Executive Summary: The Anatomy of Clinton's Failure in Iraq

Report Middle East

Executive Summary: The Anatomy of Clinton's Failure in Iraq

February 27, 1998 4 min read Download Report

The United States faces a looming disaster in Iraq. United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan's recent deal with Iraq represents a major victory for Saddam Hussein and a significant setback for U.S. diplomacy and credibility. Although Saddam has promised to permit U.N. inspectors unfettered access to suspected weapons sites, he has made (and repeatedly broken) such promises before. Saddam also has gained important concessions from the United States and the U.N. that will both strengthen his power and undermine the Clinton Administration's containment policy and standing in the region. Even worse, Saddam has raised the cost of any future use of force against him.

Since manufacturing a crisis last October, Saddam has had five months to build and conceal weapons of mass destruction while obstructing inspections by the U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM) charged with disarming Iraq. Instead of being punished for his systematic attempts to thwart UNSCOM, Saddam has been rewarded with the new agreement brokered by Annan. This agreement is flawed because it:

  • Erodes UNSCOM's mandate. By stipulating that UNSCOM "respect the legitimate concerns of Iraq relating to national security, sovereignty and dignity," the agreement provides Iraq with a convenient pretext for obstructing future weapons inspections.

  • Undermines the effectiveness of UNSCOM. The agreement establishes an oversight body within UNSCOM, the Special Group, for inspecting eight "presidential sites" to which UNSCOM inspectors had been denied access. "Senior diplomats" will accompany weapons inspectors on their visits to the presidential sites. This could compromise information relating to UNSCOM inspections and provide Iraq with another pretext for constraining access to the sites.

  • Bolsters Iraqi propaganda. Establishing the Special Group and recognizing the "special nature" of the presidential sites legitimizes Saddam's claim that his presidential palaces are qualitatively different from other suspected weapons sites and reinforces the notion that Saddam had a right to challenge access to them in the past.

  • Bolsters Baghdad's claim that the U.N. sanctions against Iraq should be lifted. The agreement states that "The lifting of sanctions is obviously of paramount importance to the people and Government of Iraq and the Secretary General undertook to bring this matter to the full attention of the members of the Security Council." This weakens the position of the United States and other countries that believe sanctions should not be lifted until Iraq complies fully with U.N. resolutions.

In his agreement with Annan, Saddam merely has promised what he has promised repeatedly in the past: to comply with UNSCOM disarmament inspections. If Saddam reneges, the Clinton Administration, with its diminished military credibility and diplomatic leverage, will be hard-pressed to mobilize American public opinion and U.S. allies to confront him.

Each time the showdown with Iraq is postponed, Saddam becomes stronger, the United States becomes weaker, and the long-term price for rectifying the problem goes up. President Clinton and Congress need to rethink U.S. strategy toward Iraq. Specifically, this means:

  • Developing a comprehensive long-term strategy to overthrow Saddam. The ultimate goal of U.S. policy should be to oust Saddam, not just contain him. Washington should help unify and rebuild the Iraqi opposition, which was weakened severely by Saddam's August 1996 invasion of the Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq. The United States should work closely with Turkey to cement an alliance between Kurdish groups and the Iraqi National Congress, an umbrella group of democratic Iraqi opposition forces, and should help this coalition to set up an alternative government in northern Iraq, broadcast its appeals over a Radio Free Iraq, and lobby for international recognition.

  • Preparing for the next standoff. Considering Saddam's track record, it is unrealistic to expect him to abide by U.N. resolutions. The U.S. goal in the next crisis provoked by Saddam should be to attack and undermine his base of power, punish him for his transgressions, and reduce his ability to threaten his neighbors and his own people. Toward these ends, the United States should prepare to unleash a robust and sustained air campaign as part of a long-term strategy to build up Iraqi opposition forces and oust Saddam from power. Under the right circumstances, perhaps in support of an internal uprising, the United States should consider even using ground troops to finish the job of toppling Saddam.

  • Retrieving control of U.S. policy on Iraq from the U.N. A foreign policy based exclusively on enforcing U.N. resolutions subordinates U.S. national interests to those of Russia, France, China, and other Security Council members. The United States should focus instead on working with Saddam's neighbors, which face the most immediate threat, and working with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Bahrain, Israel, and even Iran to build a credible military deterrent to Iraqi aggression and support Iraq's opposition in a long-term effort to oust Saddam. If Iraq provokes another crisis, and the United States concludes that it must take military action, it should be prepared to act in a swift and decisive manner. It should not let the Security Council stop or constrain U.S. military action that the President and Congress have deemed necessary.

The United States needs to take firm, consistent, and systematic action to rebuff Saddam's "cheat-and-retreat" provocations, undermine his brutal regime, and undercut his ability to threaten his neighbors and repress his own people. Rather than subcontract its foreign policy to the U.N., the United States should treat the cause and not the symptoms of the Iraqi threat. This means working for Saddam's overthrow.

Kim R. Holmes is Vice President for Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

James Philips is Director of Administration of The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis International Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.


James Phillips

Senior Research Fellow, The Heritage Foundation

Kim Holmes

Acting Senior Vice President, Research