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Eric Graben is a visiting assistant professor in the political science department at Clemson University. He is the author of What Don't We Need Anymore? U.S. Land-Based Strategic Weapons Modernization and the End of the Cold War (University Press of America, 1992).

After his humiliating defeat by the United Nations coalition, it was widely assumed that Saddam Husayn would quickly be overthrown. Yet over three years later, he remains very much in power. This has led some observers to conclude that Operation Desert Storm failed to achieve its objections. A. M. Rosenthal wrote that "leaving Saddam Hussein in power was a mistake . . . however long it takes he has to go."1 Others believe that the U.S. government lacks a coherent policy toward Iraq. William Safire put it succinctly: "Saddam has a plan and Clinton does not."2

But a hard-headed appraisal of the record since March 1991 suggests otherwise. Events since the Kuwait war have gone well from an American point of view, and a policy does exist-it is called containment. Containment is working towards Iraq, and as a policy probably has a better record than any of the alternatives.


In the three years since the Kuwait war ended, Iraqi attempts to circumvent or abrogate terms of U.N. Security Council resolutions have prompted many crises. Their proximate causes have included Iraqi attacks on Kurds and Shi`ites; obstruction of humanitarian aid to these ethnic groups; resistance to the destruction of weapons production facilities; restrictions on United Nations weapons inspectors' right of access; unwillingness of Baghdad to pay U.N. expenses or indemnities to Kuwaiti citizens; Iraqi resistance to a new Iraq-Kuwait border; and aggressive Iraqi actions towards coalition aircraft.

The crises of the first year after the Kuwait War had a recurring pattern, in which Saddam would infringe on the terms of U.N. Resolutions 687 or 688, which ended the Gulf war; the Security Council would condemn his infractions; and Iraqi miscreancy would continue until the United States and its allies threatened to use force and then started moving forces toward the Gulf. Once planes and carrier battle groups started moving, Baghdad quickly backed down, but was forced only to return to the status quo ante.

Only after the agriculture ministry crisis of July-August 1992, when a surprise U.N. inspection was blocked by Saddam's government, did the United States shift to a more forceful containment strategy, one that involved shorter warning periods, cruise missile attacks, and bombings in response to Iraqi infractions. This more forceful approach appears to have restored the credibility of the containment strategy.

The record of containment shows that Saddam is very compellable but not easily deterrable. The allies have not persuaded him that it is contrary to his interests to see what he can get away with. The pattern of weak deterrence and strong compellence has persisted because Saddam has had little to lose from his bad behavior. All he loses by backing down after a crisis are things he would not have been allowed to have anyway-such as his advanced weapons programs. The record of compellence is much better, for Saddam in the end has always complied with 687 and 688. More than that: he has always complied with the Western interpretation of these resolutions.

Containment is working, though not without problems. It has allowed the U.S. government to enforce continued Iraqi compliance with Resolutions 687, 688, and 715. It has maintained at least tacit allied support (occasional spats with allies and occasional hiccups in cease-fire enforcement have not undermined the effectiveness of containment). It has worked even during an American presidential transition from one party to another. It is inexpensive in terms of blood, money, and political capital compared to all other alternatives. It has halted Iraqi proliferation of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and ballistic missiles. It has prevented Iraq from threatening its neighbors, ensured the free flow of oil from the Gulf, and probably facilitated progress towards Arab-Israeli peace. Containing Iraq helps contain Iran, and this dual containment has maintained the balance of power in the Persian Gulf, which in turn bolsters domestic stability in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other states.

The greatest costs of containment were incurred in the Tomahawk attacks on Baghdad in January and June 1993. At about $1.1 million each, Tomahawk missiles are not cheap; but they are inexpensive compared to the over $60 billion that Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm cost. Civilian deaths and injuries from the attacks are tragic, but they are small compared to the violence an unfettered Saddam would visit on the Kurds and Shi`ites in Iraq.

Expectations determine one's attitudes towards containment. For those who want the U.S. government to sponsor Jeffersonian democracies in the Middle East, clearly the present situation is untenable. But for those who accept the impossibility of such a dream, the next best alternative is for Washington to maintain a balance of power while patiently but constantly pressing toward a more benign political order. Given the limits on American power, containment best serves America's goals in the Persian Gulf.

