Seven years after the Gulf War, the United States remains enmeshed in a cycle
of crises with Iraq that is still far from over. The biggest challenges, in
fact, may lie ahead --potentially crises with allies as well as with the regime
of President Saddam Hussein. In stark contrast to the initial drama of
Operation Desert Storm, when a powerful U.S.-led coalition ejected Saddam's
forces from Kuwait, the current phase finds the vast majority of the three
dozen members of the coalition either questioning or opposed to U.S. strategy.
A swift and techno-efficient conflict that was supposed to be the model for the
post-Cold War world has instead produced an open-ended morass with no easy
How did it come to this? Problems were predictable for several reasons.
Foremost was the enormous gap between the coalition's explicit, short-term
mandate and the implicit, long-term goal. Through a series of UN resolutions,
the coalition won approval to liberate Kuwait to defend the principle that
aggression against neighbors is unacceptable in a post-Cold War era that
emphasizes economic rather than military competition and global cooperation
rather than regional rivalry. The United States and its allies fulfilled this
short-term mandate during the six-week war. Iraq retreated and Kuwait's royal
family was restored to power.
The war's end did not, however, address the real long-term issue-- Saddam
Hussein's aggressive regime. Treating the Gulf War as a singular event missed
the larger picture: By 1991, Saddam had spent all but three years since he
assumed power in 1979 in conflicts he started with neighbors--Kuwait in
1990-1991 and Iran 1980-1988. Throughout his rule, he fostered border tensions
or political spats with all four other neighbors--Syria, Jordan, Turkey, and
With the Gulf War cease-fire, the coalition's attention then shifted from the
problem of liberating Kuwait to the root cause of regional
instability--Saddam's government in Baghdad. No member of the coalition
wanted to again have to send thousands of troops, expend political clout to
convince domestic audiences, or contribute to the $ 65 billion price tag that
burdened even the Gulf's oil-rich monarchies to deal with Saddam's
But neither the United States nor the coalition sought international approval
for the long-term goal of stopping, challenging, or deposing Saddam. Various
hard-won UN resolutions only allowed the coalition to limit the Iraqi leader's
aggressive agenda in temporary ways. Resolution 687, for example, called for
the elimination of Baghdad's weapons of mass destruction; economic sanctions
imposed after Iraq's 1990 invasion were not to be lifted until Baghdad
complied. Like other UN measures, however, this represented more of a band-aid
than a real cure: Once the inspections had been completed, Iraq would have
found it comparatively easy, despite monitoring devices and sporadic
inspections, to secretly rearm or redevelop major aspects of its program--and
potentially even to go on the offensive again.
This discrepancy between explicit mandate and implicit goal ultimately
undermined the coalition and made an end game in Iraq ever more elusive.
Postwar strategy, which has played out in three diverse phases over the past
seven years, has suffered at the hands of global shifts in foreign policy
priorities in the 1990s, growing public empathy for Iraq's humanitarian plight,
market-place realities (in other words, greed), and even U.S. law. Compounding
the problem, postwar U.S. policy has displayed an almost amateurish series of
mis-calculations and mistakes that have often created opportunities for Iraq.
Over time, Saddam Hussein has been able not only to recoup his losses in the
Gulf War but to gradually regain political acceptability.
The initial phase of U.S. post-Gulf War Iraq policy began immediately after
the war ended in March 1991 and lasted into mid-1992--long past initial
estimates of how long it would take to complete the cease-fire package of
measures to declaw Iraq. The United Nations originally predicted, for example,
that the process of disarming nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and
ballistic missiles would take a matter of months; instead, it still appears
open-ended in mid-1998.
The roots of the U.S. current policy dilemma lie in this critical period, when
U.S. policy was marked by flawed judgment and plagued by developments within
Iraq beyond the coalition's control. U.S. strategists often found themselves
caught off guard, and key policy decisions were taken in reaction to breaking
events on the ground rather than in service of a well-calculated strategy. As
a result, U.S. policy ruled out important options at an early stage.
This series of missteps began with a profound miscalculation in Washington,
which was, given the overwhelming military defeat and humiliating
international rejection suffered by his regime, that Saddam Hussein could not
survive long in power. Various Western intelligence estimates suggested that
his political longevity could be numbered in months rather than years. His
inner circle of top military personnel, this thesis argued, would eventually
remove him. To encourage any such efforts, President Bush publicly urged
Iraqis to seize the initiative. "There's another way for the bloodshed to
stop, and that is for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters
into their own hands -- to force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside,"
he said as the war still raged. 
Some Iraqis took Bush up on his offer. Kurds in Iraq's northern mountains and
Shi'i Muslims in the arid south simultaneously launched uprisings just days
after the Gulf War's end. Despite Bush's statement, these spontaneous popular
rebellions, the biggest challenges to any modern Iraqi regime, caught
Washington by surprise, in part because the groups involved did not represent
the anticipated agents of change. U.S. officials had assumed that the
rebellion would occur from within the regime --that the protagonists would be
Sunni Muslims, who dominated the Iraqi power structure, not those long
excluded from the system.
