Iraq: Can Saddam Be Overthrown?

The immediate result of the recent stand-off with Iraq is that the United States and the world community will continue to face an Iraq headed by Saddam Hussein who possesses some weapons of mass destruction. It is thus not surprising that this Committee has posed the question “Can Saddam be overthrown?”

A more basic question, however, is “Should Saddam be overthrown?” The short answer is “yes.” The people of Iraq and indeed people everywhere almost certainly would be better off if Saddam were no longer in power.

Still, it is important to keep in mind that getting rid of Saddam is not a panacea. As we have seen in Afghanistan, ousting regimes is one thing, restoring order and installing a better system something else again. A policy that resulted in an Iraq that was the site not only of prolonged civil war but also regional conflict involving Syria, Iran, Turkey and possibly others would hardly qualify as a success.

Moreover, to say that the world would be a better place if Saddam were to be overthrown is not to say that overthrowing Saddam should become the central purpose of American policy toward Iraq. As a general rule, a policy must not only be desirable but doable; in addition, the expected benefits and costs of a particular course of action must appear better than what could be reasonably expected from pursuing the alternatives. By these criteria, a policy dedicated to overthrowing Saddam does not appear to be the best option available to the United States at this time.

In principle, one can design three variations of a policy that would make Saddam Hussein’s removal from power the core objective. The three variations of such a roll-back policy are assassination, providing support to Iraqi opposition elements, or by taking control of the country. Each is discussed below.

Is assassination, as some have suggested, an option? The short answer is no. As Fidel Castro’s continued rule suggests, it tends to be difficult to carry out. Moreover, assassination raises a host of legal, moral and political problems. An Executive Order continues in force that precludes assassination. Any change in this order would set off a major domestic and international debate that would damage the reputation of the United States. In addition, we need to think twice before weakening this norm for more practical reasons. The United States is the most open society in the world. We are as a result highly vulnerable to assassination and retaliation ourselves.

A second version of roll-back would borrow from the experience in Afghanistan. Thus, some individuals are advocating that the United States promote Saddam’s ouster by supporting the Iraqi opposition with money, radio broadcasts, arms, and air power.

This proposal, however, overlooks the reality that the Iraqi opposition is weak and divided. “Oppositions” would be more accurate. Building a strong, united opposition is an uncertain proposition that at a minimum would take years. During that time, the United States would still require another policy to deal with the more immediate challenges posed by the regime. A better parallel than Afghanistan might be to Hungary in 1956 or the Bay of Pigs, where U.S. support for local opponents of regimes was enough to get them in trouble but not enough to put them over the top. Providing direct military help for the Iraqi opposition would prove even more dangerous. We would be investing U.S. prestige and risking U.S. lives in situations in which it could be impossible to distinguish between friend and foe. Such a commitment could lead the United States to undertake a full-fledged intervention and occupation if limited support for opposition elements proved insufficient. The parallel to Afghanistan breaks down in other ways as well. Where is our “Pakistan” here? What local country is likely to step forward to be our partner? Neighboring countries, including our ally Turkey, are likely to oppose some of the goals of various Iraqi factions, while U.S. support for Iraqi factions that are in any way defined by geography or ethnicity could easily increase Iraqi military (and Sunni Muslim). support for the central government.

More realistic in some ways than this indirect or “lite” form of roll-back would be occupying Iraq with ground forces, akin to what we did in Germany and Japan after World War II and on a far more modest scale in Panama and Haiti. But such “nation building” in Iraq could well take years, place U.S. forces in non-battlefield situations where they could not exploit their stand-off and precision-guided munitions, and generate intense resistance and casualties. Iraqi employment of weapons of mass destruction against U.S. forces or those assisting them cannot be ruled out. There would be little appetite here at home for a course of action that would almost certainly prove expensive in both financial and human terms. Nor would there be any more support in the region for such a policy, one that would seem to many to constitute an unacceptable form of “neo-colonialism.” What began as liberation would likely come to be seen as occupation.

What, then, is the answer to the question that informs this hearing? Can Saddam be overthrown? The answer is “yes”, but not for certain, and certainly not easily or cheaply. The only sure approach would require a massive investment of time, resources and possibly lives. We do not know how much resistance to us (and support for Saddam) would materialize, how much terrorism might be unleashed in retaliation, how much support we could expect in the region. Nor can we be confident of what sort of leadership and system would come to replace the current one.

The alternative to roll-back in any of its various forms is containment. Under a containment strategy, the principal goal of U.S. policy would be to limit Iraq’s ability to threaten the region and to encourage its compliance with the many resolutions passed by the UN Security Council in the aftermath of the Gulf War. Getting rid of Saddam would constitute a secondary aim.

Making containment work would be far from easy. It is beyond our capacity to do alone. As a result, and more than anything else, we would need to shore up the international coalition that has helped keep Saddam in a box for some seven years now.

