spying on saddam
robin wright: interview
A former Middle East correspondent for the Sunday Times of London, she now covers global issues for the Los Angeles Times.  She has written two books on the Middle East and is at work on another.
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The coalition stayed together in terms of liberating Kuwait, but then at the end of it all, the big problem is still unresolved, in some sense. Saddam is still in power. ...

robin wrightFrom the beginning, there was always a big gap between what the coalition was mandated to do and what the problem was. The coalition was approved to liberate Kuwait, and it did that. But the problem of security for the very vulnerable Gulf Emirates was really Saddam Hussein. Here was a man who came to power in 1979 and had been aggressive for all [but] three years in power. He engaged in an invasion of Iran and an eight-year long war, the bloodiest in modern Middle East history, and then, a couple of years later, he invaded Kuwait.

It was clear that as long as he was in power, he was a threat to the region. And so, at the end of the Gulf War, despite the military victory, they still faced the basic root cause of the crisis, and that was Saddam Hussein.

And so, that meant what?

Well, the easy part was the Gulf War. The hard part was really dealing with the core problem, and that was Saddam Hussein. What do you do? The United States made one grave error at the very early stage. President Bush called for an uprising against Saddam Hussein, and the Kurds in the north and the Shi'a in the south, who constitute the majority of people in Iraq, did just that. But, unfortunately, Saddam Hussein still had air power. He had helicopter gun ships that had been so effective in quelling rebellions in the past, and they worked this time, too.

Within a year [of UNSCOM starting] the U.S. began to see deep fissures in the coalition with three critical members of the Security Council--China, Russia and France--all beginning to call for some kind of easing of sanctions. ... They all had economic interests more important than the regional security threat. And it underscored the fact that, internally, he was going to continue to be a threat as well. And the Coalition ended up, ironically, several months later, imposing no fly zone[s], so he couldn't engage in that kind of internal repression again.

But because that hadn't been part of the original cease-fire, Saddam Hussein could still act against his own people. ...

And then came Resolution 687. ...

Resolution 687 was really the centerpiece of the international response to Saddam Hussein's continued rule in Baghdad. It tried to basically de-fang him by removing his access to weapons of mass destruction, biological, chemical, nuclear weapons, and, long-range missiles. It basically said he had to declare all of [that kind of] weaponry and then allow U.N. weapons inspectors in to destroy them.

So were our hopes that we could, in a short period of time, destroy those weapons?

The hope was that the U.N. weapons inspectors would go in and in the matter of a number of weeks get a full list, a disclosure, from Baghdad of what it had. And then, within a matter of months, all of this weaponry would be destroyed. The fundamental flaw, of course, again, was Saddam Hussein. He knew how to stall. And he began a process of what was called cheat and retreat. It allowed him to stall the whole process for year after year, and even at the end, when U.N. weapons inspectors were forced out of Iraq, they still did not have that basic list of what Saddam Hussein produced. ...

So there was this unprecedented support--what happens in terms of that support?

Within a year the United States began to see deep fissures in the coalition that it had built, with three critical members of the Security Council--China, Russia and France, all beginning to call for some kind of easing of sanctions to review the entire process. They all had economics interests that were more important than the regional security threat.

Russia had a particular interest, because it was owed billions by Saddam Hussein for weaponry bought in advance of the Gulf War, basically for Iraq's war with Iran. China and France both saw Iraq as a great place to do business, and, in fact, Saddam Hussein was very clever in that he almost seduced the governments with offers of very lucrative deals, both in the reconstruction of Iraq and in the oil business.

So, they would have preferred what?

China, Russia and France, from a very early stage in the international diplomacy, would have preferred some kind of compromise that would have allowed Iraq to re-engage with the international community, some kind of easing of sanctions. There were various ideas floating, never ever specifically offered, but they were looking for an arrangement that would allow them to do business with Baghdad. ...

If Saddam Hussein didn't turn everything over, they were prepared to consider alternatives that might have allowed him, perhaps, to keep things, perhaps not to disclose and destroy all the weapons of mass destruction he had. ...

Saddam Hussein did play his one trump card, and that was the suffering of the Iraqi people. The irony, of course, that it was because he refused to accept an offer to sell his oil for humanitarian purposes, but he managed to make it look as if it was the international sanctions imposed on him by the United Nations that led to the suffering of the Iraqi people.

