United Nations (U.N.) 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. Saddam has
promised to allow U.N. inspectors unfettered access to suspected
weapon sites, but he has made such promises in the past and then
broken them, repeatedly and with impunity. More important, the
Iraqi dictator has gained important concessions from the United
States and the U.N. that give him a political triumph that will
strengthen his power and enhance his ability to undermine the
Clinton Administration's containment policy and standing in the
region. Even worse, he has raised the cost of any future use of
force against him.
Consider the facts. After manufacturing a crisis last October,
Saddam now has agreed to let U.N. weapons inspectors back in Iraq
to do their job. But he had five months to build and conceal
weapons of mass destruction while he obstructed those inspectors.
There is no way to know what Saddam has done to develop these
prohibited weapons or to make their detection more difficult for
future inspectors. What is more, Saddam has forced the U.N. to
agree to let diplomats accompany U.N. inspection teams--some of
whom could tip off Baghdad about impending inspections. This
concession implies that Saddam had legitimate grounds for his
suspicions about past U.N. inspection teams. Annan has added to the
legitimacy of this viewpoint by characterizing some U.N. inspectors
as "cowboys" who supposedly have behaved irresponsibly inside Iraq.
Now that the U.N. has recognized Saddam's criticisms implicitly, he
is sure to try other means to test the limits of the inspection
But that is not all. Saddam forced Annan to establish a new
oversight body within the U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM), called
the Special Group, for inspection of eight "presidential sites."
This is an important change. This new arrangement creates a
separate bureaucratic line of authority for inspecting the
presidential sites. By recognizing the "special nature" of these
sites, the agreement both legitimizes Saddam's claim that his
presidential palaces are qualitatively different from other
suspected weapon sites and reinforces the notion that Saddam had a
legitimate right to challenge access to these sites in the past.
This impression is strengthened further by a clause that restricts
UNSCOM's mandate: "In the performance of its mandate under the
Security Council resolutions, UNSCOM undertakes to respect the
legitimate concerns of Iraq relating to national security,
sovereignty and dignity."
In addition, this Special Group probably will be more
susceptible than UNSCOM to outside political pressures. Violating a
specific guideline given to him by the Security Council, Annan made
concessions that undermine the operational control of the chairman
of the existing inspection commission, Richard Butler, over the
inspection process. Annan will select the members and chairman of
this new inspection entity, and it--not UNSCOM--will be responsible
for writing its own reports to Butler. Because Annan already has
demonstrated his sympathy for Saddam's complaints, it is not
unreasonable to conclude that the Special Group can be expected to
produce reports that are less objective than those of UNSCOM. This
will set up internal U.N. pressures to water down the intrusiveness
and effectiveness of inspections. As former U.S. Ambassador to the
U.N. Charles Lichenstein remarked to the authors,
This new inspection regime has the pretense of being intrusive,
but it is not intrusive. To be effective, inspections have to be
intrusive; they have to be annoying and even embarrassing. You need
"cowboys" to get the job done. This new deal will allow Saddam to
maintain the pretense of intrusiveness and declare victory. Once
this is done, the international community will argue that it is
time to get off Saddam's back, to sign off on inspections, and to
lift the sanctions.
The agreement also puts Annan in a tight spot that is certain to
benefit Saddam. As David Kay, the former chief nuclear weapons
inspector in Iraq for the International Atomic Energy Agency,
asserts, "[In making this agreement, Annan] takes on two
incompatible roles: bail bondsman for Mr. Hussein--vouching for his
adherence to the inspection agreement--and leader of the
international coalition to make Mr. Hussein abide by the inspection
The agreement, signed by Annan and Iraq's deputy prime minister,
Tariq Aziz, has bolstered Baghdad's claim that the U.N. sanctions
on Iraq should be lifted, and soon. 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." By recognizing the "paramount importance" of
lifting sanctions and requiring the secretary general implicitly to
make Iraq's case before the Security Council, the agreement weakens
the position of the United States and other countries that argue
that sanctions should not be lifted until Iraq complies fully with
U.N. resolutions. Moreover, it gives Saddam a convenient pretext
for tearing up the agreement at a later date if the Security
Council fails to appease Iraq on the sanctions issue.
Now that Annan has agreed to carry Iraq's water at the Security
Council, the likelihood is that he will be less concerned with
assuring Iraq's full compliance with Security Council resolutions
than with finessing those resolutions to preserve the fragile
diplomatic artifice he has created. This, in turn, is likely to
encourage the self-serving efforts of Russia and France, which are
posturing as champions of the suffering people of Iraq to enhance
their influence in Iraq and the Arab world, win contracts with
Saddam's regime, and ensure the repayment of billions of dollars
owed to them by that regime.
