Time for Realism on Handling Iraq

Frustrated by the reluctance of Russia and other members of the U.N. Security Council to go along with a plan to modify sanctions on Iraq, the Bush administration has accepted delaying U.N. action on the issue for one month. But the central problem for Iraq policy is here at home, not abroad. There is no winning policy option for the United States, given the nature of the American discourse on Iraq and the persistent perception that the administration remains divided on this issue. Here is the problem: Given the prevalent assumptions on Iraq, few people will be satisfied with any outcome short of removing Saddam Hussein, or at least visibly weakening him, and few are willing to pay the price of a ground war that might be required to ensure his removal.

While Saddam Hussein is portrayed here as one of the greatest threats to world peace, the rest of the world sees him as a ruthless dictator who is neither powerful enough to pose such a threat nor so suicidal as to be immune to military deterrence. Even a successful restructuring of U.N. sanctions that will improve the lot of Iraq’s people and limit Iraq’s weapons will be read as a failure in the United States before long. Surely the increased funds that Iraq will receive, and the new opening it will have in trade and travel, will be claimed as a victory by its leaders, whose posture will become even more strident. Opponents of this policy will continue to claim that Iraq is secretly developing weapons of mass destruction?an allegation that can never be fully refuted. And with every blow to the prospects of Arab-Israeli peace, Saddam Hussein’s popularity in the region will rise?if only as a form of defying the United States. Charges of appeasement will soon resonate all over Washington.

Those who are calling for a more aggressive policy on Iraq aimed at overthrowing Saddam Hussein stand to lose more by having their policy tested first than by awaiting the failure of revised sanctions to please the Washington mainstream. In reality, there is no military solution that can guarantee the removal of Saddam Hussein, short of a ground war. Sure, one can get lucky with less, but no president can commit to such an option unless the chance of success is high, and that means making a commitment to go to war if necessary.

But the lack of public support for this level of commitment at home is even surpassed by insurmountable opposition abroad?not to mention the consequences of war for oil markets, or the uncertainties that would follow the regime’s removal. Either way, the White House stands to lose.

There is a way out?and it’s not in sending talented American diplomats around the world persuading people to see things our way, or in pretending that the problem is only with greedy Europeans anxious to do business with Iraq. It begins with the president unifying his own advisers and then leveling with Congress and the American people. George W. Bush cannot afford a divided house on Iraq, since it means that neither option will be given a full chance to work.

The president can use the change of power in the Senate as an opportunity for a national consensus on Iraq. Conventionally, Iraq’s threat is certainly containable by the presence of American forces in the region, even if Iraq’s income increases. While the United States should work to limit Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, one should not be intimidated by the prospect that Iraq may end up acquiring them anyway. Iraq had chemical weapons during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, which failed to deter the United States from waging a full war against it. More important, Iraqi leaders didn’t use them because they knew they would be committing suicide, since the United States would have marched to Baghdad. Their survival instinct has trumped their grand ambition every time.

Saddam Hussein will continue to pose a threat to U.S. interests, but his specter in Washington is much larger than the man himself. Inflating a third-rate power is self-defeating; it limits policy options and sets aside more important priorities. Removing the economic sanctions while containing Iraq militarily is the only workable policy short of waging a war. But the obstacles to this policy are greater here at home than they are abroad. It’s time for an honest national debate.