Imperial Overreach: Washington’s Dubious Strategy to Overthrow Saddam Hussein

November 17, 1999 • Policy Analysis No. 360

The Iraq Liberation Act of 1998 says, “It should be the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq and to promote the emergence of a democratic government to replace that regime.” But a U.S. policy of attempting to remove Saddam from power is flawed in several respects.

Although the Clinton administration claimed to support the congressionally inspired legislation, it has fortunately been unenthusiastic in its implementation of the law. The ILA continues a record of U.S. attempts to unseat Saddam that is unblemished by success. For example, during the Persian Gulf War President Bush urged the Iraqi people to rise up against Saddam—building expectations that the United States would support them–only to abandon them when they did.

Overthrowing Saddam will be difficult and may even be counterproductive. Saddam relentlessly suppresses opposition with an extensive security apparatus. In addition, the elite Sunnis in Iraq apparently believe that Saddam serves their interests and can best keep the country from breaking apart. Saddam and the elite face opposition groups that are weak, have different goals, and do not cooperate with each other. Furthermore, the opposition cannot get any of Iraq’s neighbors to provide a sanctuary from which to launch an insurgency.

The successful overthrow of Saddam could make things worse. Iraq could be thrown into civil war and break up, or a more radical Iraqi regime could arise. Either outcome could cause instability in the entire region. Given the hardships the Iraqi population has suffered since the 1991 war, a post‐​Saddam regime could be even more virulently anti‐​United States than he is.

Since his military was decimated by war and sanctions, Saddam’s threat to the region has been overblown. Moreover, Iraq lives in a rough neighborhood and has an incentive–like many nations in the region–to develop nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, regardless of who is in power. The West needs to take only limited actions to monitor and constrain Saddam’s military capabilities. Economic sanctions should be lifted in exchange for international inspections of Iraq’s weapons programs. A more narrowly focused Western embargo on arms shipments should be retained. Surely, if the United States could outwait a superpower adversary throughout the long decades of the Cold War, it can do the same with a small, weak nation such as Iraq–waiting until that inevitable day when Saddam’s tyranny falls because of its heavy‐​handed repression.

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