George W. Bush described the strikes on Iraq on February 16 as a “routine mission.” They were anything but. They struck targets outside the no-fly zones, and in so doing exceeded the authorizing mandate of UN resolutions, as the French government and many Arab states indignantly pointed out. They were also directed, it now turns out, at a new fiber-optic radar control system, which had been supplied by Milosevic’s Serbian regime. This system was reportedly installed by Chinese technicians, whose very presence is in direct violation of the UN sanctions against military resupply of the Iraqi regime.

Concerned to avoid the debacle of the strike against the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo war, the President ordered that the raids be staged on the Chinese technicians’ day off. The ammunition chosen by the US for the raid was far from routine—AGM- 130 guided missiles, the latest generation of precision weapons. Precision, however, is a relative term. The Washington Post reports that many of the weapons fell short. So the US was taking more chances than the word “routine” implies. It was not just sending a message to Saddam; it was also firing a shot across the bow of a rival superpower.

The raids had another purpose as well. The President said, “And we’re going to watch very carefully as to whether or not he [Saddam] develops weapons of mass destruction. And if we catch him doing so, we’ll take the appropriate action.”1 In saying this, the President was sticking to an old script. As a candidate, he told Jim Lehrer: “If we catch him developing weapons of mass destruction in any way, shape or form, I’ll deal with that in a way that he won’t like.”2

Since Iraq’s nuclear weapons program is more than twenty years old and UN inspectors have long since found credible evidence of a developed “chemical and biological capability,” it’s not clear why the President keeps pretending that Saddam does not already possess weapons of mass destruction. Weeks before the February 16 strikes, reports appeared in the British press, based on information supplied by Iraqi defectors, that Saddam has two operational atomic bombs in his arsenal.3 The administration neither confirms nor denies these reports in public, but in recent testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, CIA director George Tenet conceded that since the Desert Fox air strikes of 1998, Iraq had rebuilt “key portions” of its chemical weapons capability.4 If the CIA is correct, the President is misleading the public: Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction are not just something Bush may “catch them developing.” Some, at least, are already in his arsenal: deadly nerve agents like VX and sarin, biological agents like anthrax and botulin, together with the missiles to deliver them against its neighbors, especially Israel and Iran.5

What makes Saddam dangerous is not that he has the weapons. Other countries do too. What’s dangerous is that he has actually used them. Saddam used mustard gas on at least nine occasions between 1983 and 1988, during his war with Iran. He used mustard gas and nerve agents to kill five thousand Kurdish civilians at Halabja in 1988 and sent Scud missiles crashing into Tel Aviv in 1991. It seems a trifle disingenuous for Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak to deny that Saddam constitutes a “threat to the world.”6 It seems equally ridiculous to claim that the new administration’s policy is driven by a family grudge, with Bush fils seeking to avenge Bush père’s failure to “take out” Saddam in 1991.7 Certainly, Saddam delights in teasing the Bush dynasty—the Iraqi press calls George W. “son of the snake”—and Saddam is adept at portraying his own humiliating defeat at Bush père’s hands in 1991 as a moral victory.8

But the real challenges to the President and his administration are strictly political. Even after being evicted from Kuwait, Saddam continues to refer to Kuwait as the nineteenth province of Iraq. Only American air power and a carrier group in the Gulf stands between him and Kuwait’s oil fields and Kuwait’s position at the head of the Gulf. With the collapse of the Middle East peace talks, Saddam is using surging oil revenues to buy the nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons that will put him in the forefront of the Arab rejectionists who want to drive America from the region and throw Israel into the sea. Right after the strikes on February 16, he went on television, vowing to create new legions to liberate Palestine. This may be bombast, but it lays bare his larger regional ambitions to leadership of the Arab masses in their battle against the “Zionist enemy.”

