Getting Out of the Box

February 25, 1998 • Commentary

The capital is aflame with speculation about when the bombs are going to begin falling on Iraq. Wars are generally justified as an unfortunate necessity, but in this case the Clinton administration seems positively frivolous. Some officials say it would be bad to act during the Olympics. Others speculate on the role played by the president’s possible visit to Stanford University, which his daughter attends, for parents’ weekend.

But the lack of seriousness involves more than the timing. Despite his best attempt on Tuesday, the president has not articulated a serious purpose for his strategy.

Why is Washington set to unleash an assault which Defense Secretary William Cohen promises will be “substantial”? Not to drive Saddam Hussein from power. Nor to stop his attempt to create weapons of mass destruction. Explains Mr. Cohen, “I think we should not raise expectations unreasonably high.”

Well, then. The United States is prepared to risk military strikes, kill innocent civilians, foul relations with allied states, and inflame potential terrorists in order to — what? Mr. Cohen says he hopes to “curtail, as best we can,” Saddam’s weapons program. Which probably isn’t much.

Saddam’s regime is one of the more ugly to dot the globe, but it is hardly alone. It isn’t even the only unpleasant dictatorship attempting to build biological, chemical or nuclear weapons.

Of course, Iraq is in a weaker position than most such states, having lost a war. But that makes it no easier for the U.S. to dictate internal Iraqi policies than did the allies’ victory in World War I enable them to enforce the Versailles Treaty on a recalcitrant Germany. In fact, Saddam Hussein has accepted $100 billion in lost oil revenues and seven years of international isolation as the price of resisting Western pressure.

War is a serious matter. But the Clinton administration is treating it almost frivolously. Unfortunately, the contemplated attacks on Iraq are unlikely to achieve anything other than to kill a few hapless civilians and push up the president’s poll ratings.

In the end, the only possibly effective sanction is military action. And not just a few bombing strikes. Only repeated attacks — immediately after the slightest evidence of misbehavior, rather than weeks or months later — are likely to have any impact. And even that strategy might not work. Iraq was hit by 88,500 tons of bombs during the 1991 war. Observes Charles Homer, air force commander during that conflict. “He’s been pummeled a lot harder.”

Military strikes, especially if substantial and ongoing, would also poison U.S. relations with other industrialized states. They may be shortsighted in urging caution, but Washington will pay a heavy diplomatic price for its more aggressive policy.

More significantly, most of America’s supposed allies in the Mideast oppose military action. The sight of Washington begging Iraq’s neighbors for support to bomb a country supposedly threatening those very nations is, well, embarrassing. Even more pitiful is the fact that most of them, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey, said no.

This reluctance reflects many factors, including continuing Muslim hostility toward America for decades worth of support for Israel While Iraq has no capacity to respond militarily, America remains at risk to terrorism which, as the bombing of the World Trade Center demonstrated, is the poor man’s form of retaliation. Intervention abroad breeds terrorism.

Finally, there is no end point to administration policy, absent the full‐​scale invasion advocated by some. That has no end‐​point either, however. It would require a lengthy occupation, possibly beset by debilitating guerilla war, and would offer no guarantee of the emergence of a democratic government strong enough to withstand internal enemies (remnants of Saddam’s Ba’athist regime and Muslim fundamentalists) and external pressure (particularly from Iran). Having grabbed the tar baby, the United States could never let loose.

If the military option won’t work, then what? Washington needs to look for a solution to get out of today’s box. For instance, consider combining a more modest inspection regime that might still hinder Iraqi acquisition of banned weapons, continuing prohibitions on international sale of militarily sensitive goods to Iraq, and a limited series of spot checks over the next six months. If Saddam agrees to the inspection regime and passes the spot checks, the U.N. would abandon today’s more intrusive compliance program and suspend sanctions. If Baghdad later violated the accord, the oil ban would be automatically reinstated.

At the same time, the U.S. and allied states would rely on normal military means to deter Iraqi use of any weapons that it might acquire. America obviously faces no danger. Israel already possesses an adequate deterrent. The Gulf states should cooperate with such nations as Turkey, and build militaries capable of doing more than arresting domestic critics. Indeed, the Gulf sheikdoms need to add a dose of liberty to generate popular support for regimes that are little more democratic than Saddam’s.

War is a serious matter. But the Clinton administration is treating it almost frivolously. Unfortunately, the contemplated attacks on Iraq are unlikely to achieve anything other than to kill a few hapless civilians and push up the president’s poll ratings. America should let go of the Iraqi tar baby.

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