The United States and Iraq: A Strategy for the Long Haul

Bent but not broken is the best way to describe the state of U.S. policy toward Iraq. U.S. resolve is sure to be tested again, however. The United States needs a comprehensive strategy that rebuilds the anti-Saddam coalition, uses military force decisively, and limits the unilateralism that increasingly characterizes its policy toward both Iraq and Iran.


It is now more than six years after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and just over five since Kuwait’s liberation. On one level, the United States has fared well. Economic sanctions against Iraq remain in place and are largely complied with. Much progress has been made in uncovering and eliminating Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Iraq is in economic trouble. Large elements of its military are demoralized. The net result is that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq is far weaker than it was at the start of the decade and is better understood as a dangerous nuisance than an actual strategic threat.

But the glass is also half empty. Saddam Hussein remains in office despite numerous attempts to overthrow him. He has rebuilt his military, not to its level before the Gulf War, but considerably above where it was when the war ended. Opposition to sanctions is arising on commercial and increasingly on humanitarian grounds even though the relevant UN resolutions include provisions for Iraqi imports of food and medicine.

The Guns Of August

Recent developments have altered both reality and perceptions. A number of factors–rkish and Iranian incursions into northern Iraq, a new Islamic-led government in Turkey that was less disposed than the previous one to cooperating with the Gulf War coalition, a split between the two principal Kurdish factions in northern Iraq and the decision of one to turn to Iran and the other to Baghdad–mbined to provide Saddam with an opening, something he was eager to grab if only to occupy his troops so that disgruntled officers would have less of an opportunity to mount another coup.

Saddam moved into northern Iraq with some 40,000 troops and numerous police and intelligence personnel. He quickly regained substantial influence there. In so doing, however, he violated UN Security Council Resolution 688, which demands that he end any repression of the Iraqi people. The Clinton administration responded indirectly, by destroying a few air defense sites south of Baghdad, extending the southern No Fly Zone one degree north, and suspending implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 986 and its allowance of limited Iraqi oil exports.

On balance, Saddam gained more than he lost. Indeed, September 1996 was Saddam’s best month since March of 1991 when he was able to put down the Shia and Kurdish uprisings and deflect opposition stemming from his catastrophic handling of the Gulf War. To some extent, these gains were the inevitable consequence of Kurdish infighting and the opportunity it created. But U.S. foreign policy also contributed.

Several things could and should have been done differently. The first was coalition maintenance. The anti-Saddam consensus had been allowed to weaken. In diplomacy, neglect is almost never benign. The United States did precious little during the past few years to keep the coalition intact and robust. The policy of “dual containment” of Iraq and Iran gave us a slogan when what we needed was a strategy and sustained efforts to implement it. This applies to Turkey, the Arab governments, the Europeans, and Russia. Furthermore, the lack of U.S. reaction to Turkish and Iranian incursions into northern Iraq only increased Saddam’s incentive to act at the same time it increased the odds that a move on his part would be accepted by his Arab neighbors.

The second principal error involved the use of force. The U.S. action–using cruise missiles to destroy a number of Iraqi air defense sites–was too small and too remote. To be sure, there was coalition resistance to using military force against Saddam at this time, a view that reflected a lack of sympathy for the Kurds and concern over Iranian behavior. But the United States will only have a limited number of occasions to use force against Iraq and it must make the most of them–even if it means placing U.S. pilots at some risk or causing some collateral, that is, unintended, damage to people and sites in Iraq. Despite these setbacks, it would be wrong to conclude that the U.S. position is irretrievably damaged. The weakness of the coalition in responding to Saddam’s actions inside his country should not be interpreted as its demise. A good deal of consensus continues to exist, enough so that keeping the sanctions in place and preventing Iraq from again becoming a strategic threat to its neighbors should be possible.

