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Attack Is Better Late Than Never

AFTER WHAT seemed like countless false alarms, President Bill Clinton finally pulled the trigger Wednesday. He ordered U.S. military forces to attack Iraq for its refusal to comply with its international obligation to permit United Nations weapons inspectors to do their job. While welcome in principle, the U.S. action suffers from both timing and scale.

Attacking weeks or months ago would have been preferable for several reasons. Saddam Hussein would have had less time and opportunity to conceal his biological and chemical weapons and those missiles built to deliver them. We would not have had the constraint of the approach of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan – a consideration that argues for cutting short any military operation.

Politics here at home also support the “earlier was better” argument. It is difficult to make the case as to why we are bombing now when we didn’t bomb in the face of previous acts of clear noncompliance by Hussein. And the impeachment tie-in is that much more acute now, giving skeptics everywhere more ammunition to claim that the president’s decision was inspired more by politics than strategy.

Still, simply because it would have been better to have acted sooner does not mean it is wrong to have acted now. Attacking this week provided the advantage of some surprise; the just-released report of Richard Butler, the chief of the UN inspection effort, provided an immediate pretext for an attack in its detailed description of how Iraq has frustrated the search for illegal weapons. No one can deny that diplomacy had failed yet again; as a result, “better late than never” applies here.

A more serious criticism of the president’s decision is the absence of a convincing plan for the use of military force. The administration contends that the purpose of the bombing is twofold: to degrade Iraq’s capacity to produce or harbor weapons of mass destruction and to degrade the ability of Iraq’s army to threaten its neighbors. What we are seeing is a punitive undertaking, one designed to weaken and punish Iraq.

The cruise missiles and bombs landing in Iraq will accomplish this to a point. Iraq will be less able to build its weapons and delivery systems; some of its tanks and artillery and aircraft will be destroyed.

But no amount of precision bombing will be able to eliminate Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. We cannot destroy what we cannot locate, and much of Hussein’s program remains hidden to us. Moreover, a few days of bombing will not be enough to eliminate enough arms so that Iraq’s neighbors can live free of fear.

A better strategy would be one designed to coerce Hussein into meeting his obligations and accepting UN inspectors without condition. This would require an open-ended campaign of attacks on Iraq’s military-industrial complex and his military. The rationale would be clear: The United States will bomb what it cannot inspect and will bomb what matters most to Hussein in an effort to convince him that the costs of not complying are too great to endure.

A useful by-product of such a coercive strategy is that sustained attacks on Iraq’s elite Republican Guard units and other security forces critical to the regime’s survival would weaken Hussein’s hold on the country – and possibly persuade some individuals or units to turn their guns on Hussein rather than remain a target for American bombs.

Unfortunately, U.S. policy is not this ambitious. Clinton articulated a number of red lines that, if crossed by Hussein, would lead to renewed military attacks. These included reconstituting Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction; posing new threats to his neighbors or his own people; and challenging allied aircraft that patrol parts of the sky over Iraq.

Conspicuous by its absence from the president’s list was continued noncompliance by Hussein with his obligations to allow UN weapon inspectors to do their job. The administration clearly determined that such a stance could not be sustained. This self-defeating assessment is both unwarranted and unwise. Most people understand the logic of linking our behavior to Hussein’s. Moreover, Arab support for American use of force is likely to be greater if what we do is more decisive. What everyone wants to avoid, however, are strikes that do not fundamentally alter the situation.

Alas, this is likely to be the result of several days of military strikes. Hussein will remain in power. With no UN inspectors inside Iraq, he will have more latitude to develop biological and chemical weapons in hidden laboratories. The United States will work to shore up international support for sanctions that continue to deny Iraq free use of its oil wealth. And we will begin the long and uncertain process of building up an Iraqi opposition to Hussein. All that seems sure is that the problem of Hussein’s hold on power – and hold on some weapons of mass destruction – will be with us for some time to come.

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