In the scramble to react, the U.S.-led coalition refused to take meaningful
steps to aid the uprisings. The most important gesture would have been
limiting Iraqi air power, particularly the helicopter gunships that proved so
important to Baghdad's swift and deadly response against thousands who were
taking to the streets, attacking security officials, and sabotaging government
installations. Washington's reticence stemmed from its hasty--and erroneous--
conclusion that the uprisings, if successful, might lead to the dismemberment
of Iraq on ethnic lines, which might destabilize the region and pose a danger
even greater than the ongoing rule of Saddam Hussein.
In this decision, the United States ignored recent history, most notably the
fact that Iraq's Shi'is remained loyal to the Sunni Muslim regime in Baghdad
during the eight-year war with predominantly Shi'i Iran. For the largest of
Iraq's three ethnic groups, nationalism was a more important source of
identity than religion. But Washington balked at providing any assistance that
might contribute to fragmentation --its first, and most important, refusal to
take seriously the requirements of its implicit goal of removing Saddam Hussein
Ironically, Iraqi troop movements in both the north and south later led the
United States to impose no-fly zones--the very action that would have been so
helpful to the insurgents in the spring of 1991-- over the same areas where the
uprisings occurred, later that year above the 36th parallel and in 1992 below
the 32nd parallel. By then, however, Saddam's forces had quashed the internal
dissident movements. None have since been able to recoup their position or
remobilize support. The result of U.S. hesitation is that Iraq's two largest
ethnic groups, which account for at least 70 percent of Iraq's 21 million
people, have effectively been silenced and the prospects for a political
challenge to Saddam from the majority of Iraq's people have been seriously
The second miscalculation after the war was the U.S. and coalition failure to
follow through on the prosecution of Saddam Hussein, whom President Bush often
compared to Adolf Hitler, as a war criminal. Kuwait, its Gulf neighbors, and
the coalition all had several grounds on which to charge him, including the
physical and financial devastation of Kuwait, massive human rights offenses
including murder and torture, and violations of various international accords.
During Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, the Pentagon accumulated
vast documentation, photographs, interviews, and other evidence of such
To be sure, any prosecution of Saddam would have been difficult, and a U.S.
commitment to it would not have guaranteed that a trial would even have
occurred. Finding a venue for a trial would have been challenging enough,
actually arresting Saddam perhaps next to impossible. But a standing
indictment of the Iraqi leader and some of his key aides would have provided a
legal context for an array of future actions in support of the goal of removing
him from power. The Bush administration instead opted to shelve the case as
unrealistic, and the Clinton administration has never revived it.
From a very early stage, then, the United States forfeited two important
options to help undermine or oust Saddam -- either by legal international
action or internal opposition. Resuscitating either at a later date would
prove too complex and costly.
The second phase of U.S. and coalition policy after the Gulf War lasted from
1992 to 1996. The shift from the Bush to the Clinton administration in 1993
produced few major changes beyond a name. The new team called its policy
"containment," and explained that it centered around four axes:
- Sustaining a strong forward military presence, with Operation Southern Watch
over the southern no-fly zone as the vehicle to protect Saudi Arabia and
- Maintaining UN economic sanctions and the arms embargo so that Saddam
Hussein was unable to rebuild his army or become a regional financial power.
- Pressing UN arms monitors to trace and destroy Baghdad's nuclear, chemical
and biological weapons of mass destruction and his long-range missiles.
- Encouraging the Iraqi opposition.
The inherent passivity of the term "containment" reflected the fact that the
contradiction in U.S. policy between short-term mandate and long-term goal
remained. Until Iraq complied with the United Nations on disarmament, the
United States was only empowered to keep Baghdad in check so it could not
threaten the region or foreign oil consumers anew--yet the Clinton
administration recognized that only a change in leadership in Iraq would ensure
While U.S. policy stagnated, Iraq played hide-and-seek with its unconventional
weapons. Baghdad did turn over some of its arsenal and arms data, but it
slowed or stalled inspections by the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) whenever
possible. Disarmament efforts slipped from weeks to months to years, and
Saddam Hussein used the time first to consolidate his rule over a disparate and
disgruntled population. He then began to seize the initiative from the
coalition by eating away at its cohesion and undermining U.S. leadership
through a strategy of "cheat and retreat" designed to probe the parameters of
action and coalition tolerance.
