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How Not to Fight a Dictator


Adolf Hitler taught the world a terrible lesson, but when he was at last put away, in 1945, it was widely believed that the lesson had been learned. Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, the most innovative part of that document, sets forth a formula for dealing with aggression and with aggressive, ruthless dictators. Briefly, the Security Council determines the existence of an act of aggression. It then prescribes nonforceful measures—cutting off economic relations and means of communication, the severance of diplomatic relations, and other measures that constitute sanctions. If sanctions fail, the Council orders enforcement action with air, sea, and land forces provided by the member states, under a command designated by the Council.

Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 provided a textbook opportunity for trying out this plan of action. With the end of the cold war, the Security Council was united as never before. Saddam Hussein’s acts, as outrageous as they were brutal, threatened the security of a strategically sensitive region and the source of much of the world’s oil. The Council’s actions, in strong contrast to its failure to act ten years earlier when Saddam had invaded Iran, were exemplary and prompt. It unanimously denounced the aggression; it imposed sanctions; and it gave clear indications that nothing short of withdrawal from Kuwait would do. Since four of the Council’s five permanent members—Britain, France, Russia, and the United States—had continued to support Iraq throughout the 1980s in spite of its aggression against Iran, the appalling internal atrocities of Saddam’s regime, and his widespread use of chemical weapons both externally and internally, this action was a striking volte-face.

Saddam Hussein refused to withdraw, and early in 1991 Operation Desert Storm, a powerful air assault followed by an equally ambitious ground operation, achieved the liberation of Kuwait and the humiliating defeat of Iraq’s army, although not the destruction of its best units, the Republican Guards. The Desert Storm forces did not pursue the enemy to Baghdad or try to oust the dictator.

Instead, the Security Council propounded, in its Resolution 687, the “mother of all resolutions,” the conditions for a cease-fire, imposing harsh terms on Iraq as a condition for lifting the sanctions. These included the payment of debts and compensation, the return of prisoners, and, most important, the elimination, under international inspection, of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction—nuclear, chemical, and biological—as well as the missiles that could carry such weapons. The Council set up a special commission (UNSCOM) to carry out the inspections that would show that Iraq neither harbored such weapons nor was building them. Both the members of the Security Council and Saddam Hussein apparently believed that this process would take just a few months—the Security Council members because they had no idea of how important such weapons were to Saddam Hussein, and Saddam because he was confident that he could hoodwink the UN inspectors. Both proved to be wrong.

Confidence in the UN’s newfound ability to act effectively against aggression was greatly boosted by this sequence of events, and, up to the passage of Resolution 687 on April 4, 1991, all went reasonably well. Thereafter, a series of unanticipated problems began to emerge. Defeating a dictator in the field is one thing; ousting him and installing a new regime is quite another. Like Hitler, Saddam Hussein had created a system of all-pervasive surveillance and terror which made him virtually impervious to public opinion, international pressure, or internal conspiracies.

The effectiveness, and the effects, of sanctions also turned out to be discouraging. In a tyranny sanctions can actually make the tyrant and his henchmen more powerful and richer through the profits they make from smuggling scarce commodities and manipulating their supply. That has been the case in Iraq. Meanwhile the suffering people are doubly victimized, by the dictator and by the sanctions, which in turn provide Saddam Hussein with a powerful psychological weapon in his dealings with his subjects and with the outside world. (By February 1998, the Iraqi government had allowed eight hundred foreign reporters into Baghdad, encouraging them to film hospital wards full of dying children, so that viewers around the world could witness the ghastly effects of sanctions.)

As is often said, the United Nations can only be as strong as the consensus of its members. Coalitions on particular issues tend to be eroded by politi-cal and economic differences, and even by fatigue. In the case of Iraq three of the five permanent members of the Security Council—China, France, and Russia—not to mention the Arab countries, have become increasingly unhappy with continuing sanctions, with UNSCOM, which they had originally supported, and with the United States’ periodic use of cruise missiles and bombing to punish Saddam’s regime for refusing to cooperate with UNSCOM. More recently there have been almost daily US actions against Iraq for its violations of the “no-fly” zones. Thus the United States and Britain have become more and more isolated when they apply a forceful approach to the Iraq problem.

Meanwhile, the world’s attention has been turned to another ruthless dictator, Slobodan Milosevic, and to the frustration both of diplomacy and of military action in trying to deal with him. Milosevic has refused to accept the peace agreement worked out at Rambouillet, which calls for Kosovo’s autonomy, and he has continued to kill and violently persecute the Kosovars. Because of NATO’s reluctance to invade a sovereign nation and the understandable unwillingness of governments to put their soldiers in harm’s way for a humanitarian cause, there has so far been no prospect of NATO’s taking forceful action on the ground in Kosovo. Instead, the last resort, as in Iraq, has once again been a campaign of heavy missile and air strikes, with little prospect that they can produce a satisfactory solution.

