Dealing with Iraq

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

November 30, 2001

Should the US go to war against Saddam Hussein? With George W. Bush, the US president, warning that Mr Saddam will “find out” what will happen if he does not allow United Nations weapons inspectors back into Iraq, this question is becoming the hottest debate in the war on terrorism.

Conservatives, most of them Republicans, argue for taking advantage of this opportunity to rid the world of a terrible despot. Moderates from both the Democratic and Republican parties argue that the lack of evidence implicating Mr Saddam in the events of September 11 and the resulting lack of international support for attacking him preclude the option for now.

Each side in this debate tends to make a central mistake. Moderates are correct to note the lack of international support for attacking Mr Saddam at present. But most go too far in suggesting that the international coalition against terrorism would be shattered if the US went to war alone. They often forget that, in dealing with Mr Saddam, nothing succeeds like success. If the US really overthrew him, most countries would rejoice. Russia and France could resume their trade with Iraq and recoup billions of dollars; many Arab nations would be relieved by the lifting of sanctions that have hurt the innocent Iraqi people; most countries around the world would be relieved at the prospect of a more dependable flow of Persian Gulf oil.

Conservatives are right that there is a strong case for ridding the world of Mr Saddam. He has chemical and biological weapons, nuclear-weapons ambitions, a record of ruthless aggression against his own people and several neighbours, and a lust for vengeance—as evidenced in the attempted assassination of former President George Bush in 1993.

There is also evidence that terrorists have been trained in Iraq in the past, even if they are not necessarily part of the al Qaeda network. Although Mr Saddam and Osama bin Laden are adversaries in many ways, it is not difficult to imagine them forming an alliance of convenience for the purpose of attacking the US. The meetings in Prague between Iraqi intelligence officials and Mohammed Atta, the hijacker, in 2000 and 2001 show that a certain contact has already occurred.

But advocates of a change of regime systematically understate the costs and risks. Those who believe a palace coup could be easily induced by a few days of bombing, or that an Iraqi opposition could be quickly mobilised and armed to lead a march on Baghdad, are living in a fantasy world. Their ideas could lead to the very types of military half-measures that could leave the Arab world even angrier with US policy without unseating Mr Saddam.

The Iraqi leader has proved his ability to survive in power. He retains 100,000 troops in his Special Republican Guard and Republican Guard. Furthermore, his overall armed forces of 400,000 are roughly 10 times the size of the Taliban’s. The Iraqi opposition is splintered and weak. If Mr Saddam is to be overthrown—the only appropriate objective for a future war against Iraq—the US would have to do it alone.

What would that take? Perhaps not Desert Storm II, with 500,000 US troops deployed to the Arabian peninsula. But at least half that number would be required to march through the forests of the Tigris-Euphrates valley, fight in the streets of Baghdad, convince Iraqi soldiers to defect and occupy the country for a time once the military victory was won. Moreover, US casualties would surely be much higher than in Desert Storm, given the nature of the fighting. The risk of casualties would be even higher if Mr Saddam resorted to chemical or biological attacks against invading US troops, as he very well could knowing his back was to the wall. America’s own actions could produce the very outcome they were designed to prevent.

The real question, then, is whether Mr Saddam can be deterred. At present, most evidence suggests that he can. After Desert Storm, he never took steps that precipitated US military action capable of imperilling his hold on power. He again threatened Kuwait in 1994 but backed off when the Clinton administration responded militarily. He tolerated inspectors until he rightly recognised that impeding their work would be met with only limited US and British airstrikes. He invaded Kuwait in 1990 only after the US suggested it would tolerate such an action. He is a monster, but also someone who clearly wants to stay in power and stay alive.

Future evidence may require the US to revise this assessment. If Mr Saddam was implicated in the events of September 11, or is providing weapons of mass destruction to al Qaeda, the US would have no choice but to overthrow him—whether the rest of the world agreed or not. Mr Bush should say so, making explicit a Bush doctrine on regime change that his administration has already hinted at. But for now, the costs and risks of containment appear lower than those of attempting to overthrow Mr Saddam.