U.N. Resolution 687, which ended the Kuwait War, requires Baghdad to forfeit its longer-range ballistic missile program a well as its nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons programs; it also includes a highly intrusive inspection regime to ensure Iraqi compliance. Once all of these conditions are met, Paragraph 22 of this resolution permits Iraq to sell unlimited amounts of oil.

Resolution 688 requires Iraq to cease repression of its civilian population. It specifically refers to Iraq's Kurdish population.

Resolution 706 permits Iraq to sell $1.6 billion worth of oil without precondition, but the United Nations will oversee the spending of funds so acauired.

Resolution 715 requries Iraq to permit long-term monitoring of its industries and military facilities even after the destruction of all the weapons and facilities required by Resolution 687.


A number of plausible alternatives to containment exist. The U.S.-led coalition could cease enforcing the resolutions. It could target Saddam directly by seeking to assassinate or overthrow him. It could also partition Iraq into Kurdish, Sunni, and Shi`i states. What would be the consequences of each of these policies?

American policy toward Iraq should contribute to three broad policy goals in the Middle East, which are the continued free flow of reasonably-priced oil from the Persian Gulf, successful culmination of the Arab-Israeli peace process, and peaceful termination of the arms race in the Middle East both in conventional weapons and in weapons of mass destruction. The regional balance of power between Iraq, Syria, and Iran must be maintained in order to achieve these goals. All three goals would be jeopardized if Saddam Hussein, Hafez Asad, or the Iranian clerics were to dominate the region. Any of these regimes might seek to use control of Gulf oil reserves as a weapon against the West and Japan. All three are hostile to the Arab-Israeli peace process. Hafez Asad is currently negotiating with Israel only because he has no alternative. All three are in the forefront of efforts to proliferate ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction. The ideal solution from the American perspective would be to replace all three regimes with capitalist democracies, but this is currently impossible. It is therefore necessary to keep Iraq strong enough to defend itself and counterbalance Iran and Syria without letting it acquire offensive capability.

Cut Saddam loose. Were the coalition to cease enforcing Resolutions 687 and 688, a totally unrepentant Saddam would immediately return to past patterns of behavior. Significantly, Iraqi media still refer to Kuwait as an integral part of Iraq.3 No doubt, Saddam would regain his prewar capabilities and quickly threaten his neighbors.

Remove Saddam. The opportunity to set up an American-style regime, in the manner of Germany or Japan after World War II, has lapsed. The redeployment of the quarter- to half-million American troops that would be necessary to conquer and occupy Iraq is completely out of the question. But even back in March 1991, the conquest of Iraq would have been less desirable than containment. Had the coalition overrun Iraq, the United States (as coalition leader) would have incurred the responsibility of setting up a stable government tolerable to both the democratic Western allies and the autocratic Arab members of the coalition. Perhaps a moderate government could have been installed and quickly gained popular support, but Iraq would more likely have become another Vietnam, Lebanon, or Northern Ireland.

Assassinate Saddam. It looks simple, but assassination means problems. First, the assassination effort might well fail. Dictators often display remarkable resilience to assassination: consider Hitler, Stalin, and Castro. Why should Saddam be an exception? Secondly, most Western governments do not accept assassination as a tool of foreign policy. Thirdly, Saddam surrounds himself with lieutenants as ruthless and amoral as himself, so his successor is likely to be no improvement. Yet Washington would bear moral responsibility for the new leader's actions, having put him in office.

Partition Iraq. Dividing Iraq into Kurdish, Sunni, and Shi`ite states (in the north, center, and south of Iraq, respectively) would create a power vacuum that Syria and Iran would seek to fill. Worse yet, a Kurdish state would arouse tensions with Syria, Turkey, and Iran, all of which have Kurdish minorities in regions bordering northern Iraq-minorities that might seek to join the new state. The Shi`ite state around Basra would probably become an Iranian puppet and might even be annexed to Iran. The remaining Sunni state would resemble Jordan-a small, weak state surrounded by more powerful neighbors-without the advantage of a King Husayn. Further, all the important Middle East allies strongly criticize the idea of partitioning Iraq, so such an attempt would almost certainly lose America the alliance of precisely those neighboring states needed to protect the trio of new states.

