With the collapse of the United Nations inspections regime, U.S. policy toward Iraq is in crisis. Is there even a coherent policy? What goals should the United States pursue? To reflect on these and other issues, Patrick Clawson, senior editor of the Middle East Quarterly, moderated a discussion with four specialists of diverse outlooks. David Mack is vice president of the Middle East Institute. Danielle Pletka is a senior professional staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. David Wurmser is resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Judith Yaphe is a senior fellow at the National Defense University. The discussion took place in Washington, D.C., on March 17, 1999.
MEQ: Does Saddam Husayn pose a serious threat to American interests?
David Mack: Absolutely. Iraq is not some insignificant country. As a power base for the wrong leader it poses serious problems. Let's not sell the Iraqi people short—they invented algebra, after all. If Saddam's government has solid control of the country, it can make trouble for neighbors and even for the United States.
Danielle Pletka: Yes, but Iraq is not a threat; Saddam is a threat. That's a key distinction.
David Wurmser: Saddam Husayn is very dangerous in some obvious ways, be it the development of nuclear weapons or his success in disabling UNSCOM [the United Nations Special Commission]. His continued rule raises serious concerns about the Middle East in the next five to ten years. If I were in Kuwait, Israel, or Iran, I should be greatly concerned.
In addition, there are two other ways Saddam Husayn poses a threat, and these tend not to be much discussed. Before 1991, when he was strong, he swayed the climate and the debate in the Middle East toward glorification of violence and destruction, fanaticism, threats of war, and anti-Americanism. In April 1990 after his very dangerous speech about burning half of Israel, an Arab summit in Iraq essentially crowned him as the new leader of the Arab world. That can happen again ; the resuscitation of Saddam would likely also resuscitate the policies of fanaticism and hatred. I can only imagine what sort of impact this would have on Palestinian politics, on politics in Jordan, and so forth. Linked to this are the circumstances vis-à-vis the Soviet Union then and now, a Russia in which Yevgeny Primakov is prime minister. I also worry about the formation of a growing strategic bloc between Iraq, Syria, Iran, and the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization]. I am especially worried because the countries adjacent to Iraq are increasingly willing to deal with it and allow it access to the rest of the world. That Iraq is no longer the pariah it was just a year and half ago raises troubling issues about the future of the Middle East.
Judith Yaphe: I am less impressed by the bloc of Iraq, Syria, Iran, and the PLO. It is as illusory as Arab solidarity once was. They have formed a temporary marriage, not a long-lasting one.
Wurmser: But it's a temporary marriage focused on tripping up U.S. interests.
Yaphe: Even on that, I can't see them getting together to do much. You have to define the issue very carefully; these states don't want Iraq to go under, so they see Saddam staying around in their interests. But are they strengthening Saddam? No way.
Mack: First, the Iraqi regime is most of all a threat to its own people, but that's not the grounds on which to formulate U.S. policy. Second, it's a threat to its neighbors—with a blood-feud running between the House of Saddam and the Houses of Saud, Sabah, and the others. All of the Gulf ruling families, every one of them, should rest uneasy until Saddam is gone and is replaced by a different kind of regime in Baghdad. Third, this Iraqi regime remains the principal threat to U.S. interests in the region; Saddam's efforts to dominate the oil supplies, his invasion of two neighbors, and his actual use of weapons of mass destruction are all very worrisome.
THE IMPACT OF SANCTIONS
MEQ: Have sanctions worked?
Yaphe: Not really, because money means nothing to Saddam Husayn, power means everything. Money does not get him what he wants—power does. He seeks power to control Iraq, dominate the region, and become the strongest and most influential power of the Middle East. You can actually quantify this, for Saddam has forfeited something like $130 billion worth of oil income just so he can keep his weapons of mass destruction.
Pletka: Has he really been denied wealth? He certainly doesn't look any thinner to me. Truth be told, Iraq is not Africa. Saddam is eating fine; the Iraqi people are eating, if not so fine. Are certain people thinner? Yes, but not Saddam. He's building palaces and making massive infrastructure repairs. The country is even importing television sets and luxury cars.