In response, the United States limited itself to a series of military pinpricks
in response to Iraqi violations of UN resolutions. U.S. aircraft shot down an
Iraqi Mig-25 when the plane violated a no-fly zone in 1992; U.S. forces
launched attacks on missile sites and a nuclear facility near Baghdad when Iraq
deployed missiles in the south in 1993; Washington deployed 54,000 troops and
more warplanes to the Gulf when Iraq dispatched soldiers back toward Kuwait in
1994; and U.S. units struck Iraqi missile targets and extended slightly the
southern no-fly zone when Iraqi troops intensified their anti-insurgent
operations in the northern part of the country in 1996.
U.S. covert action centered on tepid schemes to aid two opposition groups led
by Iraqi exiles. First came the Iraqi National Congress (INC), a coalition of
Shi'as, Kurds, and Sunnis headed by Ahmed Chalabi, a Shi'i mathematician and
banker. The INC eventually set up in northern Kurdistan, receiving most of
its funds and technical support from the CIA, whose Iraq station chief was
stationed close to INC headquarters. Later came the Iraqi National Accord,
another coalition headquartered in Jordan and dominated by Sunnis, including
former military officers.
None of these overt or covert programs ever had much of a chance of undoing the
regime. They could create persistent irritations for Baghdad and divert the
regime's attention and resources, but their impact j was limited enough that
Saddam Hussein was actually able to strengthen his position significantly
during the second phase. By mid-1995, five years after Iraq's invasion of
Kuwait, the winners and losers were no longer so clear-cut. The chief UN
weapons inspector announced that UNSCOM was close to finishing most of its
work in dismantling and monitoring Iraq's nuclear missile and chemical arms
programs, furnishing the first evidence of light at the end of the inspections
tunnel. However, Saddam remained in power, and his military remained the
strongest in the Gulf.
Iraq also cleverly exploited both public opinion and private greed to recast
the atmospherics of its position. It began to win worldwide sympathy for the
plight of its people, suffering after five years of the toughest embargo ever
imposed on a nation. It also whet the financial appetite of European, Asian,
and Mideast countries -- headed by Russia, France, and China, three of the five
permanent members of the UN Security Council --interested in post-sanctions
trade and development. As businessmen began pilgrimages to Baghdad to line up
deals, war-time condemnation turned to postwar courting, and the international
consensus on sanctions gave way to the disturbing picture of major coalition
members advising Iraq on how to end the embargo.
Meanwhile, the United States remained the primary security guarantor of the
vulnerable Gulf sheikdoms--an expensive commitment that seemed likely to
remain open-ended as long as the United States and its major trading partners
remained dependent on imported oil. Up to 20,000 U.S. troops and tons of
equipment were deployed in the region indefinitely, an irritating presence for
many Arab countries that substantially increased the political price of
containment, complicated by the staggering war debt still weighing on many
Gulf states. The cost-benefit ratio of sustaining the squeeze on Iraq was
mounting for both the United States and the United Nations disarmament effort.
The multiplying cost of the short-term policy of containment made achieving the
long-term goal of removing Saddam from power ever more unlikely. In the
contest over his survival, Saddam was winning.
Saddam's campaign for official resurrection, however, suffered an abrupt blow
in August 1995 when his son-in-law and manager of Iraq's arms program, General
Hussein Kamel al-Majid, defected to Jordan. Kamel brought with him 21 other
friends and family members, including two of the Iraqi leader's daughters, as
well as vast knowledge about how Iraq ran and procured foreign equipment for
its weapons of mass destruction programs. Again, however, Kamel's defection --
perhaps the most important boost to U.S. efforts in the postwar period -- did
not stem from coalition strategy or Kamel's sense that the regime was doomed.
He fled because of family infighting that pitted him against the Iraqi leader's
favorite son and heir apparent Uday. Far from being convinced of the ultimate
success of the coalition's implicit campaign to oust Saddam, Kamel had
concluded he might not survive a power struggle with the Iraqi leader's son.
Still, the defection was an important catalyst that aided U.S. efforts. The
following year, from August 1995 to August 1996, proved to be the worst for
Saddam Hussein since the Gulf War: To preempt Kamel's disclosures, the regime
turned over several shipping containers loaded with information about Baghdad's
weapons programs, insolently blaming Kamel for Iraq's earlier failure to
disclose vital data. The new information on Iraq's continuing efforts to
acquire weapons of mass destruction gave pause to those who had painted Iraq as
a postwar victim of sanctions and froze any attempt to ease sanctions or end
inspections. The United States once again had the upper hand.
For a time, Washington appeared prepared to use its newfound position
vigorously. During that year, Washington pushed to tighten containment and
foment panic within the regime. The Clinton administration negotiated a
cease-fire between rival Kurdish factions within the INC. As a growing number
of Iraqi military defectors showed up at its northern base, the largest
opposition group, at one point urged on by local CIA officers, was sufficiently
emboldened to begin small attacks on Iraqi positions and amplify its propaganda
war against Saddam's regime through clandestine media. On another opposition
front, Kamel and King Hussein called for new efforts to topple Saddam. Once a
sieve for sanctions-busting material, Jordan then became the headquarters for a
revived Sunni opposition movement.
