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.
Obtaining weapons of mass destruction is also Saddam’s most cherished objective. The reason is not difficult to comprehend: intense fear of a neighboring enemy. Just as the US and the Soviet Union were prepared to do anything to develop the capacity to deter or defeat each other, so are the Indians and the Pakistanis. What one side sees as cheating, circumventing treaties, or violating high-sounding proclamations to acquire weapons of mass destruction, the other views as acting in the vital national interest. Arms races are among the oldest of human activities and they continue. To be a member of the “club” of those who have the ultimate weapon is the glittering (if ephemeral) prize of security.
Saddam knows that Israel has nuclear weapons and that Iran is on the way to acquiring them. Others of his neighbors may, perhaps in the near future, buy or otherwise get them. He believes, I am sure, that he will never be secure until he has them too. In pursuit of them, he is obviously willing to undergo sanctions and devastating periodic attacks.
Added to the logic of this assessment is recent historical memory. Just as India and Pakistan are, in part, impelled to search for the ultimate weapon by the memory of their vicious divorce in 1946 and 1947, so Iraq and Iran are haunted by their more recent bloody war between 1980 and 1988. While casualty figures are not available, they must have run in the scores or even hundreds of thousands. Old wounds have not healed and old disputes are not settled.
This is particularly worrisome to Saddam, who grew up and fought his way to the top in a society in which vengeance is an imperative. Although I certainly cannot judge his inner life, much evidence suggests he is desperately afraid that sooner or later Iran will pay him back for having destroyed virtually a whole Iranian generation. Iran is far larger and more powerful. Time is on its side. So just as Israel has sought in nuclear weapons the trump card against its more numerous Arab neighbors and India and Pakistan seek it against each other, so, too, Saddam seeks the ultimate protection of such weapons. If that is his strategic assessment, both American and Russian “politico-military” scholars have created an entire library of analyses that will confirm it. We and the Russians long pursued the same objective.
There is also a darker and more bitter element in Saddam’s memory: at the time of the Gulf War, it was widely remarked in Iraq and throughout the Middle East that Saddam had made just one mistake—he should have waited until he had joined the nuclear club before acting against Kuwait. With a nuclear weapon in his possession, he just might have gotten away with it.
Thus, I think we have to assume that in his quest for weapons of mass destruction, Saddam will “cheat” as long as he is in power. And if he is prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons in Iraq, he will try to buy them abroad. If he fails at this, he will go for chemical and biological weapons and delivery systems. Moreover, cheating not only is not impossible but probably is getting easier. This is true for two reasons, one simple, the other more complex.
The simple reason is that it is very hard, as the United Nations inspectors have found, to track down weapons. It is relatively easy to find production facilities for nuclear weapons and rockets, but biological weapons of lethal power can be produced cheaply and easily in little more than a kitchen. Chemical weapons fall somewhere between, being more difficult to produce than biological weapons but probably easier to store (and hide) than the other two. In any event, if the will is there, and it certainly is, ways can be found around whatever inspections are likely to be mounted.
Among these ways, although no successes have so far been recorded, nuclear weapons or weapons components can be either purchased from or produced in other countries. The former Soviet Union is, of course, a vast warehouse for such prizes, and, for perhaps a billion dollars a unit, is it not likely that sooner or later someone in that fragmented, depressed, and violent society will be drawn to selling them? From this source or elsewhere, there will always be a danger that no amount of inspection will avoid. My hunch is that, at least as far as weapons of mass destruction are concerned, Saddam believes that time is on his side.
Our current response to Saddam’s noncompliance, the third option, is the enforcement of sanctions and the periodic use of force. Both are presumably intended to weaken Saddam’s regime by showing what a high price he is inflicting on the Iraqi people. So far, neither bombing nor sanctions has brought about what we set out to achieve. Our periodic search-and-destroy operations have “degraded” Iraqi capacity to attack its neighbors, which was not a likely event in any case after the Gulf War; but the real bite of the sanctions has been on the innocent rather than on the leadership or on those upon whom the leaders must depend.
