Getting Serious About Iraq

Martin S. Indyk,
Martin S. Indyk
Martin S. Indyk Former Brookings Expert, Distinguished Fellow - The Council on Foreign Relations
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 1, 2002

In his 29 January 2002 State of the Union address, U.S. President George W. Bush put the word on notice that the United States would ‘not stand aside as the world’s most dangerous regimes develop the world’s most dangerous weapons.’

Such statements, repeated since then in various forms by the president and some of his top advisers, have rightly been interpreted as a sign of the administration’s determination, however, attempts by the administration to put together a precise plan for Saddam’s overthrow have revealed what experience from previous administrations should have made obvious from the outset: overthrowing Saddam is easier said than done. Bush’s desire to get rid of the Iraqi dictator has so far been frustrated by the inherent difficulties of overthrowing an entrenched regime as well as a series of practical hurdles that conviction alone cannot overcome. The latter include the difficulties of organising the Iraqi opposition, resistance from Arab and European allies, joint chiefs’ concerns about the problems of over-stretched armed forces and intelligence assets and the complications caused by the upsurge in Israeli-Palestinian violence.

Certainly the United States has good reasons to want to get rid of Saddam Hussein. Saddam is a menace who has ordered the invasion of several of his neighbours, killed thousands of Kurds and Iranians with poison gas, turned his own country into a brutal police state and demonstrated an insatiable appetite for weapons of mass destruction. He is currently funding Palestinian terrorists who attack Israeli civilians as well as trying to disrupt world oil supplies. He is also, most surely, still trying to build nuclear weapons. And he is powerfully motivated to seek revenge against his personal and political nemeses, as demonstrated most vividly in his assassinations of his sons-in-law in 1995 and his attempted assassination of former President George Bush in 1993. There is no proof that Saddam was involved in 11 September; indeed, he probably was not. But what happened on 11 September (and in the anthrax attacks that followed) nonetheless clearly demonstrates the kind of damage that could result if Saddam were to provide terrorists with biological or nuclear weapons.

That is why there is a general consensus in the United States that overthrowing Saddam would be a good thing. The hard questions are about how to do it. This is not just an issue of military tactics but also of strategy, diplomacy and what to do in Iraq once the military battle has been won. With sufficient American leadership, commitment and sacrifice, the military, diplomatic and nation-building challenges involved in regime-change in Iraq can all be met. But they should not be underestimated. The Bush administration, still flush with success in Afghanistan (though even there reality is setting in), is only now beginning to confront the imperial burden it would be taking on should the president decide to follow through on his rhetoric.