Saddam has been in power for more than twenty years, and American policy toward him has never been consistent. After spending the 1980s building up Saddam’s Iraq as a counterweight to Iran, US policy abruptly reversed course with his invasion of Kuwait and has since tried to cut him down to size. The policy is called “containment,” but the question is, containment of what? If containment means weakening his military and economic infrastructure, bombing and sanctions have done that. But it’s not clear that we can justify permanently weakening Iraq. If containment means checking Saddam’s influence among the Arab masses, it has failed. If containment means preventing Saddam from harming the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south—this is the ostensible purpose of the no-fly zones—the flights have provided some protection for the Kurds but they did not prevent Saddam from marching into Irbil in 1996, and the flights have not prevented him from inflicting terrible repression against the Shiites. And if containment means stopping him from making weapons of mass destruction, the evidence, at least from the President’s remarks, is that the policy actually consists of pretending that they don’t yet constitute a threat. As long as he can pretend that weapons of mass destruction aren’t yet a threat, the President doesn’t need to do anything about them.


This make-believe containment is not working, and there is some evidence that the rest of the containment strategy is also falling apart. General economic sanctions have perversely strengthened the regime, unifying the country and the whole region, in fear and rage, around the very man who holds them hostage. According to the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, “‘Iraq has become for sanctions regimes what Somalia was for peacekeeping missions’—a humanitarian and security debacle.”9 When they were implemented after 1991, sanctions caused a catastrophic rise in infant mortality and deepening poverty among most of the population. The UN offered an oil-for-food program to mitigate these effects, but the Iraqi regime stalled until 1996 before agreeing. Since 1996, Saddam has won the propaganda war in the Arab world, pretending that the sanctions are starving his people, when in fact Saddam himself has frustrated attempts to assist them.10 From June to December 2000, for example, Saddam could have spent $7.8 billion he received from UN-approved oil sales on food and medicine for his people. Instead he spent only $4.2 billion.11

In any event, even President Bush recently acknowledged that the sanctions regime has more holes in it than Swiss cheese.12 He should know. His vice-president, Dick Cheney, used to be CEO of Halliburton, the largest US oil services company. Halliburton never did business directly with Iraq, but two European companies in which it owned controlling stakes did do more than $23 million worth of business with Iraq’s oil industry.13 Saddam’s smugglers evade sanctions by selling oil—worth more than $1 billion a year—through Syria, Turkey, Jordan, and Iran—with the money going directly to Saddam Hussein and his associates, circumventing the UN oil-for-food program. Baghdad Airport is now open to limited international flights. In a recent article in the International Herald Tribune, the editor, David Ignatius, writes that during the last two months several dozen previously unknown companies in Europe and Asia have been selling Iraqi crude oil to trading companies that in turn sell it to major US refiners including Exxon, Mobil, and Texaco.14

Recognizing that the sanctions are dead is one thing. Explicitly lifting them is another. Henry Kissinger recently argued at a Council on Foreign Relations meeting that if the US acquiesces in lifting sanctions, this would be seen as an “American defeat” in the Middle East.15 Changing policy will not be easy, but replacing “dumb” sanctions that hurt the general population with “smart” ones that affect the elite seems the most promising strategy. During his Middle East visit Colin Powell was evidently preparing the ground for such a change in policy. Targeted sanctions would be directed at particular officials, and their families, in the ruling political, military, scientific, and technological elite; they would prevent such leaders from traveling, impound their overseas assets, stop them from buying sinister technologies abroad. The techniques for such targeting exist. Banks routinely run sophisticated computer programs that trace and block transactions by named individuals and accounts. Still, a policy of targeted sanctions requires coordination and the sharing of intelligence among state and banking authorities across the world, and apart from the Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) in the US Treasury, the central banking systems of Western governments lack the capacity, so far, to administer a targeted system for freezing and seizing Iraqi assets.

The other potentially effective means of containment is control of export licensing, aimed at preventing Western companies from supplying Iraq with the equipment and material Saddam needs to menace other countries, among them uranium, the devices that set off nuclear weapons, fermenters and “growth media,” which are needed to make biological weapons, and machined steel for artillery systems. Iraq’s dependence on foreign technology remains Saddam Hussein’s most vulnerable point, and a concerted intelligence effort linked to export controls could capitalize on this weakness. When UN weapons inspectors were trying to assess his concealed capacity, the most valuable information came from invoices from his American and European suppliers. For example, by discovering how much biological growth material—approximately forty tons—that Saddam had purchased from foreign pharmaceutical firms, the weapons inspectors were able to deduce the approximate size of the biological weapons program—using anthrax, botulin, camel pox, gangrene, and brucella—that he was concealing.16


