Commentary Magazine

What to Do About Saddam Hussein

For most of the past fall and winter, the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein held both the United Nations and the United States at bay, finally agreeing to end the latest confrontation over his weapons of mass destruction only when UN Secretary General Kofi Annan traveled to Baghdad and accepted cumbersome new procedures for UN inspections. Although the agreement struck by Annan violated the “red lines” the United States had insisted on, President Clinton quickly set aside his military threats against the Iraqi tyrant and embraced it.

Much of the American public, and even many opponents of the administration, shared Clinton’s palpable sense of relief. As Paul Wolfowitz, Undersecretary of Defense in the Bush administration, put it: “If the choice is between a bad agreement . . . and a bad war . . . I think we at least got the better of the two bad alternatives.”

America may well have avoided a bad war. But it also lost ground in its campaign to meet the threat posed by Iraq’s arsenal, To hold together what support it can, Washington has acquiesced in a new Security Council resolution vastly increasing the amount of oil Iraq may export and the quantities of food and other goods it may import. Although this commerce is supposed to be monitored, transactions of such magnitude will inevitably leave scope for militarily useful contraband. In addition, Saddam Hussein’s rehabilitation from the status of international pariah was advanced by the Secretary General’s visit to Baghdad, and Annan’s endorsement of his criticisms of UN inspectors will strengthen Iraq’s hand in future disputes. Finally, in Europe and the Arab world, public reaction to this entire episode focused much less on Iraqi miscreancy than on alleged American adamancy and belligerency.

As for the deal itself, while Hussein yielded to the demand for inspection of the 1,000-plus buildings that make up his so-called “presidential sites,” the Iraqis had ample time to remove whatever was hidden in them, as UN inspectors later confirmed they had done. More importantly, if future inspections come near to uncovering something Hussein deems vital, he can rest assured that Washington, having tiptoed to the brink of military action and then backed away, will be in a much weaker position to muster international or domestic support for new threats. In the meantime, pressure mounts for lifting sanctions on Iraq even though the regime’s biological-weapons program remains, in the words of Richard Butler, chairman of the UN inspection commission, a “black hole.”

In short, while administration spokesmen insist that Saddam Hussein is still “in his box,” it is America itself that is increasingly boxed in. Within a few years or perhaps even sooner, Hussein is likely to free himself from the international constraints under which he now chafes. With the country still firmly in his grip, he will then command both a still-formidable conventional military force and the capacity to deploy weapons of mass destruction. Even should such arms be discovered and destroyed, Iraq’s engineers and scientists have acquired the knowledge to reconstruct biological weapons within weeks, chemical weapons within months, and nuclear weapons within a year or two. The entire situation has been well-summed-up by the former deputy chief of the UN weapons inspectors, David Kay: “Iraq is a country now able to produce weapons of mass destruction. . . . The only way to get rid of [them] is regime change.”



Regime change: this has, indeed, been at least one professed goal of American policy ever since Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. But with the exception of Operation Desert Storm, precious little has been done to make it happen. And even Operation Desert Storm, spectacular though it was, constituted but a partial exception. At the conclusion of that campaign, the U.S. commander, General Norman Schwarzkopf, boasted that “we were 150 miles away from Baghdad, and there was nobody between us and Baghdad.” Why, then, did we not go there, and finish off the despot whom President George Bush had repeatedly likened to Hitler?

The explanation given at the time was that civilian and military leaders alike were loath to risk the higher casualties that might have come from exposing U.S. forces to urban battles. They were also averse—despite President Bush’s boast that we had “kicked the Vietnam syndrome”—to any situation that held the risk of becoming a “quagmire.” And America was likewise inhibited by the fact that the war was being conducted under a limited mandate from the UN—a mandate sought by President Bush largely in order to win over the U.S. Congress, where, at least among the Democrats, post-Vietnam distrust of military action was still in full flower.

