Downplaying the Iraqi Crisis


Downplaying the Iraqi Crisis

August 19, 1998 4 min read Download Report
Baker Spring
Baker Spring
Former Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy
Baker is a former Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy

The Clinton Administration's Iraq policy continues to deteriorate. There are reports that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright secretly discouraged United Nations (U.N.) inspectors from making surprise visits to sites within Iraq that are suspected of containing weapons of mass destruction (WMD). And on August 3, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein dealt another humiliating blow to U.S. credibility in the Middle East by freezing cooperation with the U.N. inspectors and the International Atomic Energy Agency. Since then, Iraq has escalated its vitriolic propaganda campaign to discredit the U.N. weapons inspectors and threatened the long-term technical surveillance efforts essential to prevent Iraq from rebuilding its nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons programs.

Iraq's actions violate both the letter and spirit of an agreement brokered by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan last February. As spelled out by U.N. Security Council Resolution No. 1154, this deal promised inspectors "immediate, unconditional and unrestricted access" to suspected weapons sites and warned that "any violation would have severest consequences" for Iraq. This agreement followed Iraq's violation of a November 1997 pact mediated by Russia's Foreign Minister, Yevgenii Primakov, a longtime personal friend of Saddam.

Since the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the Security Council's focus has shifted from punishing Iraqi transgressions to negotiating further concessions. President Bill Clinton has hastened this shift by looking to the U.N. Secretary General for "leadership" in an ongoing crisis that threatens U.S. security interests. Unfortunately, each successive act of Iraqi defiance has split the anti-Saddam coalition further, weakened U.S. diplomatic standing in the Middle East, and diminished the likelihood Saddam ever will pay a significant price for his intransigence.


The Security Council declared Iraq's decision to suspend U.N. weapons inspections "totally unacceptable." Administration officials seized on this statement as evidence that the anti-Saddam coalition remains intact. They are wrong. The United States, in fact, has allowed the once-formidable anti-Iraq coalition to fray, thus reducing the pressure on Iraq to comply with Security Council resolutions. Public support for military action appears at an all-time low, even among such close U.S. allies as Great Britain. Equally troubling, Saddam's diplomatic courtship of Russia, France, and China gives Iraq powerful advocates on the Security Council.


The anti-Saddam coalition has fractured in part because the United States has abrogated its leadership role to the U.N. Leveraging the prospect of unilateral action to spur meaningful multilateral cooperation requires a robust military presence. But President Clinton has reduced the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf sharply since the crisis last February. At that time, the United States had two aircraft carriers and nearly 30,000 troops in the region; today the United States has a single aircraft carrier and only 19,000 troops. Undercutting their diplomatic leverage even further, officials have downplayed the threat of force, thus rendering hollow the Security Council resolution promise of the "severest consequences" for non-compliance.


The Clinton Administration's decision to refocus attention on international sanctions is another policy mistake. President Clinton recently claimed that what the Iraqi leadership "wants most" is for the sanctions to be lifted. If this were true, however, Saddam would have complied speedily with the U.N. inspections years ago. What the Iraqi leadership wants most is to remain in power, as evidenced by Saddam's willingness to forgo $100 billion in lost oil revenue. Saddam also wants to preserve the capability to produce nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, which he considers essential to his hegemonic aspirations. The belief that re-emphasizing sanctions at this juncture somehow will prompt acceptable behavior from Iraq's leadership is naïve. Saddam withstood much greater pressures during the allied bombing campaign and ground offensive during the Gulf war.

The emphasis on sanctions points toward an even deeper problem: President Clinton's policy is designed to contain Iraq rather than to depose Saddam. This policy stems from the Clinton Administration's belief that Iraq's weapons programs represent the greatest threat to U.S. security. This misconception is like blaming guns for domestic crime rather than the criminals who use them. The evil lies in the person of Saddam, not in the weapons at his disposal.


Sanctions alone will not oust Saddam; nor will pinprick military strikes or any other policy instrument applied in isolation. Instead, what is needed is a comprehensive approach that melds diplomatic, economic, and military action to hasten Saddam's ouster. These actions should be closely coordinated with Iraq's neighbors--Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Bahrain, and Israel--rather than through the Security Council.

The United States should lead efforts to bolster Radio Free Iraq; extend the no-fly zone to cover all of Iraq; recognize a provisional government in northern Iraq, based on the leadership of the Iraqi National Congress; back a special tribunal to investigate the Iraqi regime's war crimes; and intensify covert measures to pressure Saddam. A full-court press is necessary to discredit Saddam's regime and to create conditions for his downfall.


The Administration's desperate attempt to transform Iraq's latest act of defiance into a "non-crisis" is doomed to failure; downplaying egregious behavior does not provide any incentive for good behavior. Left uncorrected, this approach merely will accelerate the final crackup of the formidable anti-Iraq coalition that President George Bush assembled to evict Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991.

Executive and congressional action is necessary to restore credibility to U.S. policy. Instead of ignoring Iraq's latest act of defiance, the Clinton Administration should develop a credible plan to remove Saddam from power. For its part, Congress should investigate disturbing reports that the Administration actively sought to discourage U.N. weapons inspectors from examining suspected weapons of mass destruction sites for fear this might trigger another crisis.

-- James H. Anderson, Ph.D., is a former Defense and National Security Analyst in The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis International Studies Center.


Baker Spring
Baker Spring

Former Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy


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