Mack: Well, sanctions have certainly weakened the regime. This government prior to 1990 enjoyed a leadership position in the region, while members of the Iraqi elite enjoyed a lot more than a full meal. They took their annual vacations in Europe, sent their children to American universities, and a lot more.
Yaphe: In Iraq, the trickle-down theory of wealth did work. Yes, the people around Saddam benefited extraordinarily well, but he did a lot to build up Iraq as a country with the best medical care system, schools, and the like. That does not exist anymore. What exists now is the shell of Saddam and his supporters still doing well but no one else can benefit. Cars might still be imported, but very few people can afford such luxuries. There may be plenty of food available, but the average Iraqi on rations can't always buy even that.
CHANGE THE LEADERSHIP OR THE SYSTEM?
MEQ: How important is the goal of regime change in Iraq?
Mack: It's vital. We know by now that this regime is not prepared to abide by any kind of international control mechanism. Unless Saddam faces a more painful alternative then compliance with his promises, he will find ways to frustrate any agreement. He belongs to a small group—leaders who are totally irredeemable.
Containment made sense from 1991 to 1994 but has now run its course. It is no longer enough for the United States merely to keep the neighborhood safe until there is a change of leadership in Iraq. States of the area—to say nothing of the Iraqi opposition groups—no longer have the patience for that. An assertive policy leading to a new leadership is essential.
MEQ: Ahmad Chalabi, secretary-general of the Iraqi National Congress [INC], a leading exile group, says the Iraqi regime is "coup-proof." Is he right?
Yaphe: No authoritarian regime is coup-proof. I always hold out the assumption (or the hope) that there is a chink in the armor. The attempt on his son ‘Udayy's life in December 1996 confirms that.
Pletka: Under what circumstances is that true, though? Can somebody shoot Saddam tomorrow? Of course, it is a theoretical possibility, but do the circumstances exist in reality? Likely, not—which means that Chalabi is right.
Wurmser: You can't base U.S. policy on a hope and a prayer ...
Pletka: Although we often enough do just that.
Wurmser: ... that someone will put a gun to Saddam. Also. If you look at Saddam as a product of a system, which he is—rather than its creator—you rapidly become less enthusiastic about the benefits of a coup. It could just replace Saddam with an alternate version of himself.
Yaphe: No, he's more the creator of the system than its result. If you're right, you condemn the Iraqis to an eternity of dictatorship.
Wurmser: I never said the Iraqis. I meant the Ba‘thist system.
Mack: I side with Judy here. I lived in Baghdad for three years during the late 1970s, when we did not have diplomatic relations, working as a U.S. diplomat under the Belgian flag. Saddam was the power behind the president. It was already the case then that the Ba‘th party had ceased to be his primary constituency. The Ba‘th is in many respects a simple-minded mélange of Marxism and nationalism; he replaced it with a fascist ideology based on a glorification of Iraq's supposed historical uniqueness and of himself as its leader. Also, he ruled not on the basis of ideological affinity but on a system of rewards and punishments.
Wurmser: We went through this same debate with Communism and the Soviet Union, whether or not it's the system or the leader. A ruling structure based on a totalitarian ideology will eventually always need a cult of personality and produce a leader who is brutal in the extreme.
Pletka: The idea that we should not seek someone to overthrow Saddam but change the whole regime is reaching too far. To which you would rightly counter, that this should not stop us. To which I say, your argument is clearly the morally correct one, but is it also the strategically and practically correct one?
Instead, I propose a two-track approach. Yes, go for the ideal solution of ridding Iraq of Saddam, the Ba‘thists, and Saddamism as a whole; but do not preclude the still useful effort to find some scummy character who knocks off Saddam and with whom we can work for a while.
Yaphe: The American government cannot uproot the whole Ba‘thist system unless it is prepared to occupy Iraq. I do not favor this solution and neither do most senior U.S. military and government officials. Saddam could well be replaced by a Ba‘thist or a military officer whose hands are bloodied from his work for Saddam, but he will likely be weaker than Saddam and have to depend on the goodwill of others to survive. That could offer us a chance to influence the new rulers.
Mack: Iraq is a case study in why we should not let the better be the enemy of the good. David in his book1 urges the better, but I think the doable is all we can realistically hope for.