The failure to roll on to Baghdad was not the only American decision that helped Saddam Hussein hang on to power. We also failed to cripple thoroughly the elite Republican Guard on which he was dependent. Such action had indeed been part of the battle plan, but it became compromised in Washington’s unseemly haste to end the fighting. On the fourth day of ground combat, America’s civilian leaders asked military commanders how soon it could be halted. Schwarzkopf told Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that in one more day he could complete the destruction of the military equipment the Republican Guard had brought to the battle area. When Powell reported back, President Bush and his top aides, worried that America’s one-sided victory was making it look like a bully, said, in effect, if the war can be brought to an end tomorrow, why not today? And so it was decided. As a result, most of the leadership and the equipment of the Republican Guard, including half its tanks, got away.

Next, when a popular revolt erupted among returning Iraqi soldiers, America failed again to act on its wish to be rid of Saddam, standing aside while the Republican Guard units that had slipped from our grasp crushed the rebels. Although Bush had called on Iraqis to oust Saddam Hussein, evidently he was not counting on an actual grass-roots rebellion, and did not welcome it.



In this wariness, Bush and his team were reflecting their own deeply ingrained penchant for “realism” in foreign policy—the very same mentality that, in the 1980’s, had led America to court Iraq as a geopolitical makeweight against Iran, and thus set the stage for the confrontation to come. In those years, turning its eyes from Hussein’s well-documented barbarities, including the gassing of his own Kurdish citizens, Washington had secretly assisted Iraq’s military efforts against Iran. Even when Saddam Hussein began to threaten Kuwait in 1990, America’s response was notably tepid, voiced, as Bush put it, in “a spirit of friendship.” Is it any wonder the Iraqi dictator thought Washington would allow him to swallow Kuwait as well?

The same “realist” world view was in evidence at war’s end in the response to the grass-roots Iraqi rebellion, which caught Washington by surprise. It seems that during the courtship years of the 80’s, a little-known policy had been enacted forbidding contact between U.S. officials and the already extant Iraqi opposition. Amazingly, this ban was kept in place even after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and all the way through Operation Desert Storm. Thus, when Iraqi opposition leaders endeavored to inform the U.S. government of the impending revolt, executive-branch officials refused to see them.

But why did we decline to take even minimal steps to assist the insurgents once the revolt started? Exploiting a loophole in the ceasefire agreements, Baghdad’s helicopter gunships were wreaking devastation on the rebels. Schwarzkopf could have grounded these helicopters, but, he claimed later, “I really do not think it would have made any difference at all.” In fact, however, the decision not to ground the helicopters was political, not military. As the New York Times reported, Bush had “decided to let President Saddam Hussein put down rebellions in his country without American intervention rather than risk the splintering of Iraq.” Colin Powell was even blunter: in consigning the rebels to Saddam Hussein’s mercy, “our practical intention was to leave Baghdad enough power to survive as a threat to . . . Iran.” In either case, getting rid of Saddam Hussein had been relegated to a lower priority.

Administration officials later came up with yet another rationale for withholding support from the rebels: by causing the Iraqi military to close ranks around Saddam, the insurgents, it was said, were actually posing an obstacle to the coup for which the administration had been hoping all along. This reasoning was as specious as it was after-the-fact. In many other instances around the globe—Algeria in the 1990’s, El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980’s, Cambodia and Vietnam in the 1960’s and 1970’s—the pressure of a popular rebellion has not hindered but has rather impelled military factions to overthrow local rulers. The truth is the other way around: once America failed to come to the support of the rebels, it should have surprised no one that the Iraqi generals refrained in turn from any attempt to oust Saddam Hussein.



In any event, when the postwar coup failed to materialize, Bush did order the CIA to inaugurate a covert-action plan, and the agency duly came up with two main enterprises: it hired a Washington public-relations firm to carry out a worldwide publicity campaign against Saddam, and it assisted in the formation of an umbrella group linking various Iraqi Kurdish and Shiite groups as well as other opposition elements. This united front was organized by Ahmad Chalabi, a banker and scion of a prominent Baghdad family.