But the second U.S. effort to oust Saddam also turned out to be short-lived.
Again, a serious U.S. miscalculation, again symptomatic of disjointed U.S.
policy, shut the window of opportunity just as abruptly as it had opened: With
the no-fly zones in place, Washington did not think Baghdad would dare move on
the insurgent groups in the north. It also underestimated the danger of
renewed fighting among northern Kurds. As a result, the United States
disregarded a plan to fund a neutral peacekeeping force to separate and monitor
the two main Kurdish factions to prevent them from clashing with each other and
help focus their efforts against Saddam's forces.
Key State Department brokers involved in the 1995 peace talks backed the
peacekeeping proposal. All it required from Washington was $2 million --less
than the cost of a couple of cruise missiles.  The funds were to help
the INC set up 1,250 monitors operating a dozen "separation points" and to
establish 41 checkpoints over a 240-mile area. The plan was considered the
only hope for restoring the kind of peace that had allowed the Kurds to elect a
parliament and administer the northern enclave beyond Baghdad's control between
1991 and 1994. Both Kurdistan Democratic Party leader Masoud Barzani and
Patriotic Union of Kurdistan leader Jalal Talabani supported the idea; Barzani
even sent an envoy to Washington to urge action.
But the proposal was bogged down in U.S. bureaucracy and indecision and, State
Department sources complained, never won formal approval of Secretary of State
Sporadic Kurdish clashes soon mushroomed into open fighting. Barzani, afraid
of losing his fiefdom and having fruitlessly appealed to the United States for
help, now turned to Baghdad. In August 1996, the regime dispatched mechanized
units of the elite Republican Guards to invade the north. Within days, they
swept as far as Irbil, the Kurdish capital. As Iraq recaptured essential
northern areas, the INC operation collapsed. Its leaders were forced into
exile and its members into the underground. The CIA station closed, and U.S.
agents fled. The centerpiece of the most active U.S. campaign to unseat Saddam
Hussein effectively imploded.
In September, the Clinton administration responded with two actions: a strike
with more than two dozen cruise missiles and an extension of the no-fly zone.
Curiously, however, neither targeted Saddam's expanded presence in the north:
The United States hit the Iraqi air defense systems and extended the no-fly
zone, from the 32nd to the 33rd parallel--roughly 70 miles, up to the gates of
Baghdad. The moves were designed, U.S. officials said, to deny Hussein control
of Iraqi air space closer to U.S. interests on the southern border and to
limit his ability to launch offensive operations against the Arabian peninsula.
The retaliation was also meant to indirectly encourage anti-regime activities
from other areas.
But Operation Desert Strike, as the attacks were dubbed, only served to
underscore the feebleness of U.S. policy. By then it was too late to retrieve
northern Kurdistan from Saddam's control. Prospects for a serious internal
challenge to Saddam, who had recouped control of all of Iraq for the first
time since the war, were further off than ever. The Iraqi leader had proven he
was around for the foreseeable future. He had completed his official
Two events inaugurated the third phase of U.S. post-Gulf War Iraq policy: an
interagency policy review after the 1996 presidential election, and the
appointment of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to replace Warren
Christopher. As UN ambassador, Albright had spearheaded the U.S. campaign to
squeeze Iraq; as secretary of state, she immediately signaled a more aggressive
approach in promoting a change of regime in Baghdad.
Albright's first foreign policy speech in March 1997 reflected slight
modifications after the policy rethink. She declared that the United States
intended to hold Iraq fully accountable for behavior that had not changed
since the Gulf War. She blasted the regime for its ongoing pattern of denial,
delays, and deceit on disarmament and for its refusal to live up to other major
agreements in the cease-fire, such as failing to account for prisoners of war,
failing to return looted assets, and massive ongoing repression. "This tactic
has not and will not work," Albright told an audience at Georgetown University,
because the United States would not allow "the scorpion that bit us once to
bite us again. That would be a folly impossible to explain to our children or
to the veterans of Desert Storm." 
Albright also made clear that, as the price of easing sanctions, the United
States expected Iraq not only to fully dismantle its deadliest weapons, but
also to comply with all UN resolutions, notably provisions on human rights
accords. The speech was an attempt to formalize what Washington had long
implied: that the United States would not allow sanctions to be lifted until
Hussein either introduced democratic practices or left office. Albright
pledged that the U.S. commitment to this ultimate goal would not waiver as
long as Saddam was in power. "To those who ask how long our determination will
last, how long we will oppose Iraqi intransigence, how long we will insist that
the international community's standards be met, our answer is --as long as it
But Albright did offer a carrot with the stick, holding out the prospect of a
"rapid" U.S. dialogue with Baghdad and major Western assistance to help rebuild
the country, once a "successor regime" had emerged. Her appeal was clearly
designed to prod Baghdad's ruling inner circle to act. "A whole range of
economic and security matters would be open for discussion in a climate of
cooperation and mutual respect," Albright said. The proposed dialogue with a
new regime would have two immediate goals: to verify that the new Iraq would be
independent, unified, and free from undue external influence from other
countries, and to verify changes in Iraqi political behavior. "If our concerns
were addressed satisfactorily, Iraq would no longer threaten regional security,
its isolation would end," she said. "The United States looks forward to the
day when Iraq rejoins the family of nations as a responsible and law-abiding
Such appeals might have made a good deal of sense in early 1991, but given U.S.
