Give It One More Try Before War

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

August 1, 2002

Is there any way to remove the threat posed by Saddam Hussein without going to war to unseat him?

Washington’s European allies argue that the real problem is not Hussein but his weapons of mass destruction, so the resumption of U.N. inspections would be a way to avoid a potentially costly and destabilizing military invasion of Iraq. Arab countries endorsed this approach during their March summit in Beirut.

Hawks in the Bush administration and elsewhere worry that getting inspectors back into Iraq would be a booby prize. They believe that inspections have proved futile, that any agreement by Hussein to allow inspectors back in would be a trick and that the U.S. should overthrow Hussein even if he suddenly offers to open his doors to the United Nations. The extremes on both sides of this debate are missing a key option: a much tougher inspections regime with immediate demands on Hussein to reveal his illicit weapons so we can destroy them and a clear, multilateral promise to go to war if he thwarts us even one time. This may be an option that the U.S. and its allies can all agree on, if it is carefully developed.

In other words, unlike the situation in the 1990s, the U.S. and its allies, preferably through a new U.N. Security Council resolution, would leave no doubt about what would happen should Iraq resort to its old ways. And Washington would get as much of the world as possible to endorse that basic position in advance.

We would ensure that if inspections do happen, they stand a high probability of successfully denying Iraq weapons of mass destruction. And if Hussein thwarts inspectors, the U.S.-led coalition will have made it known that there will be no more second chances.

This approach should deprive Hussein of his hope of splitting the U.S. from its friends and allies as a means of preventing war.

In addition, the ultimatum to Iraq should include the following:

—Immediate progress on accounting for and eliminating several key items of concern. These include VX nerve agent and associated delivery vehicles, the dozen or more Scud missiles still believed to be hidden and materials to make biological agents. Iraq would be given a tight deadline for compliance.

—Immediate access to anyone in the Iraqi nuclear and biological weapons programs, along with the right to usher them and their families out of the country and to asylum should they provide information that Hussein does not want to get out. Of course, the international community would also insist on access to nuclear-related and biological weapons materials we learn about so they could be destroyed.

—An agreement with other industrial countries to establish restrictions on future high-tech trade with Iraq for as long as Hussein or a similar despot holds power in Baghdad. Styled after the Cold War limits on sales of items that could aid the militaries of communist foes, it would place particular emphasis on denying Iraq technologies used in a nuclear weapons program. It could also include monitoring rights for other technologies.

Under this approach, we would still be connected to Hussein by a chain made up of U.N. resolutions and international obligations. But we would be the ones yanking the chain, not him. And if we had to go to war, most of the world would then be with us.