And as time went on, conditions did get tougher and tougher for them, in part because he used whatever income he did have for his own regime, for the inner circle.

George Bush, too, in 1992, seems to be less aggressive in backing UNSCOM.

George Bush was under election pressure. I think he also faced the fear that if Saddam Hussein was toppled, Iraq might fragment into three separate parts, and that scared many of the allies who'd actually ended up paying for the Gulf War--Saudi Arabia and Kuwait specifically.

How did Saddam see the struggle with the West? Why didn't he just give up the weapons and have the sanctions lifted?

... Saddam Hussein felt that without his weapons of mass destruction, he would not be the preeminent power in the Persian Gulf, which had been his primary concern since coming to power, in 1979. ...

Before Hussein Kamel's defection, in August of 1995, you write that Saddam was beating the West in some way, and UNSCOM. How?

In 1995, Saddam Hussein actually appeared to be winning in his strategy of cheat and retreat. He had actually managed to hide so many of his weapons that many of the U.N. weapons inspectors thought that he had turned over most of them, and were prepared to make that kind of recommendation. And it was only on the defection of his son-in-law and cousin [Kamel] that the international community realized how much he really still had. The whole crisis actually might have ended at that point, if it hadn't been for that very ... defection. ...

What was revealed in Kamel's defection?

Kamel's defection led to two important disclosures. One was the information he provided Western intelligence agencies. But, secondly, Saddam Hussein knew that he was about to be caught, and so he took weapons inspectors down to Kamel's chicken farm, and said that they'd only just discovered these containers full of documents about weapons of mass destruction. Of course, feigned his own ignorance, and blamed it all on Kamel.

What changed for Saddam after that?

Well, it became apparent that he had hidden an extraordinary amount of material, and from that point on UNSCOM was, again, a going concern.

The quantity was staggering. It took the U.N. weapons inspectors months and months and months just to go through and translate every--and create a database for what was in those papers. It revealed that Saddam Hussein had also hidden far more than anyone ever realized he had, to begin with. This really was the critical turning point of the entire eight years in trying to deal with Saddam Hussein. It put the U.N. weapons program back on track.

But, then what happens... in the months down the road?

...In 1997, the Clinton Administration decided to put on the table what had been implied all along, and that is, that Saddam Hussein had to go, that as long as he was in power in Baghdad, the Emirates, as well as other Iraqi neighbors, would be threatened... In effect, the Clinton Administration said there was going to be another, whole new step. This crisis is not going to end until Saddam Hussein goes.

And it was becoming incredibly costly for the U.S. Twice, the U.S. had to send additional troops to the region and to maintain a strong military presence. This was costly, it wasn't very popular with the coalition ... And, particularly after it lost [its] clandestine, program in Northern Iraq, the United States had to come up with some alternative. And there was pressure in Congress to do something more about Saddam Hussein.

And so the Administration addressed both its own concerns in a meeting on Capitol Hill and decided to pronounce publicly what had always been implied, and that was that Saddam Hussein had to go

Saddam Hussein was cornered, and so he came back fighting. He did three things. He made it more difficult for the U.N. weapons inspectors; he engaged in another round of cheat and retreat, walking away at critical junctures; he defied the no-fly zone, flying pilgrims to Saudi Arabia; and he tried to widen the gap between the United States and critical allies on the U.N. Security Council: China, France and Russia, who were all still interested in those economic deals with Iraq.

The tougher U.S. position made it tougher for UNSCOM, in a way, because the assumption, the rules of engagement on the table all along had been, once they did their job, sanctions would be lifted and the Gulf crisis would officially be over. And I think the UNSCOM inspectors felt that the U.S. new agenda basically jeopardized their mission. Why would Iraq cooperate if it realized that, even after it turned over all its weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein still [faced sanctions]?

So, did UNSCOM feel undermined or threatened by it?

I think some of the non-American players within UNSCOM felt threatened by the new U.S. position. Their position had always been that once Saddam Hussein turned over all his weapons of mass destruction and destroyed them, that then sanctions would be lifted and the crisis would be over.

In 1998 UNSCOM tried to inspect presidential palaces. and Iraq declared them off limits. Then Kofi Annan flew to Baghdad and struck a deal...