policy in the intervening six years, the chances of Albright's statement having
significant impact were small. In fact, with the collapse of U.S. Iraq policy
the previous fall, the momentum was once again moving in Iraq's favor.
Albright's tough new stance seemed oddly out of step with the trends; even as
the U.S. position grew tougher, other countries were taking steps to bring
Saddam's regime back into the international fold --without any change in
In the first half of 1997, a growing number of America's partners in the
coalition sent diplomats back to Baghdad and struck commercial deals. Italy,
Spain, and Greece reopened embassies in Baghdad, while France staffed an
interest section there for the first time in seven years. All of these moves
indicated a de facto acceptance of the rogue regime. Two delegations of
Italian parliamentarians, and one of French, visited Iraq for talks, while a
former senior French military officer headed a group of business executives
from some 50 companies that staged a three-day "fair" in an attempt to secure
Within the Mideast, three Gulf sheikhdoms--also coalition members--dispatched
envoys to Baghdad for talks with the leadership. Syria, a longstanding Iraqi
rival, announced that it would open its border with Iraq at three separate
crossings for the first time in almost a generation, and the Syrian chamber of
commerce twice visited Baghdad. Jordan also began to heal its rift with the
Iraqi regime. A growing number of Arab states, including Egypt, pressed hard
for sanctions to be eased. Even Saddam's erstwhile rival Iran allowed him to
ship some 10,000 barrels of oil daily through its coastal waters in an end run
around the UN sanctions. The oil went to the United Arab Emirates, once a
pivotal coalition member, to be sold.
Many nations began establishing a firm foundation for eventual commercial links
with Saddam's Iraq. Just days before Albright's benchmark speech, Russia
signed a major oil development deal with Iraq worth an estimated $8 billion.
Under U.S. pressure, Moscow promised that the plan --to develop the southern
Qurnah fields, which are estimated by Iraqi officials to contain between 8 and
12 billion barrels of high-grade crude--would not begin until sanctions were
lifted, but Moscow refused to drop the plan altogether. China soon rushed to
sign an oil deal with Iraq, while the two main French oil companies, Total and
Elf Aquataine, negotiated production-sharing agreements with Iraq's National
Oil Company for the new fields discovered but not yet developed in southern
The widening gap between the United States and its allies--at a time when Iraqi
behavior had not changed--reflected realities of the post -Cold War world that
Washington underestimated. Most countries, and many coalition members, were
more interested in economic strength than military might or territorial size as
barometers of power. Just as the international community had rallied to free
Kuwait and protect Saudi Arabia because of its oil, so too were an increasing
number of nations interested in getting both Iraq's oil resources and oil
revenues back into the world economy. To that end, a growing number of
coalition countries and Security Council members began to judge the UNSCOM
process by what had been achieved rather than what still had to be done, to see
a glass half full rather than half empty. Frustration with America's policy of
containment and sanctions fatigue emboldened a growing number of countries to
argue Baghdad's case in the UN and with American officials.
Behind the scenes, there was also rumbling about U.S. hypocrisy. Many American
allies were well aware that in the 1980s the United States had deliberately
turned a blind eye to Baghdad's rampant use of toxic chemical weapons and
ballistic missiles, use sometimes augmented with intelligence information from
a soul mate in the struggle against Iran--Washington. The attacks against both
civilian and military targets in Iran included some of the most pervasive uses
of chemical weapons since World War I. The combination of Iraq's weapons of
mass destruction and American intelligence eventually helped turn the tide of
the eight-year war back in Baghdad's favor. A decade later, U.S. insistence
that Iraq's arsenal had to be stopped at virtually any cost alienated allies
aware of the earlier U.S. willingness to look the other way.
Saddam Hussein moved decisively to deal with the new threat outlined in
Albright's tough speech by exploiting this widening gap between Washington and
its allies. He set out, through another round of cheat-and-retreat gambles
that grew ever bolder, to isolate the United States and limit the open-ended
disarmament process. And, in large measure, he succeeded.