Annan and others who hail the agreement with Iraq as a great
victory imply that the situation has reverted to what it was before
the crisis began. This is impossible: It already was too late for
that. As Peter Rodman, director of National Security Programs at
the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom, has argued,
This cannot be a return to the status quo ante, the situation
before the confrontation started last October. Saddam has had five
months to do God knows what in developming his bacteriological and
nuclear programs. That lost ground in holding him back can never be
In his agreement with Annan, Saddam merely has promised what he
has pledged repeatedly to do in the past: comply with UNSCOM
disarmament inspections. If he reneges on his promises, as he is
likely to do in the near future, the Clinton Administration's
diminished military credibility and diplomatic leverage will leave
it hard-pressed to mobilize American public opinion and U.S. allies
to confront Saddam. And after being rewarded for flouting U.N.
resolutions for five months, Saddam will be less likely to back
down without pocketing similar rewards for "resolving" future
The United States faces a looming disaster in Iraq. When the
next crisis occurs, the United States will have fewer options. Each
time the showdown with Saddam is postponed, the Iraqi dictator
becomes stronger, the United States becomes weaker, and the
long-term price for rectifying the problem goes up.
THE PRICE THE UNITED STATES PAID:
SETBACKS AND EMBARASSMENTS
Some may argue that these concessions to Iraq are a small price
to pay to avoid a military conflict. But who is to say that a
military conflict has been avoided? It is more likely that conflict
merely has been postponed, to erupt in the future at Saddam's
convenience when circumstances for using force are far less
favorable to the United States than they are now.
Few experts believe this crisis is over. Saddam has learned that
his "cheat-and-retreat" strategy gradually wears down, isolates,
and undermines the United States, divides the coalition against
him, and raises his stature in the Arab world. To postpone action
is not a victory for U.S. policy; it simply is a pause in a long
downward spiral of diminishing U.S. credibility and influence. The
United States is not finished with Saddam, and Saddam is not
finished with challenging the United States.
The next time Saddam provokes another confrontation, the
embattled Clinton Administration will be weaker and more isolated.
President Bill Clinton's credibility has been weakened, and his
ability to act constrained, by a flawed foreign policy and a
succession of domestic scandals surrounding the White House. A loss
of confidence in the Clinton Administration already has led Saudi
Arabia, one of the foremost U.S. allies in the 1991 Persian Gulf
War, to improve relations with Iran as a counterweight to Iraq.
Russia also is poised to accrue greater diplomatic capital in the
region as Saudi Arabia and other countries seek to take out
insurance policies against Iraqi aggression by improving bilateral
relations with Moscow, which can claim to be a restraining
influence on Baghdad.
Saddam has compelled the United States to pay a steadily
mounting price for taking the lead in containing him. He has forced
the United States to expend more than $600 million to deploy new
forces to the region. He has whipped up anti-American hysteria in
the Arab world, stirred up antiwar sentiment inside the United
States, put the Clinton Administration on the diplomatic defensive,
isolated the United States at the U.N., exacerbated declining U.S.
relations with coalition members, and undermined the confidence of
moderate Arab states like Saudi Arabia in U.S. leadership. And
Saddam has done this while buying time to conceal his weapons of
mass destruction, strengthening the credibility of those most
favorably disposed toward him (Russia, France, and the U.N.
Secretary General), scoring points in the Arab world by alarming
Israel, boosting his propaganda campaign alleging Western
responsibility for the plight of the people of Iraq, and putting
the issue of U.N. sanctions at the forefront of the diplomatic
Even more troubling, in the zero-sum geopolitical game in which
he and other rogue leaders operate, Saddam will have shown the
world that defying the United States pays dividends. Instead of
being punished for his past transgressions, Iraq's people and other
rogue states will see that he has benefited, and even has been
strengthened. Moreover, Saddam has learned he can force Washington
to accept compromise by turning the U.N., Russia, France, the
People's Republic of China, and much of the Arab world against the
It matters little that the compromises entailed in Annan's deal
seem small, or that Iraq has agreed to comply with UNSCOM
inspectors again. Forcing any compromise at all was a victory for
the Iraqi dictator. Forcing the United States to back off in any
way, particularly in light of all the trouble and expense
Washington had to go through, is the beginning of the end of the
sanctions regime. It strengthens Saddam's argument that time is on
his side and that, inch by inch, the United States will be forced
to succumb to pressures to lift sanctions on Iraq.
