Skip to main content
Op-Ed

Iraq: The American Message to the Allies

Philip H. Gordon

In his state of the union message Tuesday night, George W. Bush laid down the clearest marker yet that the United States is seriously considering unilateral military action against what Bush called “evil” states. “I will not stand by,” Bush declared, “as peril draws closer and closer. The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.”

The strong rhetoric alone, of course, is not a guarantee that the president has decided to launch an invasion of Iraq, currently seen as the prime target because of its relentless pursuit?and past use?of weapons of mass destruction. In fact the administration is still deliberating. Bush did make clear, though, that he sees the military success in Afghanistan not as the end of the war on terrorism, but the beginning.

The prospect of an American invasion of Iraq is a source of anxiety for a range of American allies in Europe and the Middle East, who fear it could lead to massive civilian and military casualties, provoke instability throughout the region, threaten the territorial integrity of some of Iraq’s neighbors, anger Arab populations, and create economic chaos by sending oil prices through the roof. Many also worry that an invasion of Iraq could provoke the use of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism that it would be designed to prevent.

These are serious concerns that Washington must not, and does not, ignore. But as risky and costly as an invasion of Iraq would be, Bush and many other Americans seem convinced that the risks are outweighed by the prospect of allowing an aggressive dictator in Iraq to develop nuclear weapons. “I will not wait on events,” the president declared, “while dangers gather.”

If America’s friends and allies want to dissuade the United States from unilaterally attacking Iraq, they will have to do more than wring their hands and point out all the dangers that would be involved. Instead, they will have to take concrete actions to stop or slow the pace of Iraq’s development of weapons of mass destruction, deter it from supporting terrorism, and hasten the day when a new and better regime will come to power.

First, all of America’s partners, including France and Russia on the United Nations Security Council, should join the United States in insisting unambiguously that Iraq must allow international weapons inspectors back in the country, as it is obliged to do under UN Security Council resolutions. The insistence on inspections should be linked tightly to a threat of decisive military action: if Iraq refuses the inspections or tries to dilute them or end them before the job is done, the international community-led by the United States-would pursue the military option.

Second, the allies should support the articulation of a new doctrine of deterrence that would state unambiguously that Baghdad’s support for terrorist networks, transfer of weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups, or the harboring of terrorists will lead directly to a military intervention to overthrow the regime. For all of Saddam Hussein’s past aggressions and miscalculations, he has never risked an action that was likely to lead to his ouster. The allies should join America in making sure he knows where the redlines are.

Third, allies should accept the plan for “smarter sanctions” which has been held up in the Security Council since last summer. A new sanctions regime would make it easier for civilian goods to be imported into Iraq while continuing to block “dual-use” goods and cracking down on the oil smuggling that is generating several billion dollars in illicit revenue for Saddam Hussein each year. Russia and some of Iraq’s neighbors have opposed the new system because of the economic benefits they derive from the current one. They should be compensated for lost revenues, but also put on notice that the alternative to smart sanctions might not be the status quo, but a military intervention in Iraq.

Finally, the allies?especially Europe and Russia?should more rigorously enforce export controls from the “supply-side,” with the harshest of penalties for firms that violate the restrictions. It is now clear that Iraq made significant progress in its nuclear program during the 1980s mainly by secretly importing the technology for uranium enrichment from European firms. The lack of a sufficient supply of fissile material is today the only obstacle standing between Iraq and the bomb, and everything possible must be done to ensure that Saddam does not get his hands on the technology required to produce it.

Even taking all of these measures would not guarantee that the Iraqi threat can be contained or that the United States will forego the invasion option. Doing nothing, however, will almost ensure the opposite. America’s allies need to know that if Iraq cannot be contained with more effective sanctions, reinforced deterrence, and stronger nonproliferation efforts, Washington may ultimately have to use force to achieve that goal.

Get daily updates from Brookings