The collusion of European and American pharmaceutical companies, precision equipment manufacturers, and weapons suppliers in the development of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction is the great scandal of the story of Saddam’s rearming. The willingness of foreign scientists, hungry for money, to aid the development of weapons of mass destruction is genuinely astonishing. One essential aspect of a containment strategy, over the long term, should be the creation of a new convention in international law—this has long been advocated by Matthew Meselson of Harvard and Julian Robinson of Sussex University—to make it a criminal offense, subject to universal jurisdiction, for any scientist, businessman, or technician to render substantial assistance to the development, production, acquisition, or use of those biological or chemical weapons already banned by international treaty.17


Such criminal collusion is one of the main subjects of the memoir by the Iraqi defector Khidhir Hamza, an MIT-trained physicist who worked on nuclear and other weapons for Saddam Hussein from the 1970s until 1994, when he defected, crossing the border into Kurdish territory and later making a deal with the CIA to give him and his family refuge in the US. He has much to say about Saddam’s brutality and cynicism—a scientist who expressed doubts about the nuclear program was tortured horribly. But the most astonishing part of his memoir is about the ability of Iraqi operatives like himself to buy whatever they required from German, French, and American companies, and to lure Hungarian, German, Polish, and Serbian experts to work for the regime. Foreign suppliers knew perfectly well that “dual use” exports, i.e., materials usable for both peaceful and war-making purposes, were going into a weapons program. Hamza writes,

Iraq’s cover story with the Germans—of buying pesticide [manufacturing] plants—was so thin as to be transparent. But German officials not only went along with it, they pretended not to understand the significance of the animal pens at the plant in Samara. They even helped make the technical adjustments needed to turn the plant into a full-production chemical weapons facility, and covered up for a couple of accidents in which some workers were poisoned from chemical leaks.

While foreign complicity with Iraq’s regime is a scandal, Saddam’s dependence on these sources also remains the most effective source of leverage against him. As has been seen, it is not easy to use this power effectively. Large companies concerned about their reputations can sometimes be dissuaded from doing business with a rogue state; but, as Hamza writes, smaller companies, desperate for cash and not particular about where it comes from, are only too happy to take suitcases of dollars from Iraqi businessmen. A diplomacy of containment may not be practically possible in an increasingly open international economy.

Regular arms supplies—tanks, planes, and guns—have proven relatively easy to control. It is the export licensing of technical and scientific equipment capable of dual use that has proven easy to evade. As Hamza writes, this was made clear in Britain in the early 1990s, when Matrix Churchill, a British precision steel manufacturer, was able to ship the machined parts for a super-gun to Iraq, evading the UK’s export-licensing regime. A policy that would work—export control and targeted sanctions—requires intelligence and regulatory abilities that America probably has while its allies do not. It would therefore require a degree of alliance cohesion that is fast disappearing.

America and France view each other with intense suspicion. The French believe that American heavy-handedness is turning the entire Arab world against the containment policy itself, while the Americans think that French policy is driven by French oil companies’ pursuit of commercial advantage in the region. On the Security Council, the French broke with the Americans early over sanctions and weapons inspection. The deeper problem in maintaining a diplomacy of containment is posed by Russia. According to public testimony by the CIA’s George Tenet—and his view is confirmed by other sources—Russia’s defense and nuclear industries remain a major supplier of missile and weapons technology to Iraq; and throughout the decade of sanctions Russia has remained Iraq’s steadiest international supporter. Evgeny Primakov, Russia’s former foreign minister, is reliably reported to have been in the direct pay of Saddam’s regime. [18 ]Keeping Saddam under control means creating incentives for the Russians to limit their weapons exports. It is hard to see why President Putin should cooperate while the new administration is committed to a national missile defense system that destabilizes the nuclear balance and will make the Russians feel they must invest in expensive countermeasures.

Putin must also be hoping for a revived Russian military-industrial complex whose sales abroad will help him rebuild his state treasury and Russia’s international influence. For all these reasons, it is unlikely that Russia will support a tight embargo on weapons and technology. China’s installation of fiber-optic cable for Saddam’s radars makes it clear that another member of the Security Council is now openly defying the sanctions regime mandated by the Council.