The Iraqi National Congress (INC), to use the front’s English name, was founded at a conference in Vienna in June 1992, and put itself more firmly on the map a few months later by convening 400 opposition representatives in the northern Iraqi city of Salah ad-Din, which lay under Western protection. Over the next two years, the INC established a network that carried out various political, intelligence, and propaganda activities designed to create an image of northern Iraq as a “liberated” region. But the INC was apparently not viewed in Washington as anything more than a potential irritant to Baghdad, and the lion’s share of CIA funds went to the public-relations firm.

In the meantime, Bill Clinton had been elected President of the United States, and political change in Iraq, never high on America’s agenda, fell even lower. The difference was that whereas, in the previous administration, inaction had been rationalized on grounds of “realism,” now it would be rationalized by appeals to multilateralism, and buttressed by a deep-seated unease about the use of military force.

A week before his inauguration in January 1993, the President-elect extended an olive branch to Hussein, distancing himself from the Bush position that normal relations with Iraq would be impossible as long as Saddam remained in power, and thereby signaling that “regime change” might no longer be a goal of American policy. “If he wants a different relationship with the United States and the United Nations,” Clinton said, “all he has to do is change his behavior.” In keeping with this posture, the administration reduced (though it did not eliminate) funding for covert activities.

But Clinton’s overtures went unrewarded. Just three months into the new administration, evidence emerged that Iraqi intelligence—that is, Saddam—had ordered an attempt on the life of former President Bush as he was on tour in newly liberated Kuwait. First the CIA and then the FBI were called upon to study the allegation—both came to the conclusion that it was substantiated—and then the administration took its time debating what to do about it. Although Attorney General Janet Reno argued for a strictly legal approach, the President, reportedly with great reluctance, finally resolved on a punitive strike. The strike consisted of a few cruise missiles fired into a headquarters building of Iraqi intelligence—at night, so as to minimize casualties. (“That way, the only ones killed would be the cleaning ladies,” quipped former Assistant Defense Secretary Richard Perle.)

This set the tone for all the administration’s subsequent dealings with Iraq. Thus, a year later, when Saddam Hussein sent his Republican Guard south and put them in a position once again to attack Kuwait, the U.S. rushed forces to the area and compelled Iraq to back off—but conspicuously failed to exact punishment. Then, in late 1994 and early 1995, the INC, under Chalabi and the Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, set out to seize one or both of the major northern cities of Mosul and Irkuk; administration officials sent a message urging them to desist, warning that if they proceeded, “you are on your own.”

In the immediate aftermath of this demonstration of waning American interest in the INC, Massoud Barzani, a Kurdish rival to Jalal Talabani, decided to throw in his lot with Saddam Hussein, secretly inviting the dictator to send his army back into the UN-declared “safe haven” in northern Iraq and wrest the town of Irbil from Talabani. For eleven days in August 1996, the Republican Guard massed troops and tanks outside Irbil. According to Talabani and Chalabi, Assistant Secretary of State Robert Pelletreau assured them there would be “serious consequences” for Iraq in the event of an attack; indeed, says a former U.S. intelligence analyst, “most Iraqis believed that northern Iraq was under the protection of the U.S. military, and they were surprised when the U.S. didn’t come to the opposition’s rescue.”

But it did not. When the assault was finally launched, Republican Guard forces stormed into Irbil, routing Talabani as well as the extensive INC network, their CIA handlers, and members of another American-backed resistance group known as the Iraqi National Accord. Scores, possibly hundreds, were seized by the government forces and met a grisly end. Three days passed before Washington finally launched cruise missiles—against idle Iraqi anti-aircraft batteries 500 miles away—and announced a widening of the no-fly zone in the south.

