improvement? Arguably he could hardly be worse. But having observed the sequence of Iraqi dictators from the 1930s to the present time I see little sign of an upward trend. No one has identified any basis for belief that a man from the same mold—that is, one who has managed to survive inside the system—is likely to be an improvement. And what is happening outside Saddam’s system gives little short-term hope from that quarter: with as yet no serious claim of success, the US has, reportedly, been spending about $100 million a year to try to create some kind of new leadership, or at least the basis for a new leadership. Members of the exile organizations dispute this report, maintaining that they have received little help from the US. In any event, since they are deeply divided not only on the traditional Iraqi religious (Shi’a versus Sunni) and ethnic (Arab versus Kurd) lines but also, often bitterly, by politics and personality, it would be unrealistic to count on them to bring down Saddam. No replacement for the current regime is likely to be more democratic, or even to survive, unless a new political culture can be created. That will not happen in exile or be accomplished quickly.

The second of the remaining options is, or was, to monitor Iraqi arms inventories and production facilities so closely that it would be impossible for Saddam’s regime to acquire the capacity to pose a serious threat. We have been actively engaged in this effort for years and, according to the arms inspectors themselves, we have not succeeded in achieving the most critical goal, the detection of weapons of mass destruction. This is not surprising and should have long been evident. Not only is it easy to “cheat,” but, from many accounts, cheating is a patriotic duty for Iraqis.

Writing in the September/October 1998 issue of Foreign Affairs, the senior Indian nuclear arms policy expert Jaswant Singh provided in “Against Nuclear Apartheid” a text to which, with a few changes of names, Saddam could adhere:

India’s nuclear policy remains firmly committed to a basic tenet: that the country’s national security in a world of nuclear proliferation lies either in global disarmament or in exercise of the principle of equal and legitimate security for all…. In the absence of universal disarmament, India could scarcely accept a regime that arbitrarily divided nuclear haves from have-nots.

We have no sure means of telling; but I suggest that duping the arms inspectors may be the most popular single activity of Saddam’s regime, not only among his own people but probably also among disaffected Arabs in other lands.

  1. 1

    India had pushed into Goa with 30,000 troops against surprisingly stiff resistance in 1961.

  2. 2

    The issue has never been satisfactorily explained and the ambassador, her career virtually ruined, has loyally maintained a discreet silence.

  3. 3

    George Bush seems to confirm this feeling when he writes in A World Transformed (Knopf, 1998): “Early on the morning of Friday, February 15, one of the White House staff came to our bedroom, where Barbara and I were reading the papers and drinking coffee, and reported he had heard there would be an announcement at 6:30 from Iraq. I turned on the TV and we anxiously waited as 6:30 came and went. Finally, an anchor cut in and reported that the Iraqis had announced they would comply with Resolution 660, including the withdrawal from Kuwait. Instead of feeling exhilarated, my heart sank.”

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