In April 1997, Saddam defied the UN no-fly zones by flying Muslim worshippers
to and from Saudi Arabia for the annual Haj pilgrimage --a move that elicited
only a UN admonition. From June through August, Baghdad sporadically blocked
UN inspectors at suspected weapons sites and interfered with UN helicopter
flights--at virtually no cost. A Security Council agreement to impose travel
bans on senior officials if Iraq's behavior did not improve was deferred
repeatedly. Only when, in October 1997, Baghdad ordered American inspectors on
the UNSCOM teams expelled and threatened to shoot down the American U-2 spy
planes on loan to UNSCOM for monitoring did Saddam garner a significant
international reaction: Under U.S. pressure, Security Council members conceded
that Baghdad could not dictate the nationality of weapons inspectors. Yet, key
allies were empathetic with Baghdad's contention that the United States played
an overly dominant a role in the inspections and that some U.S. inspectors
behaved imperiously. Russia and others pushed for more balanced representation
on UNSCOM, and Moscow offered its own spy planes as an alternative to the
In the end, Russia convinced Saddam Hussein to back down, but he had reaped
substantial benefits in the process. For three weeks, he was the center of
global attention. He forced the United States to spend tens of millions of
dollars to deploy its biggest guns and its fanciest warplanes just to maintain
the status quo. He bought time to disperse critical equipment and information
on his deadliest weapons, some of which UN inspectors thought they had been
close to uncovering. And he made progress in reopening debate about his
punishment for the 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
By the simple act of expelling seven American inspectors, Saddam Hussein began
orchestrating a process that eventually got the world, including the United
States, to talk about Iraq's punishment for its Gulf War transgressions--and,
more importantly, whether his leadership was part of the price or whether
someday he would be eligible for political parole. Without the crisis as
catalyst, the issue -- and the implicit U.S. goal of removing Saddam from power
as the price of reintegrating Iraq into the world community -- might have
rested on the backburner indefinitely.
Emboldened by his inroads, the Iraqi leader pushed further. In December 1997,
Baghdad declared Hussein's presidential palaces were sovereign territory and
therefore weapons inspectors would not be allowed to search them. The move
sparked a second international crisis that dragged through weeks of high drama
into February 1998. Pressure from a further U.S. and British military buildup
and diplomacy by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan ultimately led Iraq to
retreat, but the compromise once again included gains for the regime at little
cost: once again, Saddam had gained agreement to a reconfiguration of the rules
of UNSCOM operations and the personnel involved in inspections.
The compromise --which allowed a team of diplomats, with their own leader, to
escort the inspectors through the palaces--left UNSCOM technically in charge,
but it contained built-in mechanisms of appeal for Iraq and alternative powers
to make decisions about Iraq's behavior. The compromise was the latest in a
series of measures that began to undermine the independence and integrity of
the disarmament process. Key U.S. and UN officials warned privately that
UNSCOM had now been so badly handicapped that it would probably be unable to
fulfill its mission of guaranteeing that Iraq did not possess weapons of mass
Baghdad achieved one further gain during this period: With the increasing focus
on human suffering in Iraq as a result of sanctions, the United Nations
expanded the provisions allowing Iraq to sell oil to pay for humanitarian
goods. Already in 1996, a UN resolution had allowed Iraq to sell $ 2 billion
every six months for food and medicine. Now in 1998, the UN more than doubled
the allowed sales to $ 5.25 billion every six months, $ 10.5 billion a year.
This deal is so generous that it allows Baghdad to export almost the same
amount of oil it did before the Gulf War: Sales between 1981 and 1989 averaged
$ 9.54 billion annually, equal to $ 11.5 billion today. The expanded sales
could make Iraq the sixth or seventh largest oil exporter in the world, and it
will allow Saddam to increase production to levels currently beyond Iraq's
capability of roughly $ 8 billion a year.  Once the new policy was
in place, Baghdad audaciously informed the United Nations it would need to
spend $ 300 million to develop its oil industry to meet the new quota -- the
first modernization since the war and a critical step in restoring Iraq's
economic infrastructure that Baghdad would otherwise have had to wait to do
until sanctions are lifted.
But the increase did even more for Iraq. It effectively expanded the UN effort
from a humanitarian relief program to something aimed at broader economic
development, thus laying the groundwork for an eventual lifting of sanctions.
Several projects slated for financing with the new oil revenues--for
electricity, agriculture, and resettlement--deal with problems that have little
or nothing to do with war or economic hardships. The resolution also expanded
the types of imports Iraq can buy, from essentials to a wide spectrum of goods
equal to about half of what it bought before sanctions were imposed in 1990.
Almost as bewildering as the scope of Iraq's new oil-for-food quota was the
fact that the United States and Britain took the lead in pushing for it.
