I welcome this opportunity to appear before this Committee to discuss U.S. policy toward Iraq and the entire Persian Gulf region. Before starting, I only wish to note that the views you are about to hear are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of staff members, officers, or trustees of the Brookings Institution.
U.S. policy toward the region of the Persian Gulf has changed more and more often over the years more than any other foreign policy I can think of. Current U.S. policy can be traced back more than half a century. This said, the most useful place to begin to understand how we arrived where we are today is to return to the late 1960s, when Great Britain decided it could no longer sustain its commitments east of Suez.
Plunging Into The Gulf
The British decision and the challenge it posed to the United States were reminiscent of the decision twenty years earlier when the United States was informed by His Majesty’s Government that it could no longer keep its commitments to Greece and Turkey. But the situations could not have more different. Whereas in the 1940s the United States was prepared to assume new global responsibilities–the Marshall Plan and ultimately NATO were the results–in the late 1960s and early 1970s this was not possible. Already overburdened by the war in Southeast Asia, the United States had neither the will nor the ability to fulfill the British role.
The result was a foreign policy in which the United States tried to protect its interests–then, as now, largely oil and gas along with the stability of traditional friends in the area–indirectly and inexpensively. The principal threat was the Soviet Union and Soviet-backed radicalism. The preferred policy instruments were maintaining a modest naval presence in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean and arms sales, especially to the so-called twin pillars of Iran and Saudi Arabia.
This policy lasted for the best part of a decade, until Iran’s revolution effectively removed the chief pillar of American strategy. Thanks to developments both local and global–the war between Iran and Iraq that served to distract and drain the region’s two most powerful states as well as the increasing weakness of the Soviet Union–the United States could get by and protect its interests in the region with little additional effort. The principal departure to U.S. policy was a limited tilt toward Iraq–then seen as the lesser of two evils–when it appeared as though Iran was gaining the upper hand in their conflict.
The Iran-Iraq war ended in 1988. Over the next two years, the United States mostly continued its policy of the previous decade, namely, continued military support for Saudi Arabia and other friendly Gulf states, exploration of limited relations with Iraq, and isolation of Iran tempered only by a willingness to talk.
The exploration into the possibilities of building a broader and deeper relationship with Iraq formally ended with its August 1990 invasion of Kuwait, although the U.S. effort had essentially been abandoned months before in reaction to a number of Iraqi statements and actions that demonstrated it uninterested in becoming a more responsible actor. Desert Shield and Desert Storm marked a major departure in U.S. policy, though, from one of modest and largely indirect U.S. military support of friends to that of major and direct U.S. presence and involvement.
After the termination of the Gulf War, it was neither desirable nor necessary to maintain a large U.S. military presence in the region. The United States could not afford to devote so large a percentage of its assets to one region. In addition, local governments feared a domestic backlash if such a large and visible U.S. presence remained. Also, Iraq posed much less of a military threat than was the case before the war. The result was that security could be maintained through what might be described as “presence without stationing,” namely, some prepositioning of material, regular exercising of visiting U.S. forces, an off-shore naval and air presence, and arms sales to friendly states.
U.S. policy since the Gulf War has been marked by the reality that U.S. relations with the two strongest states of the region–Iran and Iraq–are adversarial. The problem facing the United States is that no combination of friendly local states can offset either. As a result, continued U.S. involvement in the region will be necessary for the foreseeable future to square the circle of strong enemies, weak friends, and vital interests.
The Clinton Administration dubbed its posture “dual containment.” The goal was to limit the ability of either Iran or Iraq to threaten U.S. interests in the region and beyond. Still, the phrase is less than ideal. Iran and Iraq pose different threats and call for different responses. Also, limiting their reach (as containment suggests) is not enough. The United States can and should aim for more. Moreover, isolation of Iran and Iraq is increasingly challenged by a number of states whose support is necessary if the policy is to succeed. The result is that “dual containment” gives us a slogan when what we really need is a strategy and sustained efforts on its behalf.
The United States and Iraq
It is now some six years after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and just over five since Kuwait’s liberation and the end of Desert Storm. On one level, the United States has fared extremely well. Economic sanctions against Iraq remain in place and for the most part complied with. One can also point to substantial progress in the effort to uncover and eliminate Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Iraq is in economic trouble and is politically divided. The net result is that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq is significantly weaker than it was at the start of this decade, better understood as constituting a dangerous nuisance than an actual strategic threat.
But the glass is also half empty. Saddam Hussein remains in office despite numerous attempts to overthrow him. He has rebuilt the strength of his military, not to where it was before the Gulf War, but considerably above where it was when the war ended. France and Russia regularly champion for lifting sanctions–presumably in order to tap Iraq’s potential as a market for their exports–while in the Arab world there is growing opposition to sanctions on humanitarian grounds despite the fact that the relevant UN resolutions explicitly include provisions for allowing Iraqi imports of food and medicine.
Recent developments have altered both reality and perceptions. What happened is by now fairly clear. A number of factors–mounting Turkish and Iranian incursions into northern Iraq, a new Islamic-led government in Turkey that was less disposed to cooperating with the Gulf War coalition, a split between the two principal Kurdish factions in northern Iraq and the decision of one to turn to Iran and the other to Baghdad–combined to provide Saddam an opening. In addition, there is reason to believe Saddam was anxious for such an occasion to use his troops, if only to occupy them so that there would be less of an opportunity for disgruntled officers to mount another coup.
Saddam, never one to resist exploiting an opponent’s weakness, moved in with some 40,000 troops and numerous plain clothes police and intelligence personnel. In a matter of days he had regained substantial influence in Iraq’s north. In so doing, however, he violated UN Security Council Resolution 688, which demands that he end any repression of the Iraqi people, including the Kurds. The Clinton Administration responded indirectly, by using cruise missiles to destroy a number of air defense sites south of Baghdad, by extending the southern No Fly Zone one degree north, and by suspending implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 986 and its allowance of limited Iraqi oil exports.
On balance, Saddam gained more than he lost. Indeed, September 1996 has been Saddam’s best month since March of 1991 when he was able to put down the Shia and Kurdish uprisings and deflect attention and opposition stemming from his catastrophic handling of the entire Gulf War. To some extent, these gains were the inevitable consequence of Kurdish infighting and the opportunity it created. But U.S. foreign policy over the past few weeks also came up short.
Several things could and should have been done differently. Two stand out. The first was coalition maintenance. The anti-Saddam consensus had been allowed to weaken. In diplomacy, neglect is almost never benign. The United States had done precious little over the past few years to keep the coalition intact and robust. This applies to Turkey, the Arab governments, the Europeans and Russia. In addition, the lack of U.S. reaction to Turkish and Iranian incursions into northern Iraq only increased Saddam’s incentive to act at the same time it increased the likelihood that any such action on his part would be understood by his Arab neighbors.
The second principal error involved the use of force itself. The U.S. action–using a few dozen cruise missiles to destroy a number of Iraqi air defense sites–was both too small and too remote. To be sure, there was coalition resistance to using military force against Saddam at this time, a view that reflected a lack of sympathy for the Kurds and concern over Iranian behavior. But the United States will only have a limited number of occasions to use force against Iraq and it must make the most of them. Since any use of force will create unhappiness, any military intervention on our or the coalition’s part should be large enough to hurt Saddam militarily and demonstrate his inability to protect his country from continuing pain and humiliation.
Next Steps Vis-a-Vis Iraq
Despite these setbacks, it would be wrong to conclude that the U.S. position is irretrievably damaged. The weakness of the coalition in responding to Saddam’s actions inside his country should not be interpreted as the demise of the coalition more generally. A good deal of consensus continues to exist, enough so that it should be possible to keep the sanctions in place and to prevent Iraq from again becoming a strategic threat to his neighbors. What will such a policy take to succeed?
The first priority ought to be to reinvigorate the coalition that won the war against Saddam and has kept the peace since. This means repairing the U.S.-Turkish relationship and consulting closely about how best to deal with future crises in northern Iraq. We should not delude ourselves. It is more a question of “when” than “if” such a crisis will come about. Saddam is a serial prober; at some point he will turn on his new Kurdish friends, in the process triggering a large refugee flow in the direction of the Turkish border. It must thus become a foreign policy priority to continue Operation Provide Comfort, both to avoid suggesting to Saddam that he enjoys a free hand in the north and so that we and the Turkish government are prepared for a new crisis that would require U.S. military use of Turkish bases.
We similarly need to make sure that there is consensus in the region and beyond that Saddam will not be able to mass forces against any of his neighbors as he did in July of 1990 and again in October 1994. If he does, we and others need to strike–and strike hard. More generally, any use of force by the coalition–be it to prevent an attack on Kuwait, respond to state support of terrorism, or punish Iraq for violating UN resolutions or preventing UN weapons inspectors from carrying out their mission–needs to be large enough to hurt Saddam militarily and politically.
Such a policy should make sure that Saddam does not re-emerge as a strategic threat. This policy also has the potential to create a context where the Iraqi people move against Saddam. Toward that end, the United States needs to do a much better job of articulating just how Iraq would benefit under a different leadership that demonstrated it was prepared to act responsibly. Such a comprehensive overt policy–a mixture of tough sanctions, substantial uses of military force when warranted, and clear public diplomacy–should at a minimum prevent Saddam from breaking out and has the potential to accomplish more.
It is also useful to point out what we want to avoid in the way of policy toward Iraq. One trap would be to develop an obsession with Saddam. As I have already said, it is wrong to exaggerate the threat he currently poses. Similarly, it would also be wrong to make his ouster an explicit goal. If we were to do so, every day he survived would be construed as a victory for him. Moreover, we lack the tools to achieve the goal. Our conventional military forces are all but irrelevant to the task, while our intelligence assets are limited in what they can be expected to accomplish. The United States encountered great difficulty in apprehending Manuel Noriega with 20,000 troops on the ground and Panama fully occupied. It is difficult to see how we could undertake and succeed in so ambitious an effort in Iraq.