Saddam does not believe that the Annan mission has resolved the
issues. For him, the crisis is not over--it is only temporarily
defused. Now that President Clinton has blinked and accepted
compromise, Saddam will bide his time, probably until U.S. forces
in the region are drawn down again, and provoke another showdown in
the hope that it will break the back of the U.N. coalition and
erode the resolve of the United States entirely.
THE ANATOMY OF FAILURE
How did Saddam maneuver President Clinton into this box? Why was
the United States so alone in trying to pressure Iraq? And how did
the United States lose control of the negotiating process? Indeed,
how did it happen that a U.S. President would come to depend on a
U.N. official to negotiate an end to a crisis in which U.S.
military forces are deployed as the main enforcers? The U.S.
military would do most of the fighting and dying in any military
action against Iraq; it therefore seems reasonable that, at the
very least, a negotiator from the United States should be sitting
across the table from the Iraqis, not one from the U.N.
Perhaps the most important question of all is: How did President
Clinton allow himself to be maneuvered into a position in which the
United States could choose only from a set of bad choices?
President Clinton could strike Iraq, but it would trigger worldwide
opposition; or he could refrain from striking and leave Saddam free
to develop weapons of mass destruction; or he could hold out for a
U.N. deal, which is what happened in the end. This course of action
would serve only to postpone the day of judgment, probably to a
time at which it will be more difficult to resolve, and result in
another major setback for U.S. diplomacy and a victory for
The causes of this debacle are rooted in a series of mistakes by
the Clinton Administration:
Mistake #1: President Clinton's negligence and missteps
contributed to a crisis that may have been avoidable
Iraq's latest provocation is a consequence of an aggressive
dictator's perception of U.S. weakness. The Clinton Administration
has conveyed an image of weakness and indecision over the past five
years in defense and foreign policy matters, particularly with
regard to Iraq. Bill Clinton came into office severely
underestimating the threat posed by Saddam.
While campaigning, Mr. Clinton proclaimed that he was "not
obsessed with Iraq," as if bilateral tensions were a product of
George Bush's personal pique with Saddam. The Clinton
Administration initially softened U.S. policy toward Iraq and
dropped the Bush Administration's insistence that Saddam must be
ousted before the United States would agree to lift the U.N.
embargo on trade with Iraq.
When Iraq launched a failed attempt to assassinate Bush in
Kuwait in April 1993, the Clinton Administration equivocated before
retaliating with cruise missile attacks against the Baghdad
headquarters of Iraq's secret police on June 27, 1993. This attack
was a mere slap on the wrist for such a brazen terrorist plot
against a former U.S. President. The limited size and symbolic
nature of the U.S. reprisal--24 missiles fired at an empty building
in the middle of the night--probably did little to strengthen U.S.
deterrence against Saddam's aggression.
More recently, the Clinton Administration has responded feebly
to other Iraqi provocations. Since 1991, Baghdad repeatedly has
blocked the efforts of U.N. arms inspectors to monitor compliance
with Iraq's obligations to dismantle its nuclear, chemical,
biological, and long-range missile programs. Yet the Clinton
Administration has done little except to pass the problem off to
the listless U.N. Security Council.
The Clinton Administration put Iraq on the back burner and
allowed itself to be distracted by interventions--motivated by
humanitarian concerns rather than vital strategic interests--in
strategic backwaters like Somalia, Bosnia, and Haiti. The United
States also neglected its ally Turkey, an important pillar of
efforts to contain Iraq as well as Iran, and failed to provide
adequate support for the Iraqi opposition.
Iraqi opposition leaders reportedly warned U.S. officials in May
1996 that the situation in Iraqi Kurdistan was deteriorating and
required urgent attention from the United States. But the Clinton
Administration was asleep at the switch and failed to act
diplomatically to resolve the growing tensions between Kurdish
factions that erupted in open warfare that summer. One of these
factions, the Kurdish Democratic Party, in despair over its failure
to receive significant material or diplomatic support from
Washington, went so far as to ally itself with Saddam, who has
ordered the deaths of thousands of Kurds. In August 1996, Iraqi
military forces invaded the Kurdish enclave and seized the city of
Irbil, executing hundreds of Iraqi opposition members and forcing
the United States to evacuate hundreds more.
Saddam has probed for U.S. weakness aggressively and repeatedly,
and the Clinton Administration supplied it by showing too much
restraint. What was at stake in the August 1996 crisis was not just
the future of Iraq's Kurds, but the ability of the United States
and its allies to deter future Iraqi aggression. Yet the Clinton
Administration did little except to launch symbolic pinprick air
strikes against Iraqi air defense facilities in southern Iraq and
extend the southern no-fly zone a few miles to the north.