These alternatives leave things worse than does containment, for they are either too difficult to implement or they do not preserve the balance of power in the Gulf. While the many crises following the Kuwait War would suggest that containment is a poor solution to the problems posed by Saddam Husayn, a look at its alternatives shows that containment meets American goals in the region better than any other policy. Containment may not be a perfect solution, but it happens to be better than any of the alternatives.


Looking beyond Iraq, Middle Eastern developments have been quite positive during the era of containment. Three major U.S. interests in the Middle East-oil, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and arms control-show that containment is working.

Reasonably priced oil flows freely from the Persian Gulf. The rough balance of power that now exists offers the best guarantee against aggression. Were Saddam unshackled from the U.N. cease-fire terms, he would probably begin a new round of hostilities within five to ten years. Contrarily, partition of Iraq could lead to an American intervention to prevent Iran from conquering or Finlandizing the Persian Gulf states. American intervention to remove Saddam would ensure the free flow of oil at a much greater cost than does containment.

Arab-Israeli relations are moving in the right direction. Starting in October 1991 at the Madrid conference, the peace process has revived, with a high point in September 1993, when Yasir Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin agreed to a Declaration of Principles. Such an agreement would have been much less likely with an unfettered Saddam Husayn brandishing chemically armed SCUD missiles. The prospects for Syrian-Israeli negotiations would be dimmed were Syria struggling for influence in a partitioned Iraq. The Arab leaders would probably trust the U.S. government less had it forcibly replaced an Arab leader, even Saddam Husayn.

Arms control in the Middle East is a less positive story. Many Persian Gulf states went on an arms procurement binge after the Gulf war, hoping thereby to better contain Saddam. But arms control would be even more remote had Washington pursued a policy other than containment. Syria, Iran, and Turkey would not reduce arms if they needed them to defend against an unfettered, resurgent Iraq, nor if they needed to compete for spheres of influence in a partitioned Iraq. Further, the precedent of Washington toppling Saddam Husayn would make leaders like Syria's Hafiz al-Asad all the more likely to seek weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles to deter the Americans.

The policy of containment could run into serious problems in two instances. Were the U.S. government to become significantly involved in another conflict, such as in the former Yugoslavia, Saddam would almost certainly push harder against the limits of containment. At a time when tens or hundreds of thousands of troops were tied down in another theater, it would be all the more difficult to deal with Iraq. A radical nationalist government taking power in Moscow would also make it difficult to maintain current policy. A Russia led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky might not intervene directly on Saddam's behalf but it may veto United Nations resolutions, supply Iraq with arms, and fundamentally change the equation in Saddam's favor.

Still, containment deals with these challenges better than any other policy. A rearmed Iraq would be even harder to fight than a contained Iraq under any circumstances. It would likewise be harder to occupy an Iraq without Saddam while conducting a war elsewhere or while dealing with a hostile Russia.


Allied support is necessary in two ways to successfully contain Iraq. It is needed militarily, for carrier-based aircraft and artillery are not enough. Bases in Turkey and Saudi Arabia play a critical role in the military operations required by containment. International support is even more important politically. The combination of Middle Eastern, West European, and Russian support provides a foundation of international legitimacy that makes American leadership possible. Washington is unwilling and possibly unable to go it alone in the Persian Gulf. The key question, therefore, is: does the U.S. government have support for a tight policy of containment?

Middle Eastern allies. From August 1990, substantial elements in all the Middle Eastern states have opposed American-led action in the Persian Gulf. Nevertheless, several Middle Eastern governments joined the anti-Saddam coalition, notably those of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, and Turkey. Their participation prevents the conflict from being a white vs. Arab or Christian vs. Muslim conflict. After the war, however, Middle Eastern opinion moved from quiet support of containment to reluctance to open criticism.

This change of mind results from several concerns. First, many Muslims perceive a double standard in the enforcement of Security Council resolutions. Resolutions are enforced against Arab Iraq, they say, but not against Serbia or Bosnian Serbs or against Israel. They would rather see U.N. resolutions enforced against Iraq, Serbia, and Israel (as opposed to dropping enforcement against Iraq). Secondly, Arabs and Turks do not wish to be linked to the continued punishment of an Arab and Muslim state, no matter how reprehensible its leader. Despite their reservations, it is important to note that none of the Middle Eastern governments of the coalition have in any way become pro-Saddam. They never called for cessation of the enforcement of Resolutions 687 and 688; all of them criticize Saddam Husayn.

This changing Middle Eastern reaction signals not that support for containing Saddam Husayn is breaking down but the limits to what the Muslim world will tolerate in enforcing U.N. resolutions against Iraq. The lack of sustained criticism against the U.S. government suggests that containment along the lines of the last three years will continue to be tolerated but not extolled in the Middle East.

European allies. Britain and France have a critical role in containment thanks to their status as America's closest allies since World War II, their contribution of forces, and their permanent membership in the Security Council. Until the end of 1992, Washington had consistently received full British and French support in actions taken to enforce U.N. resolutions, though this support was not always immediate and could require weeks to generate. During the crisis of December 1992 to January 1993, the French sought to distance themselves from the Tomahawk raid on Baghdad, but they did so in a way that Americans found annoying but not obstructionist. This pattern will probably continue in the future.

Russia. Soviet and Russian support for American-led containment of Iraq grew as the Soviet Union collapsed and an independent Russia emerged. As in the French case, however, Russian support wavered at the end of 1992. So long as Russian president Boris Yeltsin remains in power, Moscow will not challenge the current policy; but a nationalist successor could change both the military and diplomatic equations, making containment of Iraq seriously more difficult.

In sum, all three groups of allies criticize not so much the use of force in support of containment but the decision of when and where to use that force. No coalition member shows as much enthusiasm as Washington for the tight containment necessary to enforce Saddam's compliance with Resolutions 687 and 688. They want Saddam to behave: they do not want any crises or casualties, but they do want to be consulted on all issues pertaining to containment. Recent history shows that these conditions cannot be met simultaneously. However, recent history also shows that all of the allies prefer containment, with all its crises and casualties, to an unfettered Saddam; and no ally has stepped forward with a better proposal. In particular, while Middle Eastern allies have been the most critical, they have not yet offered an alternative method of dealing with Saddam Husayn.


To the argument that containment gives up control over events inside Iraq, the reply is simple: containment provides the U.S. government an influence commensurate with its capabilities. America cannot create a "United States of Iraq" at will; and Iraq's future must ultimately be determined by Iraqis.

Containing Saddam Husayn and waiting for indigenous Iraqi forces to overthrow him appears to render the U.S. government passive, forfeiting an opportunity to produce a better Iraq. True enough: but the opportunity to actively determine the future of Iraq would be much more of a burden than a blessing. No Iraqi Adenauer has appeared to lead Iraq to democracy. Even if there were, the Arab kings, presidents, and emirs who make up America's allies do not want a democratic Iraq. Alternatively, if Washington set up a new dictator in Iraq, it would be blamed for any and every act of oppression committed by him. Containment may be passive, but passivity looks like an advantage in this instance.

Saddam will most likely be replaced by another authoritarian leader. This is not morally satisfying, but it is the best that can be achieved. America cannot produce a democratic leader in Iraq because the Middle Eastern allies will not tolerate a democratic Iraq or the massive American intervention necessary to produce it. A U.S. puppet rejected by Iraq's neighbors and the Iraqi people would complicate American diplomacy in the region, so it is best for Iraq to produce its own authoritarian replacement for Saddam.

Even a new autocratic leader would probably seek Western ties for help in rebuilding Iraq's economy. The West can make an ally of a new leader by ending sanctions against Iraq in return for good behavior both internationally and internally towards Iraq's diverse ethnic groups. While containment does not give America control over the future of Iraq, Iraq's need for the rest of the world should give America significant control over an Iraqi leader less belligerent than Saddam.

The coalition can and should intervene in Iraq to rule out some methods of problem solving, such as brutal repression of Iraq's ethnic groups, but such intervention should be limited to the level that has occurred under the current pattern of containment. Containment can and should be maintained until indigenous forces produce an Iraqi leader who will adhere to norms of international relations consistent with the U.N. charter and who will refrain from abusing the Iraqi population.


What about the humanitarian dimension? Containment has succeeded in protecting the Kurds in northern Iraq from unrestrained repression by Saddam while preventing Saddam from using his air force against guerrillas in both northern and southern Iraq. The failure to more actively protect Shi`ites reflects an unwillingness rather than an inability of the U.S.-led coalition to save the Shi`ites. This decision could be reversed, for the record shows that when the coalition chooses to intervene to protect Iraqi ethnic groups, it can greatly mitigate Iraqi domestic repression.