The only remaining multilateral UN strategy that seems plausible is a deal in which general economic sanctions are removed in return for admission of a new set of weapons inspectors. UNMOVIC, the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission set up last year and headed by Hans Blix of Sweden, is standing by to resume the work of UNSCOM, which did so much to neutralize Saddam’s weapons between 1991 and 1998.19 To sweeten the deal with Iraq, Russia and France might propose that the new inspectors accept some Iraqi restrictions on the sites they could investigate. Moreover, every degree of compliance by the Iraqis would secure a further lifting of sanctions. “UNSCOM Lite” is what the American analyst Judith Yaphe calls this proposal; the problem is that while it would be “lite” enough to gain the support of China, Russia, and France, it is not nearly heavy enough to get US support as well.20

UNSCOM’s record in Iraq, moreover, suggests that there is no credible “lite” version of weapons inspection. UNSCOM’s work was not just a breakthrough in the international control of weapons of mass destruction. It was the most successful attempt by Western intelligence, led by the Americans, to share its information and equipment with a UN agency. The Americans loaned UNSCOM a U-2 spy plane to take high-resolution aerial pictures of Iraq’s chemical, biological, and nuclear establishment. In addition, the British, Germans, and Americans provided the inspectors with intelligence from informants and defectors. The extent of this intelligence cooperation remains murky, but it allowed weapons inspectors to reveal and challenge Iraqi concealment.

One weapons inspector, Scott Ritter, has alleged that American intelligence went much further, and may have used UN weapons inspections as a way to infiltrate Iraqi “presidential sites” and prepare a hit-squad attack on Saddam Hussein.21 These allegations are, of course, denied by UNSCOM itself, but it became clear by August 1998 that the French, Russians, and Chinese on the Security Council believed UNSCOM had become a tool of American intelligence and they were not prepared to lend it further diplomatic backing.22 If this continues to be the case, it seems unlikely that sufficient international leverage exists on the Security Council to compel Iraq to accept an effective weapons inspection system. (According to some reports, the French privately proposed to the Clinton administration last year a new plan that would have provisionally suspended sanctions in exchange for the return of inspections, with sanctions to be reimposed if the US was dissatisfied with Iraqi cooperation. Precisely what the plan called for and why it was turned down have not been clarified and should be.23)

What is clear is that bombing, as in the four-day campaign called “Desert Fox” in December 1998, is a poor second-best to on-site weapons inspection. Bombing cannot stop Saddam from developing further the means of causing mass destruction. The most it can accomplish is to slow him down. The constant threat of aerial detection followed by bombardment forced the regime to disperse the component parts of its mass destruction programs into units small enough to escape detection and interdiction. This has apparently delayed the creation and production of additional weapons systems. As the military commentator Anthony Cordesman puts it, precision bombing, by destroying Saddam’s expensive imported equipment, buys us time to wait him out.24

Yet this policy has its costs, and they are not just the billion dollars the US spends every year maintaining carrier groups in the Gulf region. One problem is maintaining Arab support for a bombing campaign that inevitably kills civilians. Saddam is careful to locate his own command and control complexes inside or close to populated areas, and when they come under attack, as they did on February 16, he is quick to activate his most effective antiaircraft weapon: CNN and other international television crews. They will be taken to the hospitals to relay pictures of American brutality around the world, in the expectation that sufficient Security Council pressure from China and Russia and discontent among America’s Arab allies will force the US to stop. Since that is the case, bombing, if it is to be effective, must be an instrument of last resort, selective and precise enough to avoid casualties. Whether this can be consistently achieved is doubtful. The military expert William Arkin has written in The Washington Post that the US used cluster munitions in the February 16 raids, in particular the JSOW missile, which sprays bomblets over areas as large as a football field. The use of these weapons is hard to reconcile with Secretary of State Colin Powell’s repeated assurances that “we are not after the Iraqi people.”

The hard truth is that the credible options—“smart” targeted sanctions, aerial surveillance, no-fly zones to protect at least the Kurds if not the Shiites, and bombing as a last resort—do not add up to a very effective strategy of containment. Whatever we do, we do not seem close to eliminating Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. This leads many Republican hawks and some Democrats to support a move from containment to “regime change.” The most frequently canvassed possibility for overthrowing Saddam Hussein is more active use of the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, passed by Congress to enable the President to funnel $97 million worth of assistance to Saddam’s opponents. They are a motley crew, composed of feuding Kurds in the north, the Shiites in the south, who are armed by Iran, and Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress, which is composed of a variety of exiles, including, among others, monarchists and Islamists, as well as Kurds.25

The Clinton administration never took the Iraqi opposition seriously and authorized the disbursement of no more than $12 million of the $97 million set aside by Congress to fund Iraqi groups. It is reported that the current administration is divided between those, like Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, who do believe in arming the Iraqi opposition and those, like Colin Powell, who don’t.

The US has encouraged Saddam’s opponents in the past, and the results have been terrible: the Shiites rose up in 1991 on promises of US help and were massacred; the Kurdish groups are good fighters but since 1991 they have been killing one another or betraying one another to Saddam; Chalabi’s plans to encourage an uprising against the most ruthless and well-organized dictatorship in the region sound fanciful. He is tarnished by past failures and by his associations with the CIA. He also makes extravagant claims. While he told a Senate committee last summer that the whole of southern Iraq was in a state of “latent revolution, punctuated by increasing armed rebellion against the regime,” the CIA director later confirmed that in fact these rebellions had been ruthlessly crushed.26

From the Bay of Pigs debacle to Reagan’s failed policy of arming insurgents against the Nicaraguan regime, American attempts to arm proxy forces to defend its interests have not been successful. Proxies have a nasty habit of embarrassing and discrediting their covert sponsors. In addition, the idea of arming proxies misunderstands how revolutions actually happen. They need a popular, indigenous base, which exile groups are incapable of providing. Saddam won’t fall because of uprisings fomented among such minorities as the Kurds and Shiites. The only threat to his power lies among the Sunni middle classes and particularly among the people of Baghdad. Aware of the terrible consequences of unsuccessful resistance, they can be expected to turn against the regime only if Saddam himself is eliminated, for example if a member of his own inner circle kills him. In other words, a coup in the palace may be the precondition for a successful revolution to get rid of the Ba’thist regime, whether in whole or in part.

Even if America were capable of fomenting a revolution, it is not clear that it could control its consequences. Judging from the murderous and chaotic vengeance against Saddam’s collaborators taken by both the Kurds and the Shiites in March 1991, and in view of the close relations of the Shiites with Iran, a revolution will pose a strong risk of Iraq breaking apart or being dismembered by its enemies. After the doomed uprising of 1991, a prominent member of the Iraqi opposition, Kanan Makiya, said to me, “What we need is a General MacArthur,” i.e., an American occupation of the entire country to create democracy from the bottom up. This admission suggests how difficult it could be to bring about a democratic transition in Iraq. It could require an exercise of American power that the Arab world might secretly wish for but would oppose. Besides, America has no stomach for “nation-building.” If General Schwarzkopf was no MacArthur, the America of 2001 is not the America of 1945.

In the long term, Saddam, who is sixty-three and reported to be in poor health, with unsubstantiated rumors of cancer treatments, cannot last forever.27 Inside Iraq, the many members of the scientific, technical, and business elites do not want to spend their lives and their children’s lives in dread of a regime’s arbitrary brutality. The flight of Khidhir Hamza, “Saddam’s bombmaker,” to the United States is interesting proof of the limits of cash, free Mercedeses, and big houses in securing allegiance in what Kanan Makiya memorably called the “republic of fear.” In the long run, especially if general sanctions are replaced with targeted sanctions that isolate and punish the elite, we can hope that the Sunni middle class will begin to find its voice and that the Ba’thist regime’s days will be numbered. But it is hard to imagine this happening if Saddam himself is not put out of action, whether by tyrannicide or by his own physical deterioration.