Regenerating Arab support?essential if we are to mount any significant military operation?requires that we continue to support generous Iraqi exports of oil if it needs revenue to pay for needed food and medicine. More important, the United States should declare that it is prepared to allow Iraq to resume unlimited oil exports if it complies fully with the UN requirement that it not possess nor produce chemical, biological or nuclear weapons or long range missiles and if it accepts that any money earned from exports be funneled into a mechanism controlled by the United Nations. This would ensure that no funds could be use to purchase arms (which would remain forbidden) and would pay for ongoing work of the weapons inspectors (to continue in perpetuity). Proceeds would also be used to purchase food, medicine and consumer goods for the Iraqi people, to compensate Kuwaitis and others for war losses, and to pay Iraq’s debts. This latter provision should encourage France and Russia to support the introduction of such a provision. Moreover, issuing such a declaration now will not change anything regarding the status of sanctions unless and until Saddam is certified by UNSCOM and IAEA inspectors. But even a change in declaratory policy will have the immediate benefit of strengthening our position in the Arab world where current U.S. policy?that Saddam comply with every aspect of every resolution before he receives any sanctions relief?is seen as unreasonable and unfair.

We also need a more energetic policy toward Middle East peace. Linkage here is a fact of life. One need not and should not equate Israel and Iraq (or ignore Palestinian and Syrian shortcomings) to recognize that U.S. determination to press Saddam contrasts markedly with American passivity when confronted with Israeli reluctance to implement the Oslo accords or cease unilateral actions that complicate the search for peace. The willingness and ability of Arab governments to work with us against Saddam requires that we do something to reduce this perceived double standard.

Rebuilding the coalition more broadly will require, too, that we make Iraq a diplomatic priority. This may mean going slow on subsequent phases of NATO enlargement?in particular, possible Baltic entry?so as not to further alienate Russia. (That moving slowly may also be good for NATO lest it dilute its capacity to act is an added benefit.) Shoring up the anti-Iraq coalition may also mean eschewing secondary sanctions that penalize France and others in Europe when they do not join U.S. boycotts of Cuba or Iran.

A more nuanced U.S. approach toward Iran?one that embraced a reciprocal “road-map” for improving relations?would help in other ways, as it would threaten Saddam with further isolation or even encirclement. The good news is that all these policy adjustments make sense on their merits. No American interest would be sacrificed or compromised to make our Iraq policy more effective.

Any use of military force should be large and sustained if Iraq again seeks to block UN weapons inspectors or if it masses forces against or attacks one of its neighbors. The target should be Republican Guard troops and their equipment, other internal security forces, communications networks?in short, Saddam’s power base. To make this possible, the United States should maintain an augmented military capacity in the region on an open-ended basis.

An element of deterrence should also be introduced into U.S. policy. Specifically, Saddam Hussein should be informed that if there is any use of weapons of mass destruction by Iraq, or if there is any use of WMD by others that can be traced back to Iraq, the United States will do whatever is necessary to remove the regime and bring all those responsible to justice.

A containment policy along the lines outlined here promises to be better than explicit roll-back options. It may not offer the promise of a near-term solution that Americans tend to favor, but it will limit the problem. Moreover, it is both doable and affordable, something that cannot be said of more ambitious proposals. As a rule, containment succeeds unless it is allowed to fail; roll-back fails unless it is able to succeed.

To make containment effective, though, will require that it become a priority of American foreign policy. It is not enough for the president and his chief lieutenants to turn their attention to Iraq after Saddam creates a crisis. As was demonstrated in our struggle with the Soviet Union, and as is demonstrated by what we are doing in Korea, containment?”longterm, patient but vigilant” in George Kennan’s original formulation?can work if we are prepared to commit to it.

Moreover, Kennan’s original formulation teaches us something else. A successful containment policy can set in motion forces that can actually lead to the demise of the regime in question. Change, if and when it comes to Iraq, is most likely to come from actions taken by those in or near the center of power who have access to Saddam and who would not be opposed by the majority of those in or near power. This is what took place in the Soviet Union and much of the formerly communist world. As a result, it is quite possible that the policy most likely to result in Saddam’s ouster is one that does not place this goal at the center of what it is we are trying to bring about.

In the case of Iraq, this argues for a policy that would relax export restrictions on Iraq only in the event of its full compliance with WMD-related obligations, maintain critical import sanctions for the foreseeable future, and regularly remind the Iraqi people of improvements they can expect when they are led by a different leadership that meets its international obligations. It would also require a readiness to attack directly and with great intensity Saddam’s domestic sources of support on those occasions military force is justified. If all this leads to a change in Iraq’s leadership, so much the better. But the advantage of containment over the alternatives is that it protects our core interests even if Saddam manages to hang on for months or even years.