Bush’s Iraq Speech Hits Balanced Note

Michael E. O’Hanlon and Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

September 13, 2002

President George W. Bush’s speech yesterday to the United Nations was eloquent and compelling. Its basic approach—seeking to work through the United Nations to issue a final, demanding ultimatum to Saddam Hussein—is the right strategy. But now we need to flesh it out.

In his speech, the president did well what his subordinates have failed to do this summer: strike a balanced, multilateral, reasonable tone on the Iraq issue. By contrast, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have seemed ready to declare war on Hussein at a moment’s notice in recent months.

For example, in an Aug. 26 speech, the vice president stated that “there is no doubt that he is amassing [weapons of mass destruction] to use against our friends, against our allies and against us.” Cheney’s comment ignored the fact that, even though Hussein did use chemical weapons in the 1980s against Iran and against his own Kurdish populations, he has been deterred from using them against the United States and its friends in the region ever since.

Similarly, Rumsfeld insinuated that Hussein was harboring and working with al-Qaida. But al-Qaida operatives are present in many countries, including the United States, without the knowledge of those governments. As Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage later pointed out, the al-Qaida in Iraq appear not to be in areas controlled by Hussein.

To be sure, even as he was reasonable and multilateralist, Bush was also tough and demanding. He accurately recounted Iraq’s litany of violations of UN Security Council resolutions over the past 12 years. He insisted that Hussein promptly readmit UN inspectors, give up his weapons of mass destruction, account for Kuwaitis and one American missing since Iraq’s 1990 invasion of their country, improve human rights within his own country, abide by UN economic sanctions and stop supporting anti-Israeli terrorists. But a certain toughness is appropriate.

That said, the real threat to U.S. interests posed by Hussein is his weapons of mass destruction, and we should keep our focus on those weapons. The ultimatum that Bush promised to develop over the next few weeks should focus on this threat, rather than the more lengthy list of desirable but less essential changes we would like to see inside Iraq. In particular, backed by as many coalition partners as possible, the ultimatum should take a number of key initiatives. Rejection of any of these demands at any point would then lead to the deployment of U.S.-led forces and overthrow of Hussein.

Iraq must come into compliance with all UN disarmament demands imposed after the Persian Gulf War, including but hardly limited to the immediate return of UN inspectors. Those inspectors must be allowed to visit any potential weapons facilities in Iraq, including presidential sites, at any time and without notice. They must also be allowed to determine the composition of their inspection teams as they see fit.

The UN must have the power to grant asylum to any Iraqi weapons experts as well as their families, should such experts provide information that could put their lives at risk. Iraq must reveal and allow destruction of chemical and biological weapons and munitions that we know it possesses, and do so within a short period. Iraq must agree to intrusive, long-term monitoring of its weapons capabilities that would include no-notice inspections.

And, even if Iraq were to comply fully with all these requirements, its future oil revenues would still have to be controlled and an export-control system adopted.

This type of strategy stands a good chance of gaining support from key allies in Europe and the Mideast, and quite possibly from Russia and China on the UN Security Council as well. By presenting Hussein with a strong international coalition, it increases the odds that he will relent and allow disarmament of his dangerous weapons to resume—while also increasing the odds that, if we have to fight him, we will do so with solid allied support.