Rebuilding Consensus

Reinvigorating the coalition should be the first priority. This means repairing the U.S.-Turkish relationship and consulting closely with Turkey about how best to deal with future crises in northern Iraq. The question is “when” rather than “if” such a crisis will come about. Saddam is a serial prober; at some point he will turn on his new Kurdish friends, in the process triggering a large flow of refugees in the direction of the Turkish border. It must thus become a foreign policy priority to continue Operation Provide Comfort, both to avoid suggesting to Saddam that he enjoys a free hand in the north and so that the U.S. and Turkish governments are prepared for a new crisis that would require U.S. use of Turkish bases. Turkey ought to be willing to sign on to such a course. While the Turks are understandably wary of Kurdish autonomy–they fear that it will only increase demands for separatism from Turkey’s own Kurdish minority, and view any autonomous area in Iraq as a safe haven for terrorists–they also have a stake in avoiding a massive flow of refugees across their border.

We similarly need to make sure a consensus exists that Saddam will not be able to mass forces against any of his neighbors as he did in July 1990 and again in October 1994. If he does, we and others need to strike–and strike hard. More generally, any use of force by the coalition–be it to prevent an attack on Kuwait, respond to state support of terrorism, or punish Iraq for violating UN resolutions or preventing UN weapons inspectors from carrying out their mission–needs to be large enough to hurt Saddam militarily and politically.

U.S. policy should ensure that Saddam does not re-emerge as a strategic threat. This policy also has the potential to create a context in which the Iraqi people move against Saddam. Toward that end, the United States must do a much better job of articulating just how Iraq would benefit under a different leadership, one that would demonstrate its intention to act responsibly. Such a comprehensive overt policy–a mixture of tough sanctions, substantial use of military force when warranted, and clear public diplomacy–should at a minimum prevent Saddam from breaking out and has the potential to accomplish more.

This approach also has the potential to be more effective than renewed covert policy in which the Kurds are used as the foundation of an anti-Saddam effort. There is no way to make the Kurds strong enough to threaten Saddam without rekindling Kurdish interest in independence, something that would be unacceptable to Turkey and many of our Arab friends, remove what little incentive Ankara has to work with us in this area, and increase the support of Iraq’s military and its Sunni population for Saddam. But to help the Kurds “just a little” (as recent U.S. policy appears to have done) encourages the Kurds to act against Saddam and one another at the same time it leaves them vulnerable to central government forces and leaves us with few means of helping if and when they get into trouble.

Instead, the United States would do better to focus its diplomatic efforts on bridging intra-Kurdish differences and weakening the links of the two major Kurdish actors with both Iraq and Iran, a prerequisite for generating regional and international support on behalf of the Kurds. In addition, we should look for ways to assist the Kurds economically and protect them against the worst sorts of Iraqi repression–and accept the harsh reality that true Kurdish autonomy is something that is likely to come only after Saddam is gone from the scene.

Another important concern is what the United States should avoid doing. Developing an obsession with Saddam would be one trap. It is wrong to exaggerate the threat he currently poses. Similarly, and even though the world would be far better off without Saddam, making his ouster an explicit goal would also be wrong. If the United States did so, every day Saddam survived would be construed as a victory for him. Moreover, America lacks the tools to achieve this end. Our conventional military forces are all but irrelevant to the task, while our intelligence assets are limited in what they can accomplish.

It would also be wise to continue to support Iraq’s territorial integrity even though Iraq’s break-up would probably eliminate Saddam and the threat posed by a rogue Iraq. Splitting Iraq would stimulate all sorts of fighting among Iraqis, between Iraqis and their neighbors, and among those neighbors. All this upset would benefit Iran, which would then emerge as the single strongest local state. And even if the United States were to conclude otherwise, it would still have to confront the reality that none of its Arab friends in the region (nor Turkey) support Iraq’s dismantlement.

Seven Not-So-Easy Pieces

Success in relation to Iraq will require a number of sustained commitments.

  • The first involves intelligence. Iraq and the Persian Gulf more broadly must remain a priority for the U. S. intelligence community. Open sources cannot possibly carry the burden of collection or analysis. In particular, the United States will need to develop more human intelligence if it is to have necessary warning and insight into Iraqi behavior.

  • The second consideration is military. The United States must be able to deter and defeat conventional aggression, mount preventive and preemptive attacks against weapons of mass destruction, conduct punitive strikes against state supporters of terrorism, and sustain interdiction on behalf of sanctions. U.S. diplomacy can only succeed against a backdrop of the availability of military forces and the will to use them.

