The Heritage Foundation

Executive Memorandum #300 on Middle East

April 4, 1991

April 4, 1991 | Executive Memorandum on Middle East

What George Bush Now Must Do in Iraq


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WHAT GEORGE BUSH NOW MUST DO IN .1RAQ The White House ignited a firestorm of controversy on March 27 when it ruled out d estroying R4 helicopter gunships used by Saddam Hussein's brutal regime against Iraqi rebels and unarmed civil ians. This decision, justified as a reluctance to become involved in Iraqs internal power struggle, should be reversed. The United States already is involved in Iraq's internal power struggle, like it or not, by virtue of the fact that it occupies approxi m ately one-ffth of Iraq's territory as a result of a war that weakened Saddam's regime and opened the door to the ongoing rebellion. And the U.S. is involved because George Bush openly called upon Iraqis to topple Saddam. If Bush does not move quickly to r e verse his decision, he risks repeating the humiliating tragedy of 1956, when Washington seemed to encourage Hungarian Freedom Fighters to rise up against their communist rulers, but then did nothing to help these FreedQm Fighters when they did rebel. Inde e d, as the US. now is doing in Iraq, America in 1956 watched passively as Freedom Fighters were slaughtered. Bush should understand that what is at stake is not simply a matter of morality; it now is a matter of American credibility. Permitting Saddam's le t hal helicopters to continue to massacre Iraqis would be tantamount to giving tacit support to his regime. It would undermine the US. goal of ousting the Iraqi dictator to help assure the peace and security of the Persian Gulf region. Turning a blind eye t o the Iraqi government's bloody repression would tarnish the moral prestige won by America in its liberation of Kuwait. Although Bush undoubtedly meant to encourage an army coup when he called upon Iraqis to oust Saddam, his words also encouraged Iraqs 4 m i llion Kurds (almost one-quarter of Iraq's 18 million population) and Shiite majority (roughly 55 percent) to rebel against the Sunni Arab minority which dominates Saddam's Baathist regime in Baghdad. Weak, Divided Opposition. The Bush has ruled out suppor t for the Iraqi rebels, and even shunned contact with them until this week, because it has concluded that the Iraqi opposition is too weak-and-divided to oust Saddam. When the spontaneous uprising against Saddarn began shortly after the end of the war on F e bruary 28, the consensus within the U.S. government was that the rebellion would last only two months. Even if the uncoordinated Kurdish and Shiite uprisings succeeded in toppling Sad- dam, U.S. officials concluded that they would splinter Iraq into auton o mous Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni Arab enclaves that would tempt Iraqs neighbors - ban, Syria, and Turkey - to intervene. Tifis "Lebanonization" of Iraq, it has been argued, would create a long-term source of instability in the Persian Gulf which could allo w Iran to absorb its Shiite co-religionists in Iraq, expand its influence, and threaten the interests of the U.S, Saudi Arabia, and the smaller Arab gulf states.- Bush, of course, is right not to commit American troops to overthrow Saddarn in a risky attem p t to im- pose a government on Iraq. Such an intervention would have unpredictable consequences, perhaps un- leashing a protracted guerrilla war. It is doubtful that the resulting government could survive without being propped up indefinitely by the U.S. T h is American connection would undermine the new regime's political legitimacy and eventually would produce a backlash that would make it easier for Iran to gain the allegiance of Iraqi Shiites. As the Israelis learned in 1,ebanon after their victorious war against the Pales- tine Uberation-Orgnnization in 1982, it is difficult to translate military success into a lasting political tri- umph by installing a friendly government.

Dangerous Signa1s. But Bush is wrong in not grounding Saddam's helicopters and in other ways restrict- ing the regime's ability to crush the rebels. There is an important distinction between taking sides among the various factions -opposing Saddam (something America should not do) and taking action to prevent Saddam from surviving ( s omething America should do). While the Administration prudently has refrained from overreaching by expanding the war to impose a government, on Iraq, it seems to have lost sight of the goal of removing Saddam from power. By passively accepting Saddam's re p ression of Iraqi rebels, Washington signals dangerously that it has accommodated itself to Saddam's survival. This reduces the chances that the greatest potential threat to Saddarn!s power, the Iraqi army, will turn against hinL And by allowing Saddam to s core a morale-raising military victory over the rebels, the Bush Administra- tion enables Saddam to gain glory and credibility that he surely will invoke to keep his military loyal to him. It is puzzling that Bush seems to think that the Iraqi military wi l l be more inclined to topple Saddam after Saddarn leads the military to victory over the rebels. Military leaders try to topple regimes following military humiliations - not after military victories. Arming the Iraqi rebels may not be advisable due to the opposition of U.S. friends in the region. Saudi Arabia fears a successful Shiite rebellion more than it fears the weakened Saddam Hussein because a Shiite victory would enhance Iran's power in the Persian Gulf and possibly incite Saudi Shiites, which make up almost 10 percent of the Saudi population. Turkey objects to an independent Kurdish state be- cause this could become a beacon that could aggravate unrest among Turkey's 10 million to 12 million Kurds. Turkish President Turgut Ozal since January has so u ght to accommodate Kurdish moderates by moving towards recognizing the existence of the Kurdish people, formerly referred to by the government as "MountainTurks," in easternTurkey. Ozal, who announced on March 11 that Turkey had opened high- level politic a l discussions with Iraqi Kurds, may be seeking to cultivate the Iraqi Kurds as a means of dis- crediting the radical Kurdish Workers Party, which has waged guerrilla warfare against the Turkish govern- ment for the last seven years. This tentative change i n Turkish policy eventually may enable the U.S., in close cooperation with Turkey, to arm Iraqi Kurds committed to autonomy within a democratic Iraq. Until then Washington should provide the Kurds with humanitarian aid such as food and medicine.Moreover, n ow that Turkey has established direct contacts with the Iraqi Kurds, Washington should follow suit. Ile State Department formerly had shunned political discussions with the Kurds out of deference to Turkey. No More Sucker. The U.S. also should enforce the strictest possible interpretation of the provisional ceasefire agreement with Baghdad. General Norman Schwarzkopf made an oral agreement on March 3 to permit the Iraqi government to use helicopters to transport government officials and supplies. Schwarzko p f now maintains that he was "suckered" by the Iraqi regime, which intended all along to use the helicopters to attack its rebellious population. This is an extraordinary admission by a victorious general. If he was suckered on March 3, there is no reason f or the White House to insist that he remain suckered. The U.S., which never agreed to permit helicopter gunship attacks, now should wam Baghdad that any such future attacks will prompt U.S. air attacks not only against the attacking helicopters, but again s t all Iraqi helicopters throughout Iraq. Because the provisional ceasefire technically is a "unilateral suspension of hostilities," as Schwarzkopf made clear when he met the Iraqi representatives, the U.S. is within its rights to resume hostilities unilat e rally if the Iraqis violate the U.S.-dictated terms. Shooting down Iraqi helicopters signals that the U.S. has not reconciled itself to Saddams continued rule and will continue to force Baghdad to pay a heavy price as long as Saddam is in power. It will s i gnal that Iraq in 1991 will not become George Bush's Hungary of 1956. By'denying Saddam these tools of repression, the U.S. can reclaim some of the moral authority that it lost by failing to aid the faltering Kurdish and Shiite uprisings against Saddam. B y underscoring Saddam's weakness, rather than hinting that it can accommodate itself to Saddam's survival, the Bush Administra- tion can give the Iraqi army maximum incentives to overthrow Saddam.

James A. Phillips Deputy Director of Foreign Policy Studies

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About the Author

James Phillips Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Related Issues: Middle East