Washington and London argued that the move was designed to bring a significant
chunk of Iraq's economy under UN control; the Security Council rather than
Baghdad could then determine how Iraq's oil revenues would be allocated. In
fact, however, the new relief quota was largely a response to growing
international sentiment for Iraq's "victimization" at the hands of U.S.-imposed
sanctions --and another earlier miscalculation by U.S. policy: the assumption
that the humanitarian evils of Saddam Hussein's regime would speak for
In contrast to the public relations offensive that accompanied the Gulf War,
Washington did little to sustain public support either at home or abroad in its
aftermath. U.S. officials failed to adequately illustrate or publicize their
claims, for example, that Baghdad, not Washington, was responsible for the
Iraqi public suffering. Such evidence was widely available: The same week
Iraqi officials escorted foreign journalists through hospital pediatric wards
in Iraq to show diseased or starving babies, an Iraqi delegation was taking the
luxury Concorde from Paris to New York, each ticket costing more than $ 8,000,
and Saddam's son was seen driving a classy new white Porsche around Baghdad.
Even as the value of the dinar was plummeting and Iraq's middle class was
disappearing, the regime constructed more than two dozen new presidential
palaces, some actually compounds the size of suburbs and all with imported
marble bought with precious hard currency. But neither the Bush administration
nor the Clinton team engaged in much public diplomacy on such humanitarian
The toll on U.S. policy of this neglect became painfully visible when the
administration's three top foreign policymakers --Albright, National Security
Adviser Samuel Berger, and Secretary of Defense William Cohen --held an
internationally televised public forum at Ohio State University in February
1998. Their goal was to explain why the United States might have to launch the
most significant military assault on Iraq since the Gulf War. To their
surprise, the trio were repeatedly heckled by students opposed to the use of
force and repeatedly questioned by others about how the United States had ended
up in yet another confrontation.
Phase three in U.S. policy therefore ended with Baghdad having made potentially
serious gains. Iraq had successfully challenged UNSCOM operations and forced
its rules of engagement to be rewritten. The regime maneuvered to preserve
aspects of its weapons of mass destruction, an edge that ensured Baghdad's
regional dominance. Key members of the original coalition and others in the
international community were ever more interested in or committed to providing
light at the end of the tunnel on sanctions; in the short term, greater relief,
which verged on restoring Iraq's prewar economic activity, was to be provided
until the embargo was eased. By 1998, the focus of international attention had
shifted from ways to isolate Baghdad to means of reintegrating Iraq into the
world community --a fact that symbolizes the dangerous weakness of U.S.
post-Gulf War policy.
Even before the latest crisis ended, U.S. officials predicted that another
major confrontation loomed. Washington and Baghdad, they worried, were finally
headed toward the end game--and neither showed signs of giving ground. The
Iraqi leader appeared intent on hanging on to both power and parts of his
weapons programs; the United States still sought Iraqi compliance on all UN
resolutions and, implicitly, Saddam's ouster. Neither international pressures
nor shifting public sentiments had weakened U.S. resolve, in large part because
the stakes remained so high.
With 75 percent of the world's proven oil reserves, the sparsely populated
desert sheikdoms of the Arabian peninsula, Iraq and Iran are disproportionately
important to the world, especially the West. In 1996, Persian Gulf oil
accounted for 18.8 percent of U.S. oil imports--as well as 44 percent of
Europe's imports and 70 percent of Japan's. Iraq is the only country that has
a proven record of using chemical weapons on its own people as well as its
enemies, while also developing or building stockpiles of nuclear and biological
weapons and ballistic missiles. Iraq is now viewed as a crucial test case of
the post--Cold War effort to restrain the proliferation of weapons of mass
destruction. The credibility of U.S. policy and that of the United Nations as
an institution are also on the line.
Yet U.S. options today are seriously limited. Amid growing dissatisfaction in
Washington with the eleventh-hour deal brokered by Annan, the Clinton
administration faced growing pressure to end the recurring series of crises the
"simple" way--by getting rid of Saddam Hussein. Congressional leaders and
columnists of both left and right clamored to take him out. Washington power
brokers-- including a former CIA director and defense secretary--wrote the
White House urging a new strategy to remove Hussein.
Seven years after the Gulf War, however, and after several stillborn U.S.
efforts to achieve this implicit goal, U.S. intelligence estimates suggest that
an internal coup to topple Hussein is hardly imminent. Indeed, despite
indications of internal trouble in 1997, Baghdad's ability to avert a U.S.
military strike had enhanced Saddam's stature both within and outside his
government. And the three alternatives to an internal coup to remove him were
unwieldy, unlikely, or illegal. Assassination, or even plotting to kill a
foreign leader, has been illegal since 1976. Some congressional officials have
recently suggested amending the law, but even if the United States did so,
there is no reason to assume an assassination effort would succeed: Saddam
regularly rotates his presidential security force as well as his inner
political circle to limit access and employs doubles to stand in for him at
A military operation to force Saddam from power would be the most costly option
in human, financial, and political terms. Experts predicted it would require
hundreds of thousands of ground troops as well as vast airpower. It might also
mean sweeping into Baghdad, potentially causing far more casualties than in
Operation Desert Storm. Unlike the Gulf War, the United States would probably
have to go it alone, and the political cost of such a belligerent act could
seriously hurt U.S. stature and credibility else-where in the world.
