Think Again: Attacking Iraq

As the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan winds down, should Iraq become "phase two" in the war against global terrorism? Iraq hawks warn that Saddam Hussein’s arsenal of mass destruction and his fanatic hatred of the United States make him a paramount threat. Others counsel for continued diplomacy and the return of U.N. weapons inspectors, arguing that an attack on Iraq would destabilize the Arab world. To support their cases, both sides deploy cherished assumptions about everything from Saddam Hussein's sanity to the explosive volatility of the "Arab Street." But a skeptical look at the sound bites suggests that the greatest risk of attacking Iraq may not be a vengeful Saddam or a destabilized Middle East but the unraveling of the global coalition against terrorism.

"The United States Should Have Gotten Rid of Saddam Hussein During the Gulf War"

"The United States Should Have Gotten Rid of Saddam Hussein During the Gulf War"

Twenty-twenty hindsight. One of the few things that proponents and opponents of a new campaign against Iraq seem to agree on is that the first Bush administration should have solved the problem of Saddam when it had the chance. They’re right. Certainly, everyone would be better off today if the U.S. military had marched into Baghdad. But the Bush administration’s decision to stand down in February 1991 made excellent sense at the time. All those armchair generals who declare they would have taken out Saddam forget that the Gulf War coalition included Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia, who never would have openly joined a U.S.-led invasion to topple an Arab regime. Witness the growing Saudi reservations about hosting a U.S. military presence even in peacetime. And since Western intelligence analysts believed that Saddam’s humiliating defeat would shortly prompt a coup among dissatisfied military officers, sitting back and waiting for matters to take care of themselves seemed like the smart thing to do.

The Bush administration’s real mistakes were made after the Gulf War. First, as part of the cease-fire agreement negotiated by Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the United States agreed to let the Iraqi regime use its own helicopters to fly its leaders around the country. This agreement instead allowed the Iraqi military to use gunships to suppress subsequent Shiite and Kurdish uprisings. Second, the White House failed to support those uprisings because it feared that the breakup of Iraq could destabilize the entire region.

"If Saddam Is Overthrown, Iraq Will Break Apart"

Not likely. Like many countries in the Middle East, Iraq’s contemporary borders were pieced together by victorious European powers from provinces of the dismantled Ottoman empire following the First World War: Mosul (the Kurdish northern province), Baghdad (the Sunni central province), and Basra (the Shiite southern province, which accounts for the majority of Iraq’s population). Hence the endless warnings that — absent a strong central government in Baghdad — the country could splinter into three separate fragments.

Yet as far as "artificial states" go, Iraq has proved remarkably durable, holding together despite decades of revolutions, coups d’etat, international sanctions, economic devastation, and war. Those who fear that the Iraqi Shiites would break away at the first opportunity and cozy up with their coreligionists in Iran conveniently forget that those same Shiites, who account for many of the rank and file of the Iraqi military, had no qualms about fighting Iranians during the eight-year Iran-Iraq War. (Nor, for that matter, has Iran ever made any territorial claim on Iraq’s Shiite south.) And although reintegrating the Kurdish north will be difficult after 11 years of autonomy, Kurdish opposition groups have publicly eschewed secessionist ambitions, preferring instead to be part of a democratic federation.

Saddam Hussein is not like Marshal Josip Broz Tito, who unified Yugoslavia. Iraq as we know it existed decades before the rise of Saddam, and the country would likely survive his downfall. That’s good news, since the only thing worse than a unified Iraq with an arsenal of mass destruction would be a Leba-nonized Iraq where rival factions would fight one another, possibly with chemical or biological weapons.

"Saddam Hussein Is Undeterrable"

No, but he’s reckless. Columnist William Safire envisions a scenario wherein Saddam blackmails the United States with a nuclear weapon: "[T]he U.S. President warns Iraq of total annihilation, [and] the dictator shrugs it off as his way to Heaven." History suggests, however, that Saddam is more focused on the here and now than the hereafter. He didn’t use chemical or biological weapons against U.S. forces during the Gulf War, apparently in response to a White House threat that he and his country would "pay a terrible price." He temporarily stopped interfering with U.N. weapons inspectors in 1993, seeking to avoid confrontation with the United States. And when he seemed poised to invade Kuwait once again in 1994, he backed down in response to a U.S. military buildup.

