Better Than Air Strikes

Iraq’s weekend decision to back down and allow U.N. inspectors to resume their work is clearly a better outcome than U.S. air strikes would have been. But President Clinton’s call for a new government in Iraq was confusing and will increase the odds of a future showdown. We need a smarter strategy for dealing with Saddam unless we wish to go through the same type of crisis in a few months—probably with a worse outcome next time.

Why is an imperfect, tedious, and interminable U.N. inspection process preferable to air strikes? Because the former approach keeps Saddam contained, gradually whittles away at his military power, keeps world opinion firmly on the side of the United States, and helps us keep our coalition with other Arab states in the region in place.

Air strikes would have done little to restrain Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction capabilities and would have stood only a poor chance of killing him or provoking a coup. They would probably have led to the permanent end of the U.N. special commission’s work in Iraq. They also would probably have ended the oil-for-food program. That program helps keep alive many Iraqi citizens who might otherwise die—and therefore also helps us sustain international support for the economic sanctions on Iraq.

Had Saddam not backed down, an air campaign would nonetheless have been necessary. But its downsides would have been considerable and its likely benefits quite modest.

But how do we prevent yet another crisis in 1999? In addition to wielding a stick when necessary, the Clinton Administration also needs to give Saddam incentives to let the U.N. inspectors do their jobs. Specifically, President Clinton should clearly state that if Saddam ever does comply with Security Council Resolution 687, eliminating his weapons of mass destruction while also accounting for Kuwaiti citizens kidnapped or killed by Iraqi forces, we will support the lifting of sanctions on Iraq. Unfortunately, last year Secretary of State Madeleine Albright very publicly delivered just the opposite message, saying that the United States would never lift sanctions on an Iraq ruled by Saddam. Her message may have been understandable, and may play well in American politics, but it is not good policy. It calls into doubt our commitment to Resolution 687, weakens Saddam’s incentives to comply with that resolution, and provides him an excuse for standing up to the United States.

Reaffirming Resolution 687 would not constitute appeasement or weakness on the part of the Clinton Administration. For one thing, it would not lead to the premature lifting of sanctions on Iraq in any way. Nearly all countries understand that Iraq has failed to comply with its international obligations, so Washington will not need to use its Security Council veto to keep sanctions in place. Several recent U.N. panels have documented the areas where Iraq has fallen short of Resolution 687 demands to date, particularly in the areas of biological and chemical weapons and missiles. We should remind Saddam and the world of these facts—and reiterate that sanctions will not be lifted until our concerns about his weapons of mass destruction are fairly resolved.

The president should also state that if Iraq meaningfully cooperates with the U.N. inspectors, he will suspend disbursement of the $97 million appropriated by Congress this year to help the Iraqi opposition overthrow Saddam. (Some of the funds might still be used for political support for the opposition.) Appropriating that money was a very risky idea anyway, since the Iraqi opposition is weak and divided and probably cannot defeat Saddam’s huge military unless large numbers of U.S. troops fight alongside it. In addition, the $97 million further reduces Saddam’s incentives to comply with UNSCOM inspectors, since it reinforces his belief that we will never lift sanctions on an Iraq he rules. So it makes more sense to use this money as negotiating leverage than to provide lethal aid to Saddam’s opposition.

Admittedly, giving Saddam better incentives to meet his international obligations may not work any better this time than in the early 1990s. But we can afford to try. Notwithstanding popular opinion to the contrary, time is on our side. The sanctions regime keeps Saddam militarily weak, and the recently expanded oil-for-food program limits the damage that it causes to the Iraqi people. Spending two or three billion dollars a year to send Saddam a message of our continued resolve, while admittedly expensive and demanding on U.S. troops, represents just one percent of our defense budget. It is less expensive than the $5 billion it could cost to conduct a major air campaign and far less expensive than the $50 billion to $100 billion it could cost to use ground forces to remove Saddam from power (to say nothing of the thousands of U.S. casualties such a conflict would almost surely produce).

We do need to maintain our credibility and be good to our word. If Saddam seriously impedes inspectors again, even after we have given him better incentives to allow their work to proceed, it will be time to attack. But this past weekend it was not.