Given the range of options that have failed, given that Saddam cannot last forever, many people think the right policy in the short term is to do nothing. The French, much of the Arab world, the Russians, and a few senior figures in the UN bureaucracy are inclined to dismiss the American belief that Saddam Hussein is a continual menace. Desert Storm, they say, shattered Saddam’s military capacity and sanctions have prevented him from rebuilding it. His air force and air defense are a joke: in all the years of the no-fly-zone patrols, the Iraqis have never succeeded in shooting down a single British or American plane.28 So the story they tell in Paris and Moscow is that he is nasty, dangerous even, but not a strategic threat. The video footage taken by Iranian Kurds of what they saw when they entered Halabja in 1988 should be obligatory viewing for officials in Paris’s Quai d’Orsay and Moscow’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who purvey the line that Saddam is tiresome but toothless. They would see fathers who died shielding children with their arms from the poison coming out of the sky, and women who died while trying to get water down their throats to take away the choking deposits.

Loathsome though they are, Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction are not expressions of lunatic hubris: they are the very foundation of his strategy for defending his country. Chemical weapons stopped the Iranian human wave attacks in 1988, and Iraq’s ballistic missiles were able to reach Tehran. Saddam commands power in Iraq not simply because he terrifies and corrupts his people, but because he convinces some of them that he serves their strategic interests in a dangerous part of the world. Dr. Rihab Taha, the chemist who ran Saddam’s biological weapons program and was called “Dr. Germ” by the UN weapons inspectors, told them that developing such weapons was her patriotic duty.29 Even Khidhir Hamza, who describes himself as the unwilling servant of the regime, admits in passing, “Saddam could be a bastard but at least he was modernizing the country and standing up to the mullahs.”

If Saddam Hussein’s weapons serve Iraq’s strategic interests in a dangerous region, if he is not the only one to possess them, the next question might be: Why should we be frightened of him? He couldn’t use the weapons on a foreign power without bringing about the destruction of himself, Iraq, and much of the region. He knows the Israelis have enough nuclear weapons to survive any attack and retaliate, making his own threats to use such weapons less than credible. Hemming him in on all sides is American power, in the form of the carrier groups in the Gulf and the Mediterranean, the satellites and spy planes overhead, and the fighters on patrol in the no-fly zones. Israeli intelligence, Hamza confirms, listens in on the Iraqi leaders, at one point even helicoptering in armed teams to plant listening devices on Saddam’s telecommunications networks. In view of how tightly he is already surrounded, and how swift and terrible retaliation against an Iraqi attack would likely be, Saddam’s weapons, therefore, are of mostly symbolic importance. They send a message to the Arab world: we too possess the ultimate coinage of modern state power.

Whether he would move beyond brandishing these weapons and actually use them depends on whether he is a rational person, and therefore susceptible to the conventional arguments of deterrence. Hamza, who worked in the presidential palace system, and describes his tense meetings with Saddam, puts emphasis on Saddam’s paranoia, “volcanic temper,” and sadistic violence. All this rings true, but there is also evidence that it would be a serious mistake to call him crazy. Saddam understands credible threats and responds accordingly. In December 1990, on the eve of the Gulf War, when his foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, threatened Israel with destruction in the event of an Allied attack and Secretary of State James Baker replied with the implicit threat of “full and complete retaliation,” the message got through. Tel Aviv was attacked with Scud missiles, but they were not carrying anthrax or other lethal chemical or biological agents.

This suggests that the cornerstone of a policy of containment is a clear deterrent message: if you attack Is-rael, Kuwait, or Saudi Arabia, then your palaces and military installa-tions will be struck without mercy. Any use of chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons will be responded to with “full and complete retaliation.” Renew hostilities with Iran, and you will find the rest of the world assisting Iran’s defense.

The purpose of American policy should not be to overthrow Saddam: that is for his own people to do, and American attempts to do so may well only strengthen him. Nor is it wise or just to attempt to keep Iraq poor and miserable. American purposes should be confined to protecting Kurdish autonomy in the north of the country, and preventing Iraq from harming, destabilizing, or overthrowing its neighbors, or endangering the flow of oil. This limited set of goals should be attainable with credible threats and the determination to use targeted and discriminate measures. There now seems no plausible alternative to a long struggle of wills with Saddam Hussein, in which the great mistake for the US would be to yield to the temptation to cut that struggle short.

March 1, 2001

This Issue

March 29, 2001