The reaction to the deal that Kofi Annan struck in Baghdad was pretty complicated. It basically promised the Iraqis that Kofi would bring up the issue of sanctions after Saddam Hussein complied. The United States wasn't happy, because that was in contradiction to its policy of trying to remove Saddam Hussein. I think the French, the Russians and the Chinese were delighted with it. I think you find those two bodies of opinion reflected within UNSCOM. Yes, it was good, because they were allowed to go in and do their duty again, but the issue of--at what juncture is this crisis over?--was still kind of in doubt.

Did people have to have a winner in that situation? And was there one? Did Saddam come out a winner in this?

Saddam Hussein has to consider himself a winner, to a degree, in that conflict, because Kofi Annan, the Secretary General, traveled to Baghdad. He was promised that the issue of sanctions would be brought up if he complied, which, of course, was not what the U.S. had declared. And, of course, he had time to empty his presidential palaces of any controversial material relating to weapons of mass destruction.

Is he by now moving from an outcast to a sort of statesmanlike role? How is he being viewed by now?

This was one of the first times we actually saw Saddam Hussein involved in a crisis. He was the one negotiating with, or signing the deal with, Kofi Annan, the U.N. Secretary-General. So he looks more statesmanlike, he looks more like a head of state who is recognized, and perhaps even accepted, by important members of the international community.

Does it have larger meaning?

I think Saddam Hussein would have liked to have thought so. I don't think the United States and Britain thought so.

And how does that deal ultimately affect Saddam's behavior, if it does, particularly vis-a-vis UNSCOM and the inspections? ... Why did the U.S. finally strike, and what was its meaning?

The United States finally engaged in a punitive air strike that lasted for four days [in December 1998]--for a couple of reasons. One was the broader picture. Over the previous year, the United States had three times threatened to use force if Saddam Hussein did not comply. U.S. credibility was really on the line here, but, Saddam Hussein had, of course, engaged in violations. He blocked weapons inspectors; he destroyed documents that were really critical; he's supposed to have turned over everything within fifteen days, so that the U.N. weapons inspectors had an idea of the size of his arsenal.

Two thousand five hundred days later the documents were not only still not there, but there was strong evidence that he had destroyed them, so that the U.N. would never have the proper database to ever conclude its mission. And the third thing he did was to announce that weapons inspectors would never be able to operate on Friday.

So, there were a number of immediate flashpoints and, then, bigger picture issues that led to Operation Desert Fox.

And did the coalition change for the first time in many years here?

In late 1998, the coalition was probably more united than at any point in several years, particularly key Arab members, such as Syria and Egypt. Saddam Hussein was no longer able to play to the street. He started saying some very belligerent things about other Arab leaders, that their people should rise up against them. And so many of his neighbors began seeing him as a threat to their regimes as well, not just to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

So, that meant--

That led to the so-called Damascus declaration, in which several prominent Arab states got together and basically said Saddam Hussein really should go. ...

How effective was this strike, Desert Fox? Did it make any difference?

We may look back on Operation Desert Fox as the beginning of the end. This was a point at which the United States said it was prepared to act, and it has since acted, almost on a daily basis, depending more on weather than on what Saddam Hussein does, in trying to create an environment that the military which surrounds Saddam Hussein will act against him. They're trying to prove that the cost of keeping him is going to be too high. And the United States and Britain have basically begun to decimate his air defense system, which is critical in the security of the state.

And I think the Administration hopes that leading military figures in Iraq will not want to see the loss of Iraqi military life and the loss of key military equipment, just to keep Saddam Hussein in power. That's the calculation. Whether it works is a different issue. This could continue to be open-ended. But there is a strategy that differs from the first seven years, in place now, that tries more aggressively to deal with the question of how to remove Saddam Hussein, how to create an environment that he will be ousted, that others will act against him, because there's no law that allows an assassination, nor is there any exile group or any internal opposition group currently capable of challenging him.

This is really the only way to do it. And so whether you agree with it or not, there is probably the most cohesive policy in place today than at any time since the end of the Gulf War.

And where does UNSCOM fit in that current policy then?