I also believe we are wise to continue to support Iraq’s territorial integrity. I am aware of the arguments of those who disagree–that it would eliminate Saddam and the threat posed by a rogue Iraq, that it would free up the Kurds and Shia. But I fear that the splitting of Iraq would stimulate all sorts of fighting among Iraqis, between Iraqis and their neighbors, and between those neighbors. I also believe both this process and the outcome would benefit Iran, which would then emerge as the single strongest local state. And even if the United States were to conclude otherwise, we would have to confront the reality that none of our Arab friends in the region (nor Turkey) would be disposed to seeing Iraq dismantled.
Toward a Comprehensive Approach for the Region
Success vis-a-vis Iraq will also require a number of other efforts on our part. The first involves intelligence. Iraq and the Persian Gulf more broadly needs to remain a priority for the intelligence community. Open sources cannot possibly carry the burden of either collection or analysis. In particular, the United States will need to develop more human intelligence if it is to have necessary warning and insight into Iraqi behavior.
The second consideration is military. U.S. ability to deal with a wide range of scenarios is essential. These include deterring and defeating conventional aggression, preventive and preemptive attacks against weapons of mass destruction, punitive strikes against state supporters of terrorism, and interdiction on behalf of sanctions. All of these needs involve Iraq, although several also might be relevant vis-a-vis others, most notably Iran. The point is a simple one, that U.S. diplomacy can only succeed against a backdrop of the availability of military forces and the will to use them. What makes fulfilling this need more difficult than would be the case in other regions is the requirement that our presence not become too large or visible lest it cause as many problems for our friends as it is designed to manage.
Third, U.S. policy toward Iraq has a far better chance of succeeding if U.S. policy toward Iran is effective. The most important proximate goals ought to be to prevent Iranian acquisition or development of weapons of mass destruction and to stop Iranian-sponsored subversion and terrorism. Iran, like the Soviet Union, is a repressive power at home with imperial ambitions and economic feet of clay. It should be our aim to frustrate its reach and exacerbate its economic problems in order to stimulate domestic forces promoting change. An Iran that “broke out” and threatened the region would fundamentally change Arab attitudes and end any support for efforts to oust Saddam or contain Iraq.
As a result, U.S. policy toward Iran must include concerted efforts to deny Iran an unconventional weapons capability; a willingness to use force if there is clear evidence of Iranian support for terrorism; and a clear message to Iran that future incursions into Iraq are unacceptable. We cannot achieve these goals alone, however. For this reason, the United States should consider approaching its friends in Europe and the Asia-Pacific region and propose a structured dialogue with Iran. If our terms were met, then there could be a degree of economic interaction; if not, everyone would agree to hold back.
Fourth, we need to better understand the risks and costs of unilateralism. A strategy against Saddam and Iraq can only succeed if it is supported by others in the region and beyond. This translates into a requirement for far more frequent and senior consultations with governments of the region. The sort of unilateralism demonstrated by the Clinton Administration over the past few weeks is not so much the exercise of leadership as its abandonment. Much the same applies for our policy toward Iran.
Fifth, we need to encourage our friends in the region to undertake reforms that will leave them less vulnerable to revolutionary change. This does not mean hectoring them publicly on human rights or calling for elections in the absence of basic elements of civil society, but it does mean privately urging them to carry out limited political and economic reforms that increase political participation and private ownership, reduce the state role in political and economic life, and discourage corruption and excessive state violence. States that are facing unrest at home will prove less able and willing to act against Iraq.
Sixth, the United States needs to do more in the realm of energy. We now import approximately half the oil we consume. Although only a modest percentage of U.S. oil comes from the Persian Gulf, the United States is and will be affected directly and indirectly (in the economic sense) by any supply disruption. This argues for continued diversification of supply and reduction in U.S. demand, something that makes sense not only for foreign policy but as regards the trade deficit and the environment.
The good news is that all of these recommendations are feasible. They will, however, take sustained effort. The not so good news is that even if we succeed, we will not solve our problems with Iraq or in the Persian Gulf region more broadly. Indeed, there is no solution. The only thing that is certain is that this part of the world will continue to pose the most difficult challenges for American foreign policy in the years and decades ahead.
Most protests in Iran are over economic issues. What’s different is that it seems to have tapped into a deep sense of alienation and frustration, that people aren’t just demonstrating for better working conditions or pay, but insisting on wholesale rejection of the system itself.
[The Trump administration's travel ban is] an affront to all Iranians. You can’t tell Iranians that you have their back when they confront the regime if you’re not willing to let them in your country... If you’re uncertain about going to the streets, knowing that you have somewhere to go is possibly a small encouragement. Many Iranians came here after 2009.
My guess is that the Islamic Republic will ride [these protests] out, [but they will take a] toll on the legitimacy of the government as a whole [and] undercut [Rouhani's] credibility as a guy who can fix the economy.