The current standoff between Iraq and the United States is the
result of the Clinton Administration's failure to obtain any
satisfactory resolution of a crisis provoked by Saddam last
October, when he barred Americans from UNSCOM inspection teams.
Saddam's aim was to gut the UNSCOM inspection regime and eventually
secure the lifting of U.N. economic sanctions without surrendering
his cherished weapons of mass destruction. During the ensuing
confrontation, the Clinton Administration unwisely acquiesced to
the cosmetic diplomatic efforts of Russia's foreign minister,
Evgenii Primakov, a longtime personal friend of Saddam. Primakov
brokered a face-saving diplomatic exit for Saddam in November
despite his obstruction of UNSCOM inspections. Although Saddam
pledged to allow UNSCOM teams, including Americans, to re-enter
Iraq, it soon became clear that he would not permit them to inspect
"presidential" and other sensitive sites in which Iraq's
clandestine programs to develop weapons of m ss destruction are
believed to be concealed.
Since October, Baghdad once again has had the opportunity to
work clandestinely to build chemical and biological weapons. The
longer this situation lasts, the more dangerous Saddam becomes. But
the Clinton Administration has chosen to seek to preserve a
lowest-common-denominator consensus in the U.N. Security Council
that has stretched out the crisis and dissipated any momentum for
forcefully rebuffing Saddam's provocations. The lack of determined
U.S. leadership left a vacuum that Russia and France sought to
Mistake #2: President Clinton framed the issue merely as one
of compliance with U.N. resolutions
By making the main goal of diplomacy Iraqi compliance with U.N.
resolutions, President Clinton surrendered the initiative in the
crisis to Saddam. Saddam already had broken his pledges to the U.N.
by interfering with inspectors and by refusing further access.
Thus, he already was in violation of U.N. resolutions. The issue
should have been how to punish Saddam for these transgressions and
how to ensure the destruction of his weapons capability, not
whether he should be allowed to establish new terms for the
re-entry of U.N. inspectors. Once the issue was defined as
compliance, he could decide when and under what circumstances to
end the crisis. This gave him time not only to hide his weapons
programs, but to play out his diplomatic game.
Mistake #3: Clinton should not have let the U.N. negotiate on
behalf of the United States
By blessing Secretary General Annan's trip to Baghdad,
President Clinton lost control of the negotiating process. This was
a serious error. The President of the United States--the country
that would be the main enforcer of any U.N. agreement Annan
reached--was reduced to waiting passively for word from a U.N.
official on whether Americans would or would not have to go to war.
The result was not merely an agreement that was less than
satisfactory; it was also a significant diminishment of U.S.
influence, independence, and prestige. Annan's agreement shows that
the U.N. can negotiate as an independent agent on behalf of a U.S
administration, and that it can do so even to the detriment of U.S.
interests and policy.
By turning over the negotiating process to Annan, President
Clinton showed very poor political judgment. Put simply, he played
right into the hands of Saddam. No matter how tough the U.S.
ambassador to the U.N., Bill Richardson, may have been in outlining
the limits of U.S. policy, once President Clinton endorsed Annan's
trip he signaled his willingness for a compromise. The pressure on
President Clinton to accept a way out was enormous. Even some
Clinton Administration officials were losing confidence in the
military option. The very idea of dispatching a U.N. envoy to
Baghdad under these circumstances was a sign that something was
about to give. The fact that the Clinton Administration is not
completely happy with the fine print of the agreement, even though
it has pledged to be bound by it, shows the hazards of this kind of
By allowing the U.N. to negotiate on behalf of the United States
in this manner, President Clinton has set a precedent that will
come back to haunt both him and future U.S. Presidents. It
emboldens Iraq's interlocutors on the Security Council,
particularly Russia and France, and significantly increases the
prestige of Annan and the U.N. as an independent force. In the
future, this will make it even more difficult to challenge Annan or
the Russians when they advance proposals that are at odds with U.S.
interests and policy. The United States will be put even more on
the defensive, taking most of the responsibility in terms of
backing diplomacy with the threat of force, but at the same time
losing influence over the outcome of a U.N.-made policy that
directly affects U.S. security.
OUT OF THE IRAQ TRAP
President Clinton and Congress need to rethink U.S. strategy
toward Iraq. The current strategy clearly is not working. To change
course, and to prepare for the next round in the showdown with
Saddam, the United States should:
- Develop a comprehensive long-term strategy to overthrow
Saddam. The ultimate goal of U.S. policy should be to oust
Saddam, not merely to contain him. Washington should seek to 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 must broker a renewed alliance of Iraq's
rival Kurdish factions, lift the ill-considered U.N. embargo
against territory that the Kurds or other Iraqi opposition forces
control, give them greater economic and political support, and
guarantee them air support against any future ground attack Saddam
may launch against their strongholds.