Forceful overthrow of Saddam by the United States might protect Kurds and Shi`ites, but the United States and its allies lack the will to act for purely humanitarian reasons. If Americans cannot accept a couple dozen casualties in Somalia (where over one million people were recently in danger of starving to death), how will they find the will to intervene in Iraq to protect Shi`ite guerrillas? The same applies even more to other Westerners. National interest must be involved.

Partition of Iraq might protect the Kurds and Shi`ites but it would harm America's other Middle Eastern goals. It could also turn out badly for the Kurds and Shi`ites. As the breakup of Yugoslavia shows, partition can be a very painful process-and the great powers are not always ready to save feuding ethnic groups from themselves. Further, Syrian and Iranian competition for influence in a partitioned Iraq could have terrible consequences for Iraq's Kurds and Shi`ites.


With Saddam Husayn highly unlikely to voluntarily comply with resolutions 687, 688, and 715, containment will probably have to be maintained as long as he is in power to force him to comply. Indeed, containment should be maintained until indigenous forces replace Saddam.

The three-year record suggests several policy recommendations: Maintain sanctions until Baghdad complies fully with Resolutions 687, 688, and 715 as interpreted by the United Nations. Respond with military force if Saddam actively seeks to acquire new weapons programs, obstructs U.N. inspection teams, interferes with long-term monitoring of his industrial and military facilities, or brutally represses his Kurdish and Shi`ite populations. Washington should consult the key allies (including Britain, France, Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Syria) prior to engaging in military action-if time and secrecy requirements permit. If these preclude extensive consultation, Washington should take special care to minimize collateral damage, for the allies will grudgingly tolerate a few casualties on occasion, but Americans should not push their luck.

Can containment be implemented in a more effective manner? The current containment strategy suffers from several defects arising from its ad hoc nature. Reactions can be too slow, allowing Saddam to temporarily get away with infractions, or they can be too fast, precluding consultations with all of the allies who want to be consulted.

An improved strategy of containment might involve a package of predetermined and automatic responses to Iraqi misbehavior. Punishments could be publicized during peacetime and then imposed after a short warning period of one to three days. (Some warning period must be given to prevent a low-level Iraqi official from precipitating war unnecessarily by acting on incomplete or unclear instructions.) The punishments would be harsh and could include extensive bombing of Iraqi military targets, bombing Saddam's personal homes, or occupying Iraq's oil fields. Once Saddam provoked one of these responses and was punished, he would have a good incentive not to try again.

This option, however, magnifies current problems in maintaining popular support. It would imply the granting of a blank check to the United States, Britain, and France to do as they thought best when they deemed an infraction had occurred. The U.N. Security Council lacks the mechanisms to deal with such crises by itself. The Military Advisory Committee called for in the charter does not exist, nor are there armed forces earmarked by member states for U.N. use. The Security Council is too cumbersome to act quickly.

Bestowing such powers on the three Western states could lead to problems. Arab allies would be loathe to grant such a prerogative, especially as they nurse grievances about Serbia and Israel. Harsh, preset responses are more likely to produce extensive collateral damage to Iraq, which would undermine coalition support for American action. An ad hoc response gives Saddam more time to back down.

Containment may appear to be an unattractive policy because it by nature entails a long committment with an ill-defined long-term goal. Nonetheless, containment of Iraq remains the best option available to protect Western interests in the Gulf and achieve the moral good of preventing the peoples of the region from falling under the control of a sole, uncontested, and vicious tyrant. A democratic Iraq might be a more desirable end state, but it is not an option even the world's only superpower can achieve. As in the case of dealing with the Soviet threat, containment represents a prudent synthesis of America's aspirations and capabilities.

1 A.M. Rosenthal, " Bill Clinton's War," The New York Times, Jan. 19, 1993.
2 William Safire, "Slapping Saddam's Wrist," The New York Times, June 28, 1993. See also Charles William Maynes, "Clinton Is Right on Iraq," The New York Times, Jan. 19, 1993.
3 Al-Jumhuriya, which is edited by one of Saddam's sons, quoted the government spokesman along these lines in January 1993. See Youssef M. Ibrahim, "Iraq: Leader Voices Defiance Vowing to Repel Allied Raids," The New York Times, Jan. 14, 1993, p. A7.