With the “safe haven” in the north nullified, and the INC devastated, an emboldened Saddam decided to test further the international constraints imposed on him. Early in 1997, in artful defiance of the no-fly zone, Iraq used helicopters to ferry pilgrims to Mecca. In June, Iraq heightened its obstruction of UN weapons investigators by interfering with their flights, and deployed anti-aircraft batteries in a way threatening to American U-2 spy planes. The obstruction intensified still further in September, prompting the U.S. and Britain to bring to the Security Council a motion threatening an eventual ban on international travel by Iraqi officials. When Russia, China, France, Egypt, and Kenya all abstained, Saddam apparently felt strong enough to expel American inspectors, precipitating this past winter’s confrontation and bringing us to our current pass.



Is there any way out of the “box”? Michael O’Hanlon, of the Brookings Institution, suggests that “we can probably contain [Saddam Hussein] just as we contained the Soviets for half a century.” In fact, some such rationale seems to be behind the Clinton administration’s policy toward Iraq. The analogy, however, is weak.

The Soviet Union was an evil empire, but, despite the tens of millions of lives it destroyed, it was also a relatively cautious one. By contrast, Iraq under this regime has been the globe’s most reckless power. Indeed, the 1990 invasion of Kuwait was the most bold-faced act of aggression the world has seen since Iraq invaded Iran in 1980. In both cases, according to Iraq expert Amatzia Baram, the decision was taken by Saddam Hussein alone, “without any real consultation,” and was based in large measure on “motives of national and personal honor.” Similarly, out of nothing but vengefulness, Saddam commanded his troops to torch Kuwait’s oil wells as they fled the country, and ordered the assassination attempt on George Bush.

Saddam is also unlike Soviet rulers in his cavalier attitude to weapons of mass destruction. He boasted in 1990 that he would “burn half of Israel” with chemicals, and reportedly promised Yasir Arafat to liberate Jerusalem with missiles. Were these boasts idle? He had already used chemical weapons against his own Kurdish population in the 1970’s and against Iran in the 1980’s, and he started to use them again against Iraqi Shiites in 1991.

As for the United States, we have little capacity for dealing with the biological weapons Saddam Hussein has devoted so much effort to accumulating. They are perfectly suited to delivery by a terrorist—a small package of anthrax released in the subway system of an American city could kill vast numbers—and, because the spores are not detectable by the senses and do not take effect instantaneously, a perpetrator can be out of the country before the attack is discovered. In the event of such an attack, moreover, would the U.S. retaliate? In the attempt on Bush’s life, eleven of the sixteen men caught were Iraqis, and the bombs they were caught with bore an Iraqi signature; even so, we demanded a lengthy FBI investigation before deciding to retaliate, weakly. How could we prove the source of an anthrax attack? What would Janet Reno say?

Nor is such an attack “deferrable” as we deterred Soviet nuclear power. We certainly are not going to threaten to retaliate in kind—that is, with biological weapons of our own. Might we threaten instead to respond with nuclear weapons? Against which targets? Would such a threat be credible?

Even to raise such questions is to suggest how glib it is to think that we can easily “contain” Saddam, and the actual record of the Clinton administration hardly inspires a greater degree of confidence. More importantly, containment by itself, let us remember, was not responsible for the Soviet Union’s demise. By the late 1970’s, countries were falling to Communism at a faster rate than ever before. Ronald Reagan succeeded in reversing this momentum only by adopting a policy of “containment-plus,” the linchpin of which was the decision to aid anti-Communist insurgencies. The groups in question were fractious, inexperienced, and some-times unsavory or corrupt, and few Americans believed they stood any chance of winning. But they helped turn the tide of the cold war.



The only way out of the Iraqi “box” is the way suggested by David Kay: the removal of Saddam from power. And the model that should guide our policy is “containment-plus.” Such a policy might include many elements, but the key would be support for efforts by the Iraqi opposition to oust Saddam, and the place to begin would be with the Iraqi National Congress.