The United States should work closely with Turkey, the most
dependable of Iraq's neighbors, to cement an alliance between
Kurdish groups and the Iraqi National Congress, an umbrella group
of democratic Iraqi opposition forces. Washington should help this
coalition to set up an alternative government in northern Iraq,
help it broadcast its appeals over a Radio Free Iraq, and help it
lobby for international recognition. Saddam's rule should be
delegitimized, and he and his chief lieutenants should be indicted
as war criminals. The United States should work to give the
opposition government access to frozen Iraqi bank accounts and
encourage international oil companies to negotiate with the
opposition rather than Saddam's regime, as is now the case. Over
time, many Iraqis would defect to the opposition government if they
were convinced that the United States was serious about supporting
it and protecting it from military attack.
- Prepare for the next round in the simmering standoff against
Saddam. So long as he clings to power, Saddam will pose a
threat to U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf area. Not only does
his vindictive nature lead him to seek revenge on the leader of the
crumbling U.N. coalition that defeated him in the Persian Gulf War,
but his domestic political weakness prompts him to provoke foreign
confrontations to shore up his internal base of support, strengthen
his claim to leadership of the Arab world, and distract Iraq's
military officers from any thoughts of a coup.
Considering Saddam's track record, it is unrealistic to expect
him to abide permanently by U.N. resolutions. Therefore, the U.S.
goal in the next crisis Saddam provokes 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 to (1) destroy Iraq's stockpiles
of weapons of mass destruction, along with the facilities to
produce them and means of delivering them; (2) reduce Iraq's
ability to project military power by targeting Iraq's air force and
elite Republican Guard; and (3) weaken the repressive internal
security apparatus that keeps Saddam in power. Because Saddam will
pose a dangerous threat to U.S. interests so long as he rules in
Baghdad, this air campaign should be conceived 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 committing ground troops to finish the job of toppling
The air strikes should aim to punish Saddam decisively, not just
to slap his wrist with pinprick attacks as the Clinton
Administration has done in the past. Washington also should
consider extending the no-fly zones to cover all of Iraq. A firm
U.S. military response that clearly leaves Saddam worse off for
having challenged the United States can discredit his leadership
and encourage further defections from his narrow base of support.
Combined with the relentless application of economic sanctions and
patient support for the Iraqi opposition, a strong military riposte
can help create the necessary conditions for Saddam's final
- Retrieve control of U.S. policy on Iraq from the U.N.
The United States cannot afford to sacrifice its national interests
on the altar of U.N. multilateralism. A foreign policy based
exclusively on enforcing U.N. resolutions would require
subordinating U.S. national interests to those of Russia, France,
China, and other Security Council members. If the United States had
subordinated its Cold War-era efforts to contain the Soviet Union
to its U.N. policy, Soviet communism would be flourishing today.
Baghdad essentially has obtained near-veto power over U.N. Security
Council actions by cultivating Russia, France, and China.
Instead of trying to contain and overthrow Saddam by working
with these powers that lack any sense of threat from Baghdad,
Washington should work closely with Saddam's neighbors, which face
the most immediate threat from his aggressive regime. The United
States should work with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan,
Bahrain, Israel, and even Iran to build a credible military
deterrent to Iraqi aggression and support the Iraqi opposition in a
patient, long-term effort to oust Saddam. If the United States
cannot work out some form of ad hoc cooperation with Iran, which
fought a bloody eight-year war with Iraq, then it is unlikely that
it will be able to cooperate with Iran on anything else in the near
If Iraq provokes another crisis in the future, 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 security of
the United States should not be forfeited to suit the national
economic and geopolitical interests of Russia, China, France, or
any other member of the Security Council. Nor should it be
diminished in any way to suit the political interests of Annan and
The United States needs to take firm, consistent, and systematic
action if it is 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. In responding
to the immediate crisis, the United States needs to maintain a
steady focus on two long-term goals: (1) forcing Saddam's downfall
and (2) diminishing Iraq's threats to regional stability and the
flow of oil.
It makes no sense for the United States to pull its military
punches at Saddam in a misguided effort to preserve a U.N.
coalition that will not support military action anyway. Rather than
subcontract its foreign policy to the U.N., the United States
should seek to protect its national interests through close
cooperation with Saddam's neighbors, which are most threatened by
his behavior. The goal should be to treat the cause and not the
symptoms of Iraq's threatening behavior. This means working for
Saddam's overthrow, not vainly trying to convert him into a
compliant observer of U.N. resolutions.