At the same time the United Nations is further than ever from having a respected, effective, and genuinely international force that could eventually take the necessary risks on behalf of the international community. The concept of such a force, incidentally, was supported only seven years ago by both former President Ronald Reagan and President Bill Clinton. Just allowing a UN force to be organized would not, of course, of itself provide political solutions; but if it were backed by the US and some of the other major powers, it could eventually make effective international action a reality and set the international community on a unifying course rather than a divisive one.1

There seem to be many, especially in Washington, who want to have it both ways—no American soldiers to be put at risk, and no effective UN force. The result is that in a time when we pride ourselves on a new degree of humanitarian concern, the most tragic cases of ethnic cleansing and other abuses engender only frustration and inaction. The fact that any UN force would be under the control of the Security Council, thus giving the United States a veto over its use, apparently does not carry weight with US legislators. In fact right-wing Republicans such as Senator Helms insist that the US will pay its arrears in UN dues only on the condition that there be no UN military force. As we agonize over the desperate plight of the Kosovars and other oppressed groups, we continue to resist ideas for doing anything practical to help them in the future.


Andrew and Patrick Cockburn’s Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein and Scott Ritter’s Endgame: Solving the Iraq Problem—Once and for All provide much fascinating commentary on the question of dealing with Saddam Hussein and the ups and downs of the various efforts to do so. The Cockburns’ book, as is to be expected from two first-rate investigative journalists, is an enthralling account of the background and recent history of Iraq, its internal struggles, and its relations with the outside world. Ritter’s story of his experiences as an inspector with UNSCOM is inevitably narrower in scope but it is highly illuminating on the nature and difficulties of this pioneering effort. Ritter, a strong-minded intelligence officer, is not shy of controversy or of making strong judgments. This adds considerably to the interest of his book, and also to the disagreements that it is certain to provoke.

Both books concentrate on the repellent nature of the Iraqi regime and of the dictator himself, but they also make clear how skillful Saddam has been in maintaining his regime’s power, which has been firmly based on his tribe, from northern Iraq near Tikrit, and his family, whose members have been given huge powers and financial opportunities. For all their palace intrigues, Saddam’s people often appear to be running rings around bumbling political opponents and international organizations trying to keep them under control.

Both the Cockburns and Ritter recount the violent history of Iraq since its founding by the British in 1921, and in particular the tumultuous years since Saddam Hussein took power in 1979. Made up of three groups—Sunni, Shi’ites, and Kurds—who were, on the whole, hostile to one another, Iraq was never a happy or homogeneous state. Saddam Hussein was not the first Iraqi ruler to use aerial bombing for internal purposes. After the Arab rebellion of 1920, the British, preferring not to commit British forces on the ground, used air power against insurgent groups opposing King Faisal, whom they had installed as the reluctant sovereign of the new state. Saddam Hussein, however, set a new and horrifying standard of terror, ruthlessness, wanton cruelty, and gross veniality. Those who survive within his regime do not seem to be embarrassed by this—indeed they tend to boast about it.

As crisis has succeeded crisis and as treachery has followed treachery, Saddam’s control over his tribe and family has become tighter and tighter. In view of the constant purges and executions, and the prevailing terror and paranoia, it is amazing that his regime has lasted as long as it has, but in its own ghastly way it evidently works, and has been remarkably resilient. This unpleasant fact, combined with the rampant megalomania and brutish skill of the dictator himself, has so far proved baffling to all of his opponents.

The Cockburns excel in describing the grotesque side of the family business. In 1988, Saddam’s eldest son, Uday, killed his father’s favorite assistant, Kamel Jajo, and in 1995 shot his father’s half-brother, Watban; he also became one of the most corrupt figures in a deeply corrupt regime. Finally he was himself nearly killed by assassins. Summing up the events of 1996, the Cockburns write,

In the space of just over a year, Saddam had seen two of his sons-in-law killed, his half-brother shot in the leg, and his eldest son riddled with bullets. Even if he was scoring significant successes against the Americans at Arbil [the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan] and elsewhere, this was clearly not a happy family.

  1. 1

    On this question, see my article “For a UN Volunteer Military Force,” The New York Review, June 10, 1993, and the comments that followed, The New York Review, June 24, 1993, and July 15, 1993.

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