The third route to unseating Saddam --covert operations--may have been the most
attractive option in principle, but were in practice the most difficult to
implement. During phase two, the CIA ran its largest covert operation since
the Afghan war in Iraq, pouring tens of millions of dollars annually into the
INC and INA, in the end to no avail. A separate CIA-backed plot to overthrow
Saddam from within the ranks of the elite Republican Guard was uncovered in
1996; its lone "success" was the detonation of a small bomb in one of his
presidential palaces--several minutes after he left. Iraq's draconian
intelligence network has consistently prevented significant CIA penetration of
Hussein's inner circle.
Intelligence experts warn that a serious covert effort would take at least
three to five years, and probably longer. Doing it on the cheap would cost $ 1
billion a year and even budgets double or triple that size would provide no
guarantees of success. Countries in the neighborhood and key allies would have
to host or collaborate in the plot --when already they are reluctant to
Short of being able to deal with the crux of the Iraqi problem, the United
States does have other options, some of which Washington pursued after the
back-to-back crises over inspections.
Tighten the growing sanctions slippage. In the mid-1990s, Iraq
dramatically increased export of oil through the Persian Gulf in defiance of UN
economic sanctions. Only about 5 percent of shipments are seized. By early
1998, the slippage reached some 100,000 barrels per day, netting up to $
600,000 per day after costs, bribes, and discounted prices.  Three
steps could help end slippage: better satellite intelligence monitoring of
ships sailing from southern Iraq for interdiction, assisting or pressuring
reluctant Gulf states to deal with seized cargo, and coordinating enforcement
Aid the Iraqi opposition. Support for the Iraqi opposition has dropped
dramatically after the 1996 Iraqi raid of northern Kurdistan. Among the
options include directly arming the opposition, which Washington did not do
even when CIA operatives were urging military operations against Hussein's
forces; providing financial support by allowing access to Iraqi assets frozen
after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait; and lifting sanctions on Kurdish north,
which faces dual sanctions from both the UN and Baghdad. A variety of
opposition activities would again divert Baghdad's attention and resources, and
prove the opposition can rise from the ashes.
Improve relations with Iran. Hussein's long-term goal is to be the
Gulf's dominant power. The only country capable of blocking that goal is
Iran--with three times the population and four times the landmass of Iraq.
U.S. rapprochement with Iran, in response to initiatives by President Mohammed
Khatami, could begin to shift the balance of power away from Baghdad.
Reinforce U.S. defense capabilities and arms treaties. Since two dozen
developing countries now have chemical or biological weapons -- the arms most
difficult to detect -- U.S. strategy should look beyond punishment to
prevention and protection. Options include strengthening enforcement or
compliance in arms control pacts; tightening export controls of dual-use
technology and coordinate with allies; establishing "weapons of mass
destruction-free zones"; improving protective gear so it can be worn longer
than 8 to 10 hours; increasing the stores of antidotes; and enhancing training
on chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons in military and civilian
Push harder for an Arab-Israeli peace. In the Arab world, cynicism
about or opposition to U.S. Iraq policy has become inextricably linked to the
deadlock in the U.S.-brokered peace process. Washington's inability to marshal
Arab support against Saddam is weaker than it would be if Washington were seen
as more active in promoting peace between Israel and its neighbors. A more
robust initiative is needed to spur movement.
All of these steps would be effective in further squeezing the regime. But as
the crisis with Iraq moves into its ninth year this August, the hard truth is
that the United States and its allies have few options to easily or swiftly
deal with the question of "what to do with Saddam" that has loomed on the
horizon since the Gulf War. Containment can continue to make Baghdad pay a
high price for its intransigence. By early 1998, the economic embargo had cost
Iraq an estimated $ 115 billion in lost oil revenues. And the Clinton
administration can hope for a small miracle by a disgruntled regime insider who
takes the initiative against the Iraqi leader. The more time that passes,
however, the more elusive the U.S. goal becomes.
At the moment, Washington is counting on the regime itself to make the U.S.
case, mostly by refusing to fully cooperate with the UN disarmament program.
Whenever U.S. officials are pressed about the growing international sentiment
to ease or lift sanctions once Baghdad complies, the standard response is: if
Iraq ever fully complies. Saddam Hussein is so obsessed with retaining aspects
of his weapons of mass destruction that he is unlikely to hand over
everything--leaving grounds for ongoing sanctions and political isolation.
Over time, Washington contends, the regime will either self-destruct or be
forced to change. In the meantime, the UN will effectively control Iraq's
economy and how its oil revenues are spent.
The key to what happens may be the "meantime." The confrontation now boils down
to which side can hold out the longest: The United States, taking the higher
moral ground and the long-term view, is already having a hard time holding its
line with former coalition members, at the United Nations, and among Arab
allies most threