The deal that United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan has just struck with Saddam Hussein is a very good one for the United States. It gets qualified and politically balanced inspectors back into any and all sites they wish to visit in Iraq, for as long as they need to be there, with only some face-saving changes to persuade Hussein to go along with the deal. It will do more to eliminate Hussein’s illicit weapons than an air campaign could have.
Some still call for an even stronger blow against Iraq, preferably to push Hussein from power and to eliminate once and for all that country’s weapons of mass destruction. What they are really calling for is a ground war to occupy Iraq. Such a war would have required a three-month buildup and quite possibly a protracted series of urban battles with Republican Guard forces.
Several thousand American soldiers might well have been killed—even if Hussein did not escalate the conflict to use chemical or biological agents against our troops or civilian population centers. Still, skeptics of this deal have some important questions that deserve answers. The first might be: Despite the high costs of overthrowing Hussein, don’t we need to get rid of this monster so he can no longer threaten the region and the world?
The answer appears to be no. The United States made it clear to Hussein in 1990 that any use of weapons of mass destruction in Desert Storm would lead to a devastating retaliatory blow, and he seems to have gotten the message. Although evil and adventurous, he is not stupid or suicidal. We can probably contain him just as we contained the Soviets for half a century—and just as we continue, with our South Korean allies who inaugurate a new president today, to contain North Korea.
Can Hussein be trusted? Of course not. But he will have a hard time quickly repudiating this new deal. Having publicly acknowledged that it addresses Iraq’s concerns over sovereignty, he would lose a great deal of support in places such as Moscow and in Arab capitals if he immediately tore up the new agreement. And Hussein generally picks his fights with us only when he believes at least some other countries will take his side. Few would now.
It is true that things could change in a year or two. For example, if inspectors find no weapons for an extended period, Hussein may well claim that he has satisfied all UN Security Council resolutions, call for an end to sanctions and threaten to expel inspectors again. But we will have had more time to search for weapons of mass destruction by then. We will have reminded the butcher of Baghdad that it is the world community that sets the rules here, not him, and that many of our original anti-Hussein coalition partners remain firmly with us. We will be able to use our UN Security Council veto to keep sanctions on Iraq should inspectors be expelled. Iraq’s conventional military forces will have atrophied further in the meantime. And, if necessary, we can weaken Iraqi forces further with an air campaign at that time. In all, not a bad set of options.
Those who emphasize the costs and strains of our current military posture in the Persian Gulf have a valid concern, but they often overstate it. Even if 30,000 U.S. forces remain there for another few months, as they should, the total costs of this crisis will remain less than 1 percent of the $260 billion Pentagon budget. The number of U.S. troops in the region amounts to only about 2.5 percent of the active-duty force—a force that, despite some signs of strain, remains as good and as ready as the country has ever fielded.
Hussein is still in a box. He is killing relatively few people these days. Our core interests in the Persian Gulf region remain secure. And we did not have to put any innocent Iraqi civilians, or the political cohesion of our position in the Mideast, at risk by conducting an actual military strike. Even if it leaves our mustachioed nemesis in power in Iraq, this is an unambiguous victory for the United States, Kofi Annan and all those who stood with us.