But if Saddam is not undeterrable, he is a high-stakes gambler. "Shrewd … but stupid" is how he was once aptly described. In 1980, Saddam underestimated the ability of Iran to repel a military invasion, leading to an eight-year war that killed 100,000 Iraqis and cost Baghdad nearly half a trillion dollars. He underestimated U.S. resolve to liberate Kuwait, despite a 40-year U.S. commitment to protect the gulf monarchies. In 1998, he isolated himself and angered Arab leaders when he called upon Arabs everywhere to rise up and topple the corrupt "throne dwarves" who had chosen to collaborate with the United States. Of course, Saddam’s risk-taking has also yielded him benefits. He has not only endured sanctions but has used the suffering of the Iraqi people to score propaganda points in the Arab world and divide the U.N. Security Council. As the Gulf War coalition weakened, he felt emboldened to send his troops to crush Kurdish opposition forces in 1996 and expel U.N. weapons inspectors in 1998.

So while Saddam may be deterrable, his penchant for risky ventures makes him a dangerous opponent. The bottom line is that the Iraqi dictator will back down when faced with a credible threat. The tricky part is making sure that threat is expressed loud and clear.

"Getting Weapons Inspectors Back Into Iraq Should Be a High Priority"

Yes, but only for political reasons. Although President George W. Bush has demanded that Saddam allow weapons inspectors to return to Iraq, he hasn’t been trying that hard to make it happen. You can’t blame him. Putting weapons inspectors into Iraq gives Saddam Hussein the opportunity to throw them out and create an international crisis whenever he feels like it. Nor is it likely that Iraq would be willing to grant arms inspectors complete access to suspected weapons facilities.

Baghdad has become increasingly adept at hiding its weapons of mass destruction (wmd). Despite four years of intensive inspections, U.N. weapons inspectors did not discover Iraq’s biological weapons program until they got a tip-off from Saddam’s son-in-law, Hussein Kamel al-Majid, who defected in 1995. Even if inspectors destroyed all of Iraq’s wmd facilities, as David Kay, the former chief nuclear weapons inspector on Iraq warns, "The weapons secrets are … well understood by a large stratum of Iraq’s technical elite … [Iraq] has now become more like post-Versailles Germany in its ability to maintain a weapons capability in the teeth of international inspections."

In the long term, the only way to rid Iraq of its compulsion to develop weapons of mass destruction will be to get rid of the regime in Baghdad. In the short term, though, the Bush administration should at least go through the motions of trying to get weapons inspectors back into Iraq, with the provision that they be given unrestricted access indefinitely. After all, there is a small chance that Saddam — who should be nervous about an imminent U.S. attack — might agree. The more likely scenario is that Saddam and his supporters on the Security Council will refuse U.S. demands. In that case, the United States — having made every effort to allow Baghdad to fulfill its pledge to eliminate its wmd arsenal — would have a renewed, credible causus belli to strike Iraq.

"The Iraqi Regime Was/Was Not Involved With the September 11 Attacks"

We may never know. Senior U.S. intelligence sources have evidence that hijackers Marwan al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah met with Iraqi agents. But pace James Woolsey, the ex-cia director who has made toppling Saddam a personal life goal, U.S. efforts to link Iraq to September 11 have suffered some setbacks. The Czech police now dispute a report that al Qaeda suicide bomber Mohammed Atta met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague five months before the September 11 attacks. The White House concedes that, based upon recent laboratory tests, the anthrax sent by mail throughout the United States in the fall of 2001 did not originate in Saddam’s weapons labs but in the United States. And skeptics of Iraqi involvement might also point to the U.S. State Department’s Patterns of Global Terrorism report published in April 2001, which notes that Iraqi terrorism focuses almost exclusively on antidissident activities.