Pletka: Again, I note that there's nothing to stop us from pursuing multiple strategies.
Mack: I agree. Supporting the democratic opposition is one way to keep our hand in the game. After a coup, these are people who can be involved and to whom a new regime in Baghdad will reach out.
Wurmser: We're selling Iraq short as an opportunity to begin a fundamental change in the way we deal with the Middle East. We've assumed for decades that dictators are the best the Middle East can offer, with their heavily centralized control overpowering centrifugal forces. Iraq represents a good opportunity to go beyond this narrow stereotype.
Mack: Not so fast. Look at American efforts in Kuwait since the liberation, look now at Jordan and several other countries in the region. In all these cases, we're getting something better than a dictator providing stability.
Wurmser: It's hardly a sustained policy; the effort to accept a dictator and work with him is far more common. Just look at Syria today, or Iraq before 1991.
Mack: True, we only push democracy where possible, where a government can be moved in the direction of a more humane and pluralistic society.
Wurmser: You are saying we can pursue human rights only in countries already somewhat committed to it, like Jordan, not in countries that fundamentally reject the concept, like Syria?
Mack: No, I am not saying that. We can and do try to improve things even in the worst countries, through fairly modest efforts. We provide annual human rights reports on every country, for example, and there is Radio Free Iran, Radio Free Iraq, and so forth.
Pletka: The administration heartily opposed Radio Free Iran and now insists on calling it the Farsi [Persian] Service of Radio Free Europe.
ACHIEVING A COUP D'ÉTAT
MEQ: How could a military coup take place within Iraq?
Mack: Through a coup of military leaders who will get rid of Saddam Husayn because he threatens them more than he helps them. The U.S. government can work to make sure those military officers ponder, every morning when they wake up, what Saddam has done for them and wonder why they should wait for him to strike first and eliminate them.
Wurmser: It won't work. Let's say the officers are thinking this—then what? Who are they going to talk to? Military men, like everyone else in the country, are petrified that the mukhabarat [intelligence services] have them surrounded with agents who will immediately report to Saddam what they are up to.
Mack: There is more potential for a successful conspiracy than you think. The extended family remains not just the basis of Iraqi society but also the officer corps, and it offers trusted relationships. By the way, this also means that a successor regime will probably be, at least initially, based on kinship structures. It will not be an attractive government from our point of view, but it can well be a transition to a much more humane regime and one that other governments in the neighborhood can live with.
Wurmser: Has there been a single totalitarian government overthrown by a coup?
Wurmser: Okay, one and one only, and that in the special climate of 1989.
Yaphe: David, let's turn your question around: Has there been a single totalitarian government overthrown by exiles from outside the country?
Wurmser: Insurgencies in Nicaragua, Angola, and Afghanistan defeated Soviet-sponsored tyrannies. At times, ideas mobilize forces better than terror, and strict calculations of forces becomes irrelevant.
Mack: The Iraqi regime is a would-be totalitarian government, one that does an ineffective job of maintaining control over its territory. As bad as the regime is, it does not have full control over the country.
Wurmser: Not over the periphery of the country, but it does over the central regions. That it doesn't have control over the whole country also speaks for an insurgency rather than a coup d'état.
Pletka: Why does one have to preclude the other? One promotes the other.
Wurmser: Maybe so, but we are talking about policy. On what basis can you base policy on a coup?
Yaphe: Saddam controls most of Baghdad, controls most of the other cities, but he certainly doesn't control all the countryside.
Mack: Even in the cities, he no longer controls the streets the way the Iraqi regime used to. They're not able any more to prevent street crime, counterfeit money, or black markets.
Pletka: Those of us who very strongly back the opposition groups also hope that someone will eventually shoot Saddam—there is no argument here. We say, yes, it would be nice if somebody did that, but no one has managed to shoot him in the eight years since he brought calamity to Iraq. You can't base policy on that hope.
Wurmser: Right, because we cannot control this, or even do much to influence it. But we can do a great deal to support an insurgency.
MEQ: Can Washington really promote a coup d'état?
