The 1991 Persian Gulf War left Saddam Hussein in power. Washington concluded that the international coalition would not support a march on Baghdad and that, having suffered a massive military defeat, Saddam would soon be ousted by his own people. Iraqi Shiites in the south and Kurds in the north did rise up, but Iraqi Republican Guard forces that had escaped the U.S. bombing campaign brutally repressed their rebellions.
Instead of finishing off Saddam, the United States chose to contain him. This strategy called for forcing Iraq to dismantle its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and for providing some protection for Iraq’s ethnic minorities. To ensure that Baghdad would destroy its ballistic missile and WMD programs, the United Nations sent monitors to conduct intrusive inspections.
The United Nations also continued the economic sanctions that had been imposed on Iraq for invading Kuwait in August 1990. To protect Iraq’s ethnic minorities, safe havens were established and later expanded by the creation of no-fly zones patrolled by U.S., British and, initially, French combat aircraft.
Aided by intelligence information and defectors, U.N. inspectors spent the next few years uncovering a vast Iraqi WMD program, including an incipient nuclear weapons capability, huge stocks of chemical agents, significant inventories and production facilities for biological weapons, and an arsenal of ballistic missiles. Much of this capability was destroyed, but inspectors concluded that more arms, especially missiles and germ weapons, remained hidden.
When Iraq blocked continued inspections in 1998, U.N. inspectors withdrew and the United States and Britain bombed all suspected WMD sites. But the inspectors never returned, leaving Saddam to reconstitute his weapons programs.
Since then, weakened sanctions and the implicit threat of force have contained Saddam’s ambitions. But both these elements of the containment strategy are under attack. Sanctions have been blamed for the Iraqi people’s suffering, even though Iraq is allowed to use the proceeds of its large, though controlled, oil exports to meet all humanitarian needs. The use of force to back up containment has also become increasingly unacceptable to Arabs in the street, and thus most governments.
So today, Washington stands virtually alone in support of a strong containment strategy. No inspectors have been in Iraq for three years. Sanctions have been eroded through illegal trade with neighbors. And while U.S. and British aircraft continue to patrol the no-fly zones—and still periodically bomb air-defense sites to ensure their safety—this has had no apparent effect on Saddam’s behavior.