UNSCOM, as we know it, as UNSCOM, may be finished. But the original UN resolution still calls for the dismantlement of all Saddam Hussein's weapons. So whether it uses another name or not, somebody's got to go in and determine that he doesn't have these things. And those are likely to be many of the world's experts in weapons of mass destruction. We've already participated in Iraq, we already know what he has, maybe under a different name. But the mission's not over.

... The world will know when it's over by one of two means. Either because Saddam Hussein is no longer there, or because the United Nations has certified that sanctions have to be lifted. And that's not likely to happen until you see some bigger denouement, some bigger event--whether it's the removal of Saddam Hussein or the elimination of his weapons of mass destruction.

How should we look at this eight-year battle between UNSCOM and Saddam? What do we learn?

Iraq, despite the dragged on drama, really may be the most important principal established in the post-Cold War world. The international community stood up, an unlikely coalition of more than three dozen countries, and said: Aggression is not acceptable. You see that playing out today in Kosovo. It's not consistent, but it is the single precedent established over the past decade, and probably the most important, when we look at conflict in the 21st century.

... And yet, how has Hussein suffered, what has he learned?

... Saddam Hussein may not have learned anything. He's one of the world's last tyrants. But the broader international community got the message: that aggression is no longer acceptable, and that the way a leader deals with his people is actually more important than the right to sovereignty, and that the international community will stand up and act, often when there are particular interests: oil in Iraq, Kosovo's presence in Europe. But there are important precedents that I think you will see play an incredibly important role in international decisions in the 21st century.

So, what's next for UNSCOM? A version of it, you think?

UNSCOM may be finished by the name UNSCOM, but the mission is not over. The fact is, the original U.N. Resolution calls for the dismantlement of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. Somebody has to go in and verify that that's been done. And these are the world's greatest experts on weapons of mass destruction: chemical, biological, nuclear, and ballistic missiles. I suspect you will see many of the very same people who worked with UNSCOM going back into Iraq, sometime down the road, to deal with the very same mission-- under a different name, perhaps, but the very same goal.

How real is the reconstitution threat for Saddam and his weapons? Should the world worry?

The world has very good reason to worry about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, because the issue, over the past seven years, has been not only destroying what he developed before 1990, but also what he has tried to acquire and develop since then.

So, we should be worried about that, because?

Saddam Hussein, with weapons of mass destruction, has proven to be one of the world's most aggressive leaders: eight years of war against Iran, an invasion of Kuwait, and threats to virtually every other neighbor. That is the one instrument that allows him to be the preeminent power in the Persian Gulf, the source of vital oil supplies to the industrialized West.

What has been most misunderstood about Saddam Hussein?

I think there are a couple of things the West misunderstood about Saddam Hussein. First of all, how wily he is, how he would be able to stall, to cheat and retreat, and to drag on a mission that was supposed to take a few months, at most, into more than eight years. I think the U.S. miscalculated, especially during the early stages of the conflict, by allowing him to retain rights to fly...his air power, and not understanding the limits in rising up against [Saddam], be it by the Kurds and the Shi'ite minorities or by the military that surrounds him.

He is one of the world's last tyrants. He has survived so long because he's very good at his job. And I think, at the end of the day, we weren't able to counter his key propaganda, which was the suffering of the Iraqi people due to the toughest sanctions ever imposed on any nation by the United Nations. And that gave him an edge in playing to the Arab street, in playing to allies like China, Russia, and France, who wanted to do business deals with him, and even Americans, who were prepared to shout down the Secretaries of Defense and State and the National Security Advisor over the issue of the suffering of the Iraqi people.

At the end of the day, I think we probably have a policy in place that squeezes him for the first time, harder than ever before. Quick solutions, absolutely not. We're still in this for the long haul. But, at the end of the day, Saddam Hussein's not going to win.

And not winning will mean?

Saddam Hussein may manage to stay in power for several more years, but he is unacceptable to the international community, and even the Russian and the French and the Chinese know that, even though they would very much like to do business deals with his government.

And the broader Islamic world, the Arab world, the third world, basically understand the limits to aggression, and that there are occasions that the international community will stand up and say no. That's really the message the 20th century. We're going out--we fought World War I, World War II, the Cold War, we took on tyranny, and we took it on again in Iraq, and it was an incredibly important precedent for the post Cold War world.

And he's likely to be where in five years?

I'm not that stupid.

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