Pletka: We promoted armed resistance well during the 1980s in places like Nicaragua and Afghanistan. We can do so again.
Mack: Again, this requires an array of pressures that encourage a coup—support for the opposition, enforcing no-fly zones, imposing economic sanctions, isolating the regime politically, announcing a very generous vision for the post-Saddam period. By the way, the likelihood that the U.S. government will know in advance of a successful coup is about zero.
Pletka: It doesn't know about anything else in advance! Further, the government needs to convey a single message—in contrast to the present state of affairs, in which the president and the secretary of state talk about helping the opposition and General Anthony Zinni, commander-in-chief of CENTCOM [the U.S. Central Command] says that approach is doomed to failure. And the secretary of defense insists to anyone who will listen that the United States is not trying to topple Saddam.
Yaphe: Well, Zinni has force protection in mind, fearing it might be stretched beyond its limits. Further, we don't do this job of overthrowing governments very well.
Mack: I voted for President Clinton twice, but I feel he has not shown the sustained and determined presidential leadership we need on the Iraq issue; the countries of the area—Saudi Arabia and Turkey for example—must see that leadership before they will commit.
THE OPPOSITION OPTION
MEQ: Let's talk about the other option, namely supporting the opposition forces. Which of them most threaten the regime?
Pletka: No single opposition group by itself represents a serious challenge to Saddam. But if the whole opposition, including the Sunni Arabs, got together it would represent a real threat.
Yaphe: The real threats to Saddam are not the Kurds nor the small, organized opposition groups outside the country, but amorphous and hard-to-identify Shi‘i elements inside the country. They lack a strong bond and do not constitute an identified group, but they arise out of an incident and things can get out of control. Saddam could not control three days of rioting in Saddam City, a suburb of Baghdad, following the assassination of Ayatollah Sadiq Sadr in February.
This has happened over and over in the history of Iraq, from 1920 through 1991. The pattern in Iraq is for some catalyst—the killing of a grand ayatollah or returning soldiers in 1991 shooting at statues of Saddam and not being punished—to set off a Shi‘i rebellion that sweeps like a tidal wave up the two rivers without any coordination or control. That is the greatest threat to Saddam; that is why he sent "Chemical ‘Ali" [his cousin ‘Ali Hassan al-Majid, the man who gassed the Kurds in Halabja in 1988 and carried out the occupation of Kuwait in 1990] to the south late last year with a mandate to use the most brutal means to reinforce internal security.
Wurmser: The Shi‘a do play a very big role and are what Saddam is most worried about losing control of. But the U.S. government has very heavily focused on the Sunni Arab opposition, the Iraqi National Accords [INA], and others.
Pletka: We also have the best relationship with the Sunnis.
Wurmser: We've been afraid that the Shi‘a of the south are agents of Iran, which I don't believe is true.
Yaphe: Don't forget that the Shi‘a live not just in the south but throughout central Iraq—Baghdad is a mostly Shi‘i city, for example.
Mack: Trouble may well start among the Shi‘a (more likely in Baghdad than in the south), but Saddam is most afraid of losing control over his Sunni constituent groups which—as David did a good job of pointing that out in his book, Tyranny's Ally, very nearly happened in 1995.
Wurmser: With the Dulaym tribe.
Pletka: He counts on the Sunni center of the country being with him—afraid of the opposition that is best organized, meaning SAIRI [the Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq] in the south and the Kurds in the north. Saddam relies on the Sunni fear of losing power to the Kurds and the Shi‘a.
MEQ: Among the opposition groups, are there any that are ideologically more attractive to the United States? And others which are not?
Pletka: With Saddam Husayn as the enemy, they're all attractive!
Yaphe: Careful Danielle. They all try to present an image acceptable to the West. They all say they are for democracy and the territorial integrity of Iraq. It sounds great, but you can't really say what any of these groups would do should Mr. X or General Y or Sheikh Z come to power. I suspect they would reflect the traditional style of Iraqi politics more than they would our style.
Pletka: That's unfair. The opposition groups haven't been tested. Go back and look at the Eastern European opposition groups; Solidarity did not necessarily represent the most appealing movement for Americans, apart from its being anti-communist, but it sure beat the communists.
Yaphe: We cared only about Solidarity being anti-communist. We didn't look to see its social policy. They turned out to be intolerant. You have to be cautious.
MEQ: Should the U.S. government do anything to help the Iraq opposition?
Yaphe: Yes, but more carefully than has been the case. It's very important to do what we can to help create a viable opposition structure. I'm very concerned that the Iraq Liberation Act [ILA], signed by the president into law in November, calls explicitly for giving military training and equipment to opposition groups that can't really handle these yet. We should use the money to help them to learn to work together—but I don't know if that's still possible.
Wurmser: Yes, the highest priority is to spend the allocated money in a way that unites the opposition rather than divides them. That implies giving it to umbrella factions, or else we end up dividing the Iraqis.
Yaphe: Nice idea, but there is no umbrella group now.
Wurmser: Sure, there is, the Iraqi National Congress.
THE IRAQI NATIONAL CONGRESS
MEQ: Should the United States put more priority on its assistance to the INC?
Pletka: Yes, the INC is the umbrella structure that exists and already has a leadership in place, though perhaps not a leadership that everybody loves. With this already existing, let's not start anew and create a new umbrella structure. It was at one time viable, so let's revitalize it. This might mean a new name or leader.
Wurmser: Right. The INC worked well up to 1995, when the U.S. government walked away from it. It had managed to unify the opposition. But you know, I wonder if this emphasis on the disunity of the opposition is not an excuse to do nothing. The world has seen plenty of successful oppositions that were not unified—think of the movements that brought down the Soviet empire in Europe in 1989. They all acted on their own without a unified framework. We could have argued throughout the Cold War that the democratic opposition is divided. The same was true of the forces behind Boris Yeltsin in 1991, which unified only at the moment of decision.
Pletka: I'd go further; the opposition is never unified.
Mack: We should not overstate the INC's function as an umbrella group. It brought Iraqis together for political action, coordinating conferences, and sending high-level delegations to visit governments. But it was never an umbrella group that could conduct military action.
Wurmser: True, but note the reason why; we funded the INC, yes, but the moment it tried to go beyond politics, we cut it off.
Mack: The groups capable of taking to the field to fight Baghdad or to engage in really serious subversive efforts were all constituent groups of the INC. Part of the problem today is that the leaders of those constituent groups—the two main Kurdish militia leaders, SAIRI, INA—are no longer willing to work together under Ahmad Chalabi's leadership. Chalabi has worked hard and honestly but, frankly, he no longer enjoys the confidence of the leaders of these constituent groups or the governments of the region.
Wurmser: How much of that problem have we contributed to by our dismissive attitude toward the INC? Iraqis look to us for leadership against a serious foe; when we signal displeasure toward a faction, that faction has been dealt a grave blow.
Mack: Certainly, U.S. actions or inactions have contributed.
Pletka: Ahmad Chalabi gets a bum rap when people say the INC is his stooge. He is in many ways very good at his job and has played an excellent role until now. He single-handedly put the issue of replacing Saddam back on the front burner of U.S. policy by persuading Congress this had to happen. I personally have heard from the various constituent groups of the INC that he does not enjoy their confidence. It's a real issue, but not a dispositive argument against the United States getting
the group back together. It's not our job to replace him—or sit on the sidelines and
Yaphe: I don't agree with blaming the United States for the collapse of the INC because we wouldn't give aid or let them fight. The INC has damaged itself more than anybody on the outside did. The INC failed not because of American actions but because it split with the Kurds and was attempting military operations it could not achieve. In fact, it was not capable of military action, then or now. For the United States to have put all its policy eggs into that one basket would have been a terrible error. As Danielle keeps noting, the best strategy is a multileveled, multilayered one that does not restrict us to any one group or concept.
Wurmser: Aren't you arguing against an insurgency while advocating other options?
Yaphe: No. Some people want to recreate the INC as it was before. Fine, but that may not be possible. And, anyway, this is for the Iraqis, not us, to do; any opposition organization we create is doomed to failure.
Pletka: I really disagree with that. U.S. leadership is the sine qua nonof the opposition doing anything effective, and certainly of its working together. It's extremely unfair to say that if they can't get together themselves, then we're not going to help them do so. Fact is, if we don't bash their heads, they're never going to get together.
Judy, you resist every component of the idea of supporting the opposition. You criticize it from all sides—you don't like the INC, you think the ILA is a dumb idea, you think the neighbors need to take the lead—which is your prerogative. But then, you can't say you support a dual-track strategy.
Yaphe: I don't oppose the Iraq Liberation Act as such. But I'd like to see the money used to get the message back to Iraq. There are plenty of positive, confidence-building measures we can take to do this, such as giving more exposure to the political ideas of the opposition, making clear what we and Iraqis in exile could do to help recreate civil society, and political and economic infrastructures in a post-Saddam Iraq, easing sanctions to alleviate health and sanitation crises, especially among the poorest Iraqis. When I question the INC, I'm trying to look for a way to build a viable base, and that's difficult for me to see just in the INC. I'd like to bring these different groups to cooperate again. At their so-called strongest point in 1992, they had a base of action they agreed on. That's now missing, as they busily indulge their personality rivalries. Chalabi in particular does damage right now in this way.
Wurmser: The signals from the United States are extremely important to people on the ground in Iraq; how else can it be when you're dealing with an enemy as dangerous as Saddam Husayn? If we send mixed signals everyone gets skittish. If they don't hear the United States saying that their working together matters to us, they have to cut a deal just to survive until tomorrow. Instead, we should go back to the pre-1995 framework when it did matter to us.
Mack: We agree that support of some kind for the Iraqi opposition is desirable, although we disagree on its precise nature. I'd say that the more opposition elements we deal with, the better. But supporting the opposition can only be one part of our strategy. Other parts include the knowledge by all parties in the Middle East that the U.S. government is prepared to use regime-threatening force to achieve its objectives. We had that in the 1991-94 period, which was one reason why things moved forward then, including the humanitarian efforts of Operation Provide Comfort out of Turkey and modest Iraqi compliance with the U.N. Special Commission.
Pletka: That's the real debacle of 1995-96; we lost all our credibility.
Mack: The essential problem has not been lack of support for the opposition. The problem is that Middle East parties correctly stopped believing that the United States was committed to using really serious military force to achieve regime change.2
MEQ: What impact has the low-level bombing campaign since Desert Fox in December 1998 had? Has it had much effect on Saddam's power?
Mack:. To the extent that we focus on military and economic targets in a consistent way, that will achieve much more than does supporting opposition groups. But the current aerial bombing campaign is merely bringing down the air defense, and this alone will not lead to meaningful success. It will count only if taking down the air defense is the first step toward a serious and focused campaign to encourage regime change.
Pletka: Bingo—that's the problem, isn't it? The Clinton administration loves a bombing campaign because it fills the vacuum created by its lack of policy, what with UNSCOM gone and sanctions collapsing. It has embraced this bombing campaign as its policy towards Iraq.
Mack: It represents force without strategy.
Pletka: If it had a coherent idea behind it, if we were aiming toward something, then it would be terrific. But it is bombing bereft of an ultimate goal.
Wurmser: Imagine that Desert Fox—that very unfortunately named operation—took place after a coherent plan had been put in place during the prior year or two, and that we had coordinated with some of the groups in the south to launch a revolt. Toward the end of the campaign, Saddam's vice president admitted he lost contact with forces in the south, who had to hunker down and scatter for protection. In this condition, these forces were highly vulnerable to any coordinated uprising. But the potential rebels in the south had no foreknowledge with which to plan such an event.
Yaphe: But where does the force for such an insurgency come from? If you're thinking of an Afghanistan-style model, there's no neighbor like Pakistan to support the effort and to host a base of operations. This cannot be done from aircraft carriers in the Gulf.
Wurmser: Kuwait and Saudi Arabia would provide that sort of base if they only saw this administration as credible. But in the absence of a reliable American partner, they obviously take a more cautious route. If we made it unequivocally clear that ousting Saddam matters to us, they'd be eager to find ways to rid themselves of this problem.
