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The Iraq Ultimatum

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 9, 2002

Are inspections of Iraqi weapons facilities a viable alternative to war? Or are they so certain to fail that further efforts to resume them are pointless, and war the only practical option for addressing the threat posed by Saddam Hussein? Despite the claims of Bush spokesmen that there’s an internal consensus on the issue, these questions clearly continue to divide it. Vice President Dick Cheney recently dismissed the utility of inspections. Secretary of State Colin Powell endorses them. The position of the president himself—who is expected to speak about Iraq to the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 12—remains unclear.

The administration’s divisions are understandable. The three of us also have differing views among ourselves as to whether inspections are preferable to the forcible removal of Saddam, with at least one of us believing that Saddam’s overthrow by U.S. forces is the most desirable policy outcome and at least one other preferring disarmament through inspections and tighter sanctions as an alternative to war. But after much debate, we came to a counterintuitive conclusion: Regardless of one’s views on the most desirable outcome, the same U.S. strategy is appropriate. We should present Saddam with a serious, final ultimatum for toughened up inspections and real disarmament and go to war if he refuses it or subsequently fails to cooperate with the inspectors.

It is time for the Bush administration to hammer out a similar bottom line. As things stand, the administration’s ambivalence is undermining its own purposes and becoming harmful to American interests. It is leading much of the rest of the world to see in the views of Cheney, as well as those of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, evidence of little more than a unilateralist American desire to settle scores with an old nemesis. It also projects a schism within the broader Western alliance that Saddam will surely seek to exploit.

This schizophrenic U.S. stance—inspections are pointless, but possibly necessary—also keeps alive current U.N. arrangements for resumed inspections that Saddam may actually accept if convinced we are ready to use force. If he does accept them, almost all of the rest of the world, including most of our close allies, will quickly lose whatever willingness they may otherwise have to support our use of force. Yet based on the evidence of the past decade, the resumption of such inspections is unlikely to achieve the objectives intended for them, and Saddam is likely to interfere with them at some future point as well.

The Bush administration can rectify this situation by crafting an ultimatum to which it could take yes for an answer and around which the different factions in the administration as well as U.S. allies could unite. Launching a pre-emptive war without issuing such an ultimatum would deprive us of the strong international support we will surely need to make such a war as quick, decisive, and bloodless as possible and to ease the task of stabilizing Iraq under a new government thereafter. Not toughening up the ultimatum, relative to the standing offer we have made Saddam on inspections, would risk a meaningless disarmament process followed by a premature lifting of sanctions on Iraq while Saddam is still in power.

This ultimatum strategy requires people on both sides of the argument to compromise to some degree. For hawks, it means accepting the possibility that Saddam will for now remain leader of Iraq. For doves, it means recognizing that only a very real threat of war—to be carried out if Saddam rejects the ultimatum—can create the leverage needed to gain full Iraqi compliance with the disarmament demands placed upon it at the end of the Persian Gulf War. It also means recognizing certain flaws in the past U.N. inspection process and fixing them.

The first step is to try to develop a U.N. Security Council consensus around a new resolution that would contain the ultimatum. Britain is already supportive of U.S. goals in Iraq, and France seems willing to support force provided that the Security Council authorizes such an approach. Russia can be induced to cooperate with promises that its multibillion-dollar Iraqi debt will be repaid and that it will have a stake in future oil deals in Iraq. China can almost surely be convinced to support an effort that the other permanent members have all endorsed. Faced with the likelihood that we would take unilateral action against Saddam if they fail to reach agreement with us, our fellow permanent members may well be willing to join in the consensus if for no other reason than to have some influence over an operation that they cannot prevent.

The ultimatum should consist of the following key points. Rejection of any of them at any time would constitute grounds for war, leading to the deployment of U.S.-led forces and overthrow of Saddam:

1. Iraq must come into compliance with all U.N. disarmament demands and other requirements imposed on it after the Persian Gulf War, including but hardly limited to the immediate return of U.N. inspectors.

2. Those inspectors must not be impeded from visiting any potential weapons sites in Iraq, including presidential palaces and compounds, at any time and without notice. Nor can they be impeded from access to any Iraqis they choose to converse with, or from determining the composition of their inspection teams as they see fit.

3. The United Nations must have the power to immediately grant asylum to any Iraqi weapons experts as well as their families, should such experts provide information to the United Nations that could put their lives at risk.

4. Iraq must account for, display, and allow U.N. destruction of stocks of chemical and biological weapons and munitions that we know it possesses, and must do so within a short, specific time period.

5. Iraq must agree to intrusive, long-term monitoring of its weapons capabilities that would include no-notice inspections.

6. And even if Iraq were to comply fully with all these requirements, its future oil revenues would still have to be escrowed to control its purchases of dual-use equipment.

One additional but essential component of the ultimatum concerns Iraq’s neighbors. Since they would all prefer to avoid a U.S. invasion of Iraq, they need to agree to stop their illicit trade with Iraq—by which oil comes out, and many goods (including weapons and dual-use technology) go into that country. This would require detailed negotiations with Jordan, Turkey, Syria, and perhaps even Iran, including some combination of economic incentives and strong pressure that would depend in its details on the country in question. Without tighter sanctions, weapons disarmament and inspections efforts will be far less effective.

There is a chance Saddam will accept this ultimatum and allow the return of the inspectors, if the clear alternative is his demise. Some would prefer that he do so, others that he refuse and, in doing so, provide undeniable justification for war. The key point, however, is that either outcome would be better than the current alternatives: allowing Saddam to keep his weapons and his power, or unilaterally waging war.