Moreover, sooner or later, both punitive raids and sanctions will become unacceptable. To many Europeans and certainly to most Arabs, our policy seems dangerous or even trigger-happy. No matter how “precise” the bombing is—the phrase “surgical strike” from Vietnamese days is now carefully avoided—people get killed and otherwise useful infrastructure facilities get destroyed. Moreover, such action is probably self-defeating: even in Iraq, there is reason to believe that bombing (as was true of German bombing of Britain during the Blitz) has created a popular backlash.
There will come a time when the cost to us of punitive action will be too high. Indeed, it seems at least likely that the Clinton administration feared that it had already come and so did not seek either UN or NATO sanction for its action in December. And, as punitive action no longer seems effective or possible, sanctions may also be abandoned. In any event, if we are to believe the UN weapons inspection team report, raids and sanctions never stopped the Iraqi quest for weapons of mass destruction.
The fourth current option would be to raise the ante: to invade Iraq with ground troops. Then we would be able to track down and destroy all the weapons and the means to make them. But to do that we would have to destroy the Baath regime and depose or kill Saddam. Having done that we would truly be in a quagmire. We would have not only to rebuild the country, which would be relatively easy, but also to undertake the long and costly process of creating a successor government. We did this between 1945 and 1950 in Germany and Japan. It can be done, and there are Iraqis who claim that the population would accept them as leaders if they came to power on the crest of an American wave. But there is much reason to question their optimism.
Moreover, the German and Japanese analogies are probably doubly misleading. What we would have to do in Iraq in the early years of the next century would probably be unpopular not only there but also throughout the Arab world, where memories of similar ventures by the British and the French in the 1920s and 1930s are still both fresh and painful. And, on our side, there is now nothing like the consensus on which our postwar policies rested, so the cost in lives and money would probably receive little public support. Consequently, I doubt that any American administration will wish to go much further than either George Bush or Bill Clinton has done.
If going into Iraq is unlikely, should we consider getting out? That is our fifth theoretical option, to wash our hands of Iraq. I do not believe this is in the national interest or even at this point feasible, but I also believe that sooner or later many Americans will find it attractive. We are already pulling back some forces from the Gulf and this may prefigure withdrawal on a larger scale. If so, what happens then?
It is unlikely that any other nation or group of nations acceptable to us would assume our role. The members of the European Community do not have suitable means to take restrictive action against Iraq and they have less will than the US once did to use what means they have. Moreover, almost certainly they would compete with one another, as they did before the Gulf War, to supply what Saddam seeks. This would further encourage the Iranian quest for nuclear weapons and so give rise to a host of new problems. Furthermore, the “unleashing” of Saddam would probably trigger an Israeli attack, which would in turn upset the whole region, risking, because of the effects on oil supplies, a major world economic disaster and pressures from Iraq on our other Middle Eastern allies. Finally, to confess failure over this highly visible issue of foreign policy would be almost unthinkable for this or any future American administration.
The sixth option is what remains. It is not ideal and of course it may not succeed. There was a time about six months ago when it had a much better chance of success. I then advocated it privately to the Clinton administration. But even today it is a better hope than any other. It is based on two assessments.
First, barring some lucky break, we will have to live with Saddam Hussein. So we must attempt to find ways to influence his conduct in ways we can tolerate. We need have no illusions about his aims or methods. Where possible, particularly in the international flow of arms and arms-related technology, we should do what we can to contain or blunt dangerous Iraqi activities and to create over the long run the preconditions for a new form of government. But, in the short run, we should also try to find ways to make the motives that drive Saddam work to our advantage.
Two opportunities for this stand out: as I have mentioned, Saddam is terrified of Iran. He believes that Iran intends sooner or later to attack and try to destroy him. He has reason for this fear. The Bush administration agreed that Iran was a real danger not only to him but also to our determination to keep the Gulf open for the oil industry. Today we have a new reason to worry about Iran since it seems intent on acquiring nuclear capacity. There is here a small opening. We could take advantage of it through the proposal of a UN, multilateral, or even unilateral guarantee of frontiers—the very opposite of the policy that may have precipitated the Kuwait invasion.
We could follow this “stabilization” policy by convening a regional arms limitation conference aimed at creating a Middle Eastern zone free of weapons of mass destruction. For their differing reasons, the nations of the area would find this a complex issue, so agreement (and compliance) would not be easy to achieve. But the creation of such a zone is surely in everyone’s long-term interest and should, it seems to me, become a major aim of American policy. Only in this setting, I believe, is there a real chance for an end to Iraqi cheating.
Without a sustained move toward restricting the spread of weapons of mass destruction, we will certainly bequeath to our children a far more dangerous world. Such weapons have already been tested in South Asia; in the Middle East Israel is an undeclared but acknowledged nuclear power. Sooner or later, the security that Israel has sought in nuclear weapons will lead to profound insecurity as its neighbors move, as India and Pakistan have done, “against nuclear apartheid.” We should try with all our ingenuity and strength to avoid this trend, a situation that could lead to a Middle East Armageddon.
Even short of Armageddon, proliferation would increase the chances of the spread of weapons of mass destruction beyond governments, to terrorists or “freedom fighters,” with unforeseeable but dire consequences throughout the world.4
The second consideration is that evolution toward a democratic, open society is in the long-term interests of both the Iraqi people and the Americans. US policy is now moving, unwittingly, in the opposite direction. To achieve the changes we want, we must seek to ameliorate the condition of the Iraqi people and to get them back on the road to economic development. There is no long-term hope for a more decent Iraq in the squalor and misery of the present. There is little chance of the evolution of a more open society under the shadow of search-and-destroy operations or aerial bombardment, or even under the stringency of sanctions. And without moves toward a more open society there is little likelihood that a better government can ever evolve in Iraq.
This is not a recipe for a quick or simple policy. The process will be slow and often fragile. No one should have any illusions about its success. It will require firmness, tact, skill, and good will on our side. We would be naive to expect a quick release from the tyranny of Saddam or even, perhaps, of his immediate successors; but by making use of economic pressures and incentives, and by basing our policies on an analysis of Iraqi and US interests, we should be able to nudge the Iraqis in this direction.
One thing is clear. We cannot hope to pursue such a policy alone, yet we appear to be increasingly isolated even within the camp of our close allies. In the past we have sought the support and understanding of our European allies and some of the Middle Eastern states. This time we did not. The inference many drew is that we doubted that they would approve our actions. Understandably, after the frustrating attempts to get the Europeans to take on the burdens of Balkan peace-keeping, the Clinton administration probably wrote them off. But the failure to consult or convince ultimately dooms even the best of policies. Iraq’s fearful neighbors in the Gulf region, including our close ally Saudi Arabia, either took no part or prevented us from using their facilities in our December 1998 action.
More significant was the absence of Russia. Iraq was a major cause of the widening split between Bush and Gorbachev.5 This is a tendency which, with few exceptions, the Clinton administration has continued and even widened. In dealing with Iraq as well as with major European issues, we have sought to exclude Russia. Turning down opportunities for cooperation, as we did on the eve of the Gulf War, we are then surprised when the Russians do not support our actions. This is shortsighted and foolish. Of course the Russians have their own agenda which may often differ from or oppose ours. But there are matters in which our objectives overlap. The Iraqi problem may be one of them.
Russia should not want a nuclear-armed, violent, and irresponsible Iraq any more than we do. It would certainly be prudent to try to enlist them rather than try, as in any event we cannot succeed in doing, to exclude them or to pretend that they do not exist. They are less powerful today than before and poor and divided, yet these very attributes make them potentially a far more dangerous force in Iraqi affairs than if they were economically strong, politically coherent, and in full control of their arsenal. Together we have at least a chance to avoid what might be a catastrophe; if the two countries are divided against each other, it is the forces of evil that are more likely to win.
—January 21, 1999
February 18, 1999
India had pushed into Goa with 30,000 troops against surprisingly stiff resistance in 1961. ↩
The issue has never been satisfactorily explained and the ambassador, her career virtually ruined, has loyally maintained a discreet silence. ↩
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.” ↩
Richard K. Betts sketches out one doomsday prediction and offers an almost more terrifying answer to the threat in “The New Threat of Mass Destruction” in Foreign Affairs, January/February 1998. ↩
So Brent Scowcroft reports in A World Transformed, p. 470. ↩