But the debate over whether Iraq was involved in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon misses the broader point. Saddam’s support for terrorists who don’t like the United States — most notably his pre–September 11 offers of asylum for Abu Nidal and Osama bin Laden — is a matter of record. The timing of those asylum offers is especially significant, since they came right after a 1998 U.S. military strike that targeted institutions associated with the Iraqi regime’s power base, such as the Baath Party headquarters and the barracks of the Republican Guard. Some analysts think those attacks prompted the Iraqi dictator to reach out to terrorist groups who would be able to strike out against the United States and its Arab allies.

"What Worked in Afghanistan Will Work in Iraq"

No. The American military campaign in Afghanistan orchestrated a lethal combination of air power, U.S. special forces, the Northern Alliance, and popular uprisings to topple the Taliban. This strategy bears a striking resemblance to the "rollback" plan to overthrow Saddam that has floated around Washington in one form or another ever since the Iraqi National Congress pitched the idea to the Clinton administration in 1993. For years, skeptics have derided the plan as "wishful thinking," "fantasy," or, in the words of Gen. Anthony Zinni, a "Bay of Goats." But with the successful rout of the Taliban, proponents of rollback (reportedly including Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz) are saying, "I told you so."

Unfortunately, rollback suffers from the old chicken-and-egg problem: Victory against the Iraqi regime depends upon mass uprisings and defections, yet it is uncertain that such popular unrest will occur without victory. Dissatisfied Iraqis — mindful of U.S. failure to support the uprisings in 1991 or defend the Kurdish enclave in 1996 — would be unlikely to risk Saddam’s wrath unless they were sure the United States intended to see this military campaign through to the end.

It is far from clear that the Afghanistan model would score decisive military victories in Iraq. Unlike the Northern Alliance, the Iraqi opposition has neither extensive military capabilities nor battlefield experience. Although war and sanctions have taken a drastic toll on the Iraqi military, Saddam still has 2,200 tanks, 3,700 other armored vehicles, more than 300 combat aircraft, and 400,000 active duty troops (including about 100,000 of the elite Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard, who, unlike Iraqi conscripts, didn’t surrender en masse during the Gulf War).

Saddam could offset U.S. air power by positioning his armed forces and weapons of mass destruction in crowded cities. And absent a swift victory, Iraq could have the opportunity to retaliate with missile attacks against neighboring countries such as Turkey and Israel. (In fact, the Israeli military has requested that the United States contemplate ground attacks against western Iraq to forestall just such a possibility.) Some military analysts estimate the United States would have to deploy more than 100,000 troops in order to ensure a decisive victory. Moreover, Saddam Hussein might very well possess biological and chemical weapons. The United Nations Special Commission’s 1999 report noted, for instance, that 1.5 tons of the lethal nerve agent vx and 550 munitions filled with chemical weapons agents remain unaccounted for.

"The ‘Arab Street’ Will/Will Not Rise Up in Response to a U.S. Attack"

Misses the point. The relatively anemic popular protests in the Arab world about the U.S. war in Afghanistan have added a new flavor to old chestnuts about the mythical "Arab Street" — that amorphous Muslim lynch mob that burns American flags and topples governments at the slightest provocation. According to Iraq hawks like columnist Charles Krauthammer, "The Arab street has fallen silent … because the United States astonished the street with one of history’s great shows of arms." If the United States gets serious about ousting Saddam (no more half-hearted measures such as punitive bombing strikes), Arab support (or at least indifference) will fall into place.

Message to the hawks: The street ain’t the problem. Just about every government in the Middle East has reason to oppose a U.S. attack on Iraq. Iran, Syria, and Libya all stand accused by the Bush administration of sponsoring terrorism (and in some cases, developing weapons of mass destruction), and they have no desire to support a precedent for toppling an Arab regime. Iran and Syria prefer to see Saddam Hussein contained and weak, rather than share a border with a U.S.-backed regime. Egypt doesn’t want to see Iraq reemerge as a competitor to its leadership in the Arab world. And by the way, Egypt is unlikely to jeopardize the $2 billion a year it earns in trade it conducts with Iraq through the U.N.-administered oil-for-food program.