Yaphe: David, you don't understand how the Gulf countries think. They do not speak out publicly against other governments unless the latter explicitly threaten them, as Saddam did in December. It may be that Desert Fox, followed by administration statements about supporting opposition to Saddam, have convinced them that we will stay the course.
Mack: There's another absolutely vital point here. The U.S. president must publicly articulate a generous vision of our relationship with a post-Saddam Iraqi regime. He needs to make it very clear we don't want to see Iraq remain impoverished and indefensible. Instead, he has to articulate a vision of Iraq that is free from economic sanctions and reparations, living under a government that's reasonably humane with its people and at peace with its neighbors.
Wurmser: You are in effect pointing to the indispensable element of American leadership to make things happen and the fact that it is wholly absent, to the point that the U.S. government cannot even speak with one voice. This obviously eviscerates our role.
A steady and consistent policy in Eastern Europe gave the dissidents there the energy and nerve to continue even when this seemed like pure folly. They never felt alone. In contrast, the Iraqi factions feel very much alone. I don't think it helps for us to harp on their personal differences, for all these leaders face some very serious choices—Barzani, Talabani, and the others—some of which result from a desperate effort merely to survive. That problem won't go away until American leadership provides them with an umbrella under which to work with confidence.
MEQ: How important is the resumption of weapons inspections by UNSCOM?
Yaphe: It's critical.
Mack: The U.N. Special Commission had some fantastic achievements, partly due to luck, but also due to some very hard work. It could do all this because Saddam Husayn had reason to believe that if he didn't cooperate with UNSCOM, there would be a worse fate awaiting him. That is why he agreed to Secretary General Annan's face-saving formulations in February 1998, only to test them a few months later. When the United States did not respond with force to compel his cooperation with UNSCOM, as President Clinton said would be the case, Saddam felt free to spurn U.N. diplomacy. Today, it is no longer worth getting UNSCOM back in at any price, for the illusion of arms control in Iraq is worse than no arms control at all. Only with a different government, one that's prepared to cooperate with inspectors, is the resumption of inspections likely to be credible and to hold up over the long-term.
By the way, the intrusive U.N. inspections planned for Iraq ought to be the model for arms control in the entire region. I wouldn't exclude any country from that kind of inspections.
Pletka: UNSCOM faces a conundrum, a Catch-22. An inspection regime that is effective and intrusive is unacceptable to Saddam and to his allies on the Security Council. Let's not pretend that there are not governments fronting for him. This poses an insurmountable problem to restarting effective inspections. The minute they become effective and Saddam doesn't like them, his buddies will oppose them in the Security Council, and off we go, to another crisis.
Every crisis with Iraq finds the U.S. government backing down another notch on containment or sanctions or something else. The perception, if not the reality, is that each time Saddam defies us with regard to inspections, moving troops, threatening his neighbors, or squashing his own people—we respond by loosening Security Council resolutions.
Yaphe: Without defending this trend, it is true that the administration sees expanding U.N. Security Council resolutions 986 and 1153—the ones dealing with oil-for-food—as a way to buy time and support at the United Nations.
Pletka: That returns us to the lack of leadership question.
Yaphe: More basically, it raises the question why the U.S. government so needs a coalition. It appears to be afraid to hang out there alone. Why is it so afraid of that? Is it not putting too much weight on cooperation, coalition-building, and being part of some larger group? Why not just take a stand and stick by it?
Wurmser: Exactly. Taking a leadership role makes it that much easier to maintain a coalition. Then others have confidence in you and that you will stick with the coalition. Otherwise they scramble for their own interests.
On UNSCOM, there was a policy shift sometime in late 1997 and 1998. The U.S. government had used what UNSCOM was doing, including Saddam's obstruction of its work, to justify isolating Saddam and maintaining an aggressive policy against him. By early 1998, it had backed away from UNSCOM in a bid to maintain the coalition, reducing its goals to maintain the fiction of a unified coalition. We have reached the point where the goals are so low now that it includes almost everyone, making it nearly meaningless. The administration needs to go back to the old policy.
Yaphe: I don't know if we can walk this route backwards.
CONNECTIONS TO THE ARAB-ISRAELI CONFLICT
MEQ: Are there connections between Iraq policy and the Arab-Israeli conflict?
