Containing Saddam

We are witnessing the foreign policy equivalent of the movie “Groundhog Day.” Yet again Saddam Hussein is refusing to meet his obligations—and yet again the United States is scurrying about trying to build international support for its position. The Clinton Administration is hobbled, though, by its lack of consistency. More than three months have passed since Iraq stopped allowing so-called challenge inspections of sites suspected of producing or hiding weapons of mass destruction, including chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons.

In the face of this act of Iraqi non-compliance, the Administration did nothing, despite its tough words this past February that any new act of Iraqi defiance would be met with decisive military force.

As is his pattern, Saddam reacted to this latest sign of American weakness with new probes. Now he refuses to allow international inspectors access to any sites in Iraq, including those searched in the past and which are subject to long-term monitoring to make sure they remain clean.

The United States needs to act—and soon. It is not simply that U.S. credibility is on the line, although this is not something to be lightly dismissed. Rather, it is that Iraq cannot be allowed to develop weapons of mass destruction. Saddam used them before; he could again. The next Desert Storm will be far more difficult and costly if we must confront an Iraq armed with biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons. There is also reason to fear that Iraq would make its weapons of mass destruction available to terrorists. Depending on U.S. threats of retaliation to deter such actions by Iraq is far from ideal.

It won’t be easy to persuade many others of the need to confront Saddam. Governments are tired of dealing with this problem. Years of economic sanctions have created sympathy for the Iraqi people. The absence of a strong U.S. push for Middle East peace has alienated much of the Arab world. The Russians and French appear more concerned with recovering money owed them by Iraq than with holding Iraq to account. Still, the United States does not need further UN authority to deal with Saddam. The resolution that ended the Gulf War demanded that Iraq cooperate fully with international weapons inspectors. Iraq has violated the cease-fire; we are no longer bound to hold back.

But act how? We could use military force, but for what? This is not just an academic question. The Administration’s inability to answer this same question early this year led to the public relations and foreign policy fiasco at Ohio State. Alas, there is no surgical option that would allow us to destroy Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. It is impossible to target and destroy what you cannot locate. Also not an option is removing Saddam. Whatever the merits of calls to support his opponents, this idea is irrelevant to the challenge at hand. It is not simply that it is a long shot, but also that building a viable opposition would take a long time. Saddam would be likely to have weapons of mass destruction before we had any chance of ousting him.

The Administration is reportedly considering several days—or longer—of punitive bombing of Iraq. This makes little sense. Once the dust settled, Saddam would loom larger than ever and there would still be no weapons inspections.

What we can do, though, is attack those facilities meant to be monitored or any suspect facility that would normally be the target of a challenge inspection. We will do with aircraft and cruise missiles what Iraq will not permit us to do with inspectors. Such attacks won’t solve the problem of Iraq’s unconventional weapons, but they should reduce its scope.

The United States should also attack military targets as a penalty for Iraqi non-compliance. Such raids might have the useful byproduct of persuading those forces Saddam depends on to turn on him. This course will cause diplomatic protests in Moscow and Paris, and probably protests of a stronger kind in the Arab world. Support for maintaining sanctions could diminish.

Some but not all of this reaction can be moderated by the President and his chief aides explaining repeatedly what we are doing and why. We will also need to take great pains to limit collateral damage of innocents—and by making clear that Iraq would be free to export unlimited amounts of oil if it allowed unfettered inspections and resolved all questions about its unconventional weapons programs.

Sustaining such a plan in the face of the inevitable protests will be difficult. So, too, will be persuading Saddam to relent and permit weapons inspections to resume. It could require months or even years of intermittent but regular attacks on Iraq. It will be demanding militarily and diplomatically.

But the strategy will be no more costly than allowing Iraq to regenerate a biological or nuclear capability. Still, we should only go down this path if we are prepared to stay the course. The only thing worse than not acting would be to start and not see it through.