Kanan Makiya, the Iraqi author of the best-seller Republic of Fear (published under the pseudonym Samar al-Khalil), has called the INC “the single most promising development in Iraqi politics in many decades.” Most observers agree that, despite the lack of military or any other kind of help, the INC did a creditable job in its political and propaganda efforts in 1993-95, and that even its March 1995 military offensive was a limited success. Although that offensive hardly constituted a real threat to Saddam’s regime, it unsettled him enough to sack both his northern military commander and his defense minister.

Some U.S. officials assert that the INC’s military prospects are nil, but that is what was said of the Nicaraguan contras and the Afghan mujahedeen, both of whom in the end were successful. The same goes for the INC’s fractiousness, again no greater than that of the contras or the mujahedeen. Although in the early 1990’s the INC failed to develop real military clout, the fact is, as Paul Wolfowitz has pointed out, that the U.S. did not give it a single rifle.

This should be reversed. America could supply the opposition with weapons, including anti-tank and anti-helicopter missiles; these, together with rigorous enforcement of the no-fly zone, would neutralize many of the advantages enjoyed by the Iraqi army. We could also supply military training. In former Yugoslavia, the Serbs looked invincible just a few years ago, but once Croatian forces received American training they were able to liberate their territory almost overnight.

The INC’s leader, Admad Chalabi, is a hard-driving man who gets on the nerves of some U.S. officials and reportedly of some Arab leaders as well. Nonetheless, as one closely involved official has remarked, he is “the only one of the Iraqi opposition who has ever shown an ability to organize anything.” Chalabi professes democracy, and by all accounts he has labored tirelessly to accommodate the diverse factions in his umbrella organization. Whereas past Iraqi oppositionists have tended to orient themselves ideologically toward Syria or Iran, Chalabi faces West.

One wonders, indeed, whether Chalabi’s democratic professions might not weigh against him in the eyes of U.S. officials. After all, the “authentic” way to reach power in that region of the world has been the palace coup, not popular insurgency. But, even aside from the fact that such coups have been rare in recent decades, why should we assume that amid all the political change taking place today, the Arabs alone must remain frozen in a culture of medieval violence and authoritarianism? Those Iraqis who say they want to fight for democracy may not, in the end, prove to be true democrats, but there can be no real test of that proposition unless and until they come to power.

This is not to say that our efforts need be limited to the INC. If there are other opposition groups, we could support them, too, or work to reconcile factions. We could even encourage a coup—though there might be little gain in replacing Saddam with other members of his clique, all of whom have blood on their hands; and why should we help perpetuate the Baathist ideology, which combines radical Arab nationalism, socialism, and tyranny, and has produced not only Saddam’s Iraq but Assad’s scarcely less repellent regime in Syria?

Helping the opposition need not be expensive, but we should be prepared to contribute what is necessary. At the height of our support for the Nicaraguan contras, we spent $100 million a year. Even though Iraq is nearly five times more populous than Nicaragua and far more is at stake there, we have never given the INC more than a few million a year. Nor should our support be covert, except in certain operational details. On the contrary, we ought to be loud and public in our efforts, using the airwaves as we did with Radio Liberty against the USSR.

We will be asked by what right we thus make bold to intervene in Iraq’s internal affairs. Our answer should be that we derive this right from Saddam Hussein’s repeated violations of the law of nations: his acts of international aggression; his atrocities against the Iraqi Kurds and Shiites; and his stubborn refusal to comply with Security Council resolutions that required divestiture of his weapons of mass destruction seven years ago. On these very same grounds, we ought to be prepared to respond with overwhelming force if Saddam challenges us militarily. But even if he does not, we must put an end to his evil and dangerous regime. There are Iraqis who want to do it, and it is time we got serious about helping them.


About the Author

Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is working on a book about Arab and Muslim democrats.

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