Arguably, however, if the United States is determined to topple Saddam, it only needs the support of two Middle Eastern nations: Saudi Arabia and Turkey. In the event of a large-scale invasion of Iraq, those countries’ military bases, port facilities, and logistics sites would be vital. (Tiny Kuwait is a third possibility, though some military analysts say it would take six months to build an invasion force in that country given its limited facilities.) But convincing Riyadh and Ankara to participate would be an uphill diplomatic battle. Saudi Arabia has a long list of concerns: the breakup of Iraq, retaliation with weapons of mass destruction by Saddam (remember those Scud missiles hitting Riyadh in 1991?), popular unrest, isolation in the Arab world, and a backlash among Islamic extremists.

Ankara’s chief concern is that an independent Kurd-ish state in northern Iraq might encourage the secessionist aspirations of Turkey’s own restive Kurdish population. But Turkey also worries about the economy. The country is stuck in its worst recession since 1945, and now that its tourist revenue and foreign direct investment have dried up post–September 11, it depends on exports for foreign currency — exports that would surely be disrupted by a Middle Eastern war. Turkey is also no doubt wary of the inevitable influx of Kurdish refugees, who cost the government $1.5 million a day in 1991.

"Now Is the Best Time to Attack Iraq"

No. According to polls administered by cnn and USA Today in November 2001, three fourths of the American public would support an attack on Iraq. But another public opinion survey reveals the dilemma facing the Bush administration. The International Herald Tribune–Pew Research Center poll of important decision makers and opinion leaders in two dozen countries reveals that just 29 percent would support a U.S. strike against Iraq. (Western Europe and Muslim countries both responded with a meager 32 percent.) Absent a smoking gun linking Iraq to the September 11 attacks, the United States might find itself acting unilaterally.

Now is not the time to shoulder such a military burden alone. As of this writing, several leaders of al Qaeda (including Osama bin Laden) still remain at large, and the United States might have to consider military action in Somalia, Sudan, or Yemen where existing al Qaeda cells might form the basis for a new center of operations. (Already, U.S. forces are in the Philippines.) And given that the U.S. military depleted its supply of some precision-guided munitions during the campaigns in Kosovo and Afghanistan, it may be several months before the United States could contemplate a large-scale military assault.

Meanwhile, with al Qaeda active in as many as 60 countries, the United States will depend heavily on cooperation from foreign law enforcement and intelligence agencies. "If we went in unilaterally, there’s no question that we would lose the gains made in the Arab world and even among some European allies who just don’t like the idea of the United States going off on its own," notes John Gannon, former deputy director for intelligence at the cia. "Intelligence is a barter-trade business where you earn cooperation with governments …. They can turn the faucet on or off depending on how they feel the United States is meeting the commitment to the coalition against terrorism."

In the meantime, the United States should continue gathering intelligence on Iraq’s wmd program and its ties to terrorist groups, strengthening the case for possible military action. It should continue cultivating the support of reluctant allies, offering assurances and incentives. The United States should also continue to push for implementing "smart sanctions" that would lift restrictions on civilian goods and tighten controls on military and dual-use items. In addition to its legal oil revenues, Iraq earns as much as $3 billion a year on the black market by offering oil and fuel at discounts as low as 40 percent below market value to countries such as Syria, Turkey, and Jordan. Saddam uses oil money not only to buy the loyalty of his security forces and ruling inner circle but also to purchase support of members of the U.N. Security Council. Iraq awards the bulk of its lucrative oil-for-food contracts to countries — such as France, Russia, and China — that are pressing for the lifting of sanctions.

Failure to gain support for smart sanctions could push the United States one step closer to unilateral military action. Indeed, those countries that had hoped the war on terrorism would produce a kinder, gentler, more multilateral George W. Bush may be in for a rude awakening. In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, a vast perceptual divide has emerged between the United States and its allies. The rest of the world still sees the United States as an overwhelmingly dominant military power, but Americans now see themselves as victims.

Mark Strauss is a senior editor at FOREIGN POLICY.

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