Mack: Yes, when we did exercise effective leadership on Iraq, the Arab-Israeli peace process was active. That helped us exercise effective leadership with the Jordanians, the Saudis ...
Pletka: ... Oh sure, because the Saudis care
so much about the Palestinians.
Yaphe: I'd turn this around; the Arabs tend to use the Palestinian issue as a way to bully us. On the subject of U.N. Security Council resolutions and weapons of mass destruction, for example, they link the two issues and want us to apply to Israel the same standards we apply to Iraq. But on other issues, such as when they face an imminent threat to their security from, say, Iraq or Iran, they pursue their self-interest.
Mack: Their threshold is pretty high. In August 1990, it took the occupation of Kuwait for the Saudis and others to say, forget about the peace process for now.
Wurmser: And I in turn, turn your whole equation upside down: the failure to deal with Saddam Husayn creates a climate that undermines moderation in other parts of the Middle East.
Mack: I don't know about the Middle East, but it certainly undermines our leadership vis-à-vis Israel.
Wurmser: Look at the sequence of events. When the U.S. policy change took place in the fall of 1995 and spring of 1996, Syria began its turn toward accommodating Iraq. This was the half-year when Shimon Peres was prime minister in Israeli and his government was hell-bent on reaching an agreement with Damascus. The collapse of the peace process is another casualty of a failed Iraq policy.
MEQ: In what year will Iraq be rid of Saddam Husayn?
Wurmser: He will be "vanquished when Great Brinan wood to Dunsinane shall come," which I believe will be one year after Clinton's gone. MacBeth is a wonderful map for understanding how tyrants fall, by the way.
Pletka: Sam Brownback [chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee dealing with the Middle East] jokes that the administration's strategy appears to be hoping that Saddam eats too much fatty food and keels over. But seriously, it depends on whether the United States can find a policy and maintain it with some backbone. If so, next year. If not, never.
MEQ: Are there fifty-fifty odds that Saddam would be out of power in five years?
Mack: The chances are a lot better than that because Saddam is doing less and less for his constituencies. He has become more erratic, lashing out at real or perceived enemies. This behavior can catch up with him. With a serious push from the Clinton administration, it could happen this year or next. President Clinton and the leading presidential candidates in both parties recognize the need for regime change, so the odds are better than even that Saddam's rule will not last another five years.
Yaphe: There's as much chance that he will be thrown out in five years as there is that he will fall in the shower or contract cancer.
Pletka: Predicting Saddam's ouster assumes that the U.S. government actually has a policy, unlike now. If it were willing to show leadership and embrace an aggressive policy of regime-change, he could be gone by next year.
MEQ: Any concluding thoughts, perhaps reflecting on this discussion—areas in common and key points of dispute? What is the key dispute in U.S. policy toward Iraq?
Yaphe: We all agree on the need for regime change; the difference of opinion is how one goes about doing that.
Mack: And how broad the regime change should be. Statecraft, like politics, is the art of the possible, and from the current low base, a new leadership that is less than ideal could be called a step toward democracy.
Yaphe: And what the United States can do to make that happen.
Pletka: We all seem fundamentally to agree about some of the strategies that are necessary and the fact that there is a comprehensive strategy necessary, the fact that we need to follow different tracks, and try equally hard on each of them hoping that one of them will deliver the desired outcome.
Wurmser: And that there is a critical lack of leadership in Washington.
1 David Wurmser, Tyranny's Ally: America's Failure to Defeat Saddam Hussein (Washington: The AEI Press, 1999).
2 Editor's note: On April 8, 1999, a few weeks after this discussion, Agence France Presse carried a news item titled "Iraqi opposition groups agree to discuss armed resistance." It stated: "A coalition of eleven Iraqi opposition groups decided Thursday to meet within the next three months to try to agree to military plans for armed resistance to Iraqi president Saddam Husayn. At a two-day meeting at Windsor, west of London, participants discussed how to combine efforts in their struggle against the Iraqi regime. The meeting was the first time since the summer of 1996 that the umbrella Iraqi National Congress (INC) succeeded in gathering a majority of parties and groups opposed to Saddam."