Commentary

No Exit Strategy?

By William A. Niskanen
January 30, 2003

President Bush is now between Iraq and a hard place. He can get out of it if he is courageous enough to “risk peace.” The problem is convincing him to take that step.

There now seems to be no plausible action by Saddam Hussein or discovery by the U.N. inspectors that would lead to broad support by the American public and other governments for a new war against Iraq. Saddam is sufficiently rational to avoid a precipitating event. And the U.N. inspectors seem unlikely to find anything more dangerous than a few more empty rocket warheads.

On the other hand, there seems to be no plausible development short of a new war against Iraq that would placate the small band of neo-conservatives that have beat the drums for this war for some years and now have an unusual influence on the Bush administration.

Their most recent case for this war is that the United States would “lose face” if, after threatening Iraq with regime change and deploying a large force to the Middle East, we do not now invade Iraq and replace its current regime. So the case for this war seems to have come down to preserving “face,” a sad commentary on the decision process that led to this outcome.

In other words, President Bush now faces a choice between initiating a war for which there is only lukewarm domestic and meager foreign support and repudiating a major focus of U.S. foreign policy over the past year.

Bush must find either choice to be unattractive, but he has no apparent exit strategy. Last summer, administration officials floated a view that if Iraq disarmed, it would effectively be a change of regime. But that idea went nowhere because it did not address what the United States would do if the Iraq regime decided to rearm. News reports that American intelligence agents have invited a coup against Saddam and that some Arab and European governments have tried to convince Saddam and his family to go into a secure exile somewhere reflect other efforts to find an exit strategy. But those efforts seem to assume that Saddam has only a small base of support and no strong preference to maintain his rule.

The recent suggestion to indefinitely string out the U.N. inspections seems premised on a hope that American forces will go home and our political leaders will be distracted by other concerns.

The bravest and most effective strategy to avoid war is for Bush to state publicly that he had been given bad advice by some of his senior counselors, that he bears full responsibility for his own judgments in response to their advice, and that his decision last winter to focus on regime change in Iraq rather than on the continuing war against terrorism was a serious mistake and will be corrected. But that outcome also seems unlikely.

The growing uneasiness in the United States and around the world about the prospective U.S. war against Iraq will not be enough to stop that war unless Bush is offered and accepts some exit strategy. That should be the highest priority of those of us who believe that the United States should “risk peace” in its current relations with Iraq. Any suggestions?

William A. Niskanen is chairman of the Cato Institute, a former economic adviser to President Reagan, and a long-time defense analyst.