U.S. Policy Is the Option That Works Iraq: Sanctions are our main goal since the other goals, including removing Saddam Hussein, are not achievable

Scott Ritter’s resignation from the U.N.’s inspection team in Iraq has sparked a round of recrimination in Washington that stems from a combination of partisanship and honest frustration at Saddam Hussein’s persistence seven years after the Gulf War. A rigorous evaluation of all policy alternatives, however, reveals that President Clinton’s much-maligned policy is the best choice among bad options.

Central to this analysis is understanding that the United States has three goals in Iraq and four means of achieving them. The goals in descending order of preference are to remove Saddam, change his policy choices or inhibit his ability to threaten neighbors. The means are ground forces, air power, economic sanctions or fostering insurgency.

Ground forces: Even during the Gulf War, when our troops were perched within striking distance, the prospect of invading Iraq to overthrow Saddam was a political nonstarter due to concerns about potential quagmire, protracted occupation and antagonizing regional allies. Indeed, a Pentagon blueprint for such an invasion, titled “The Road to Baghdad,” was spiked before it could even be presented to the White House. The implausibility of such an invasion means that we also cannot coerce a change in Saddam’s policy by its threat.

Air power: Advocates have long predicted that strategic bombing could inflict such devastation on a society that its people would overthrow their leader. In practice, such bombing has produced just the opposite: a “rally round the flag” when victims focus anger on those dropping the bombs. Never in history has strategic bombing alone toppled a leader.

Bombing sometimes can coerce a leader’s change in policy, especially where his vital interests are not at stake, but Saddam does not appear susceptible, defying six weeks of it in 1991. While it might appear that threats of air strikes have since coerced Saddam to accept inspections, in every case he first exacted concessions and later blocked inspectors, never actually halting his rearmament effort. Coercive bombing would only shatter our already fragile support in the U.N. Security Council and exacerbate anti-American sentiment in the Arab “street,” pressuring regional allies to evict U.S. forces.

As for using air power to destroy Saddam’s weapons programs, recent experience in Sudan is informative. The ostensible chemical-weapons plant we destroyed turns out to have been also (or instead) a pharmaceutical factory making medicine for a country torn by war and famine. Our attack engendered significant ill will throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds and undercut our moral high ground. Intelligence is unlikely to be much better in Iraq.

Economic sanctions: After seven years, U.N. economic sanctions have failed to oust Saddam because they target the common people, while Iraqi security forces remain too pampered and/or terrified to attempt a coup. Sanctions did initially coerce Saddam to permit inspections in his hope that such minor cooperation would get them lifted quickly. However, they no longer have even that minimal coercive effect and never stood a chance of compelling Saddam to cease his pursuit of unconventional weapons. The real power of sanctions rather is impeding that pursuit, by blocking Saddam’s access to billions in oil revenue.

Fostering insurgency: With U.S. arms and air support, an opposition insurgency could be made formidable. However, it is still likely to fail to topple Saddam because its ethnic Kurd and Shiite composition would spur Iraq’s Sunni-dominated army to back him. At best, we could foster civil war and Iraq’s disintegration along ethnic lines, diverting Saddam’s resources. However, civil war would run the grave risk of dragging in neighboring states, attracted either by ethnic links or a power vacuum. Such wider war would jeopardize our supreme regional interest, the free flow of oil, making this strategy unacceptable.

To summarize, in light of our capabilities and will, we do not have the means to remove Saddam or change his policies. We can only inhibit his ability to threaten neighbors, most easily by perpetuating U.N. sanctions and keeping forces nearby.

Our efforts, therefore, must concentrate on maintaining sanctions in the face of growing international opposition. We must repeatedly convince the Security Council that Saddam is defying the will of the U.N., not just Washington. Ironically, this requires the United States to tone down its prominent confrontational role in inspections. But such inspections themselves never could achieve our goals due to Saddam’s intransigence. Rather, inspections have always been mainly instrumental, as it is Saddam’s repeated refusal to accept them that enables achievement of our real goal, the maintenance of sanctions.

If Scott Ritter is upset because he has only just figured this out, that is understandable. No Marine enjoys being told to take a hill, at risk to his life, only to find out later that it was a diversionary feint. But that is a vital role soldiers play. Likewise, Ritter’s efforts as an inspector were not wasted, even though their ostensible goal of ferreting out and destroying Saddam’s clandestine weapons program was never in the cards.

Alan J. Kuperman Is a Research Fellow at the Brookings Institution and a Phd Candidate in Mit’s Security Studies Program