    What makes fulfilling this need especially difficult is the requirement that the U.S. presence not become too large or visible lest it cause as many problems for our friends as it is designed to manage. This argues for maintaining the current posture of “presence without stationing,” including prepositioning of material, regular exercising of visiting U.S. forces, and maintaining an off-shore air and naval presence. Accelerating consolidation of our military presence in less visible and accessible places has the added benefit of reducing the exposure of U.S. forces to terrorist attacks.

  • Third, U.S. policy toward Iraq has a far better chance of succeeding if U.S. policy toward Iran is effective. Iran is a repressive power at home with imperial ambitions and economic feet of clay. It should be our aim to frustrate its reach and exacerbate its economic problems in order to stimulate domestic opposition. An Iran that significantly threatened the region would fundamentally change Arab attitudes and end any support for efforts to oust Saddam or contain Iraq.

    As a result, U.S. policy toward Iran must include concerted efforts to deny Iran an unconventional weapons capability; a willingness to use force if clear evidence is found of Iranian support for terrorism; and a frank message to Iran that future incursions into Iraq are unacceptable. Harsh rhetoric will not be enough, though. Nor will the United States be able to achieve these goals alone.

    For this reason, America should approach its friends in Europe and the Asia-Pacific region and propose a structured dialogue with Iran. Building consensus will be anything but easy. The Europeans and the Japanese tend to see Iran as less threatening than the United States, and argue that the best way for making it even less of a problem is to engage it politically and economically so that Iran’s moderates are strengthened. This perspective is almost certainly flawed Iran is a major threat to the region and even beyond and its so-called moderates are either unable or unwilling to alter the basics of Iran’s foreign policy. Still, before a more stringent approach toward Iran could ever be sold to our allies, the “benign” view of Iran must be tested.

    To do this, the United States would have to jettison its reluctance to be specific about what it would be prepared to offer Iran economically and politically should Iran’s behavior meet specific, demanding standards. In addition, the United States might have to suspend (say, for a period of six months) implementation of existing sanctions legislation that penalizes others for doing business with Iran. In return, the Europeans and the Japanese would have to agree not to deal with Iran separately or engage Iran economically simply on the hope that such engagement would pay off in better behavior. Such a policy might not appeal to Iran or even to many of the allies, but it is surely worth pursuing seriously, if only because it is clearly preferable to the course we are now on, one that threatens to do more damage to relations with America’s allies than to Iran.

  • Fourth, the risks and costs of unilateralism must be understood. A strategy against Saddam and Iraq–including maintaining sanctions and denying Iraq the ability to export even limited amounts of oil–can only succeed if others in the region and in Europe support it. This means the United States must engage in far more frequent and senior consultations with other countries. The sort of unilateralism demonstrated recently by Mr. Clinton on Iraq and by both Congress and the administration toward Iran is not so much the exercise of leadership as its abandonment.

  • Fifth, we need to encourage our friends in the region to undertake reforms that will leave them less vulnerable to revolutionary change. This does not mean hectoring them publicly on human rights or calling for elections in the absence of basic elements of civil society, but it does mean privately urging them to carry out limited political and economic reforms that increase political participation and private ownership, reduce the state role in political and economic life, and discourage corruption and excessive state violence. States that are facing unrest at home will prove less able and willing to act against Iraq.

  • A sixth reality is that U.S. policy toward Iraq will prove much more difficult to implement if the Arab-Israeli peace process breaks down. Arab concerns with Iraq will be overshadowed, and the ability of friendly governments to work closely and visibly with the United States against Saddam will diminish. This translates into another argument for active U.S. efforts to rebuild a serious dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians.

  • Last, the United States needs to do more in the realm of energy. We now import approximately half the oil we consume. Although only a modest percentage of U.S. oil comes from the Persian Gulf, the United States is and will be affected directly and indirectly by any supply disruption. This argues for continued diversification of supply and reduction in U.S. demand, something that makes sense not only for foreign policy but also in regard to the trade deficit and the environment.

All of these measures are well worth doing. Still, they will not “solve” America’s predicament in the Persian Gulf. The problem facing the United States is that no combination of friendly local states can offset either Iraq or Iran. As a result, continued U.S. involvement in the region will be necessary for the foreseeable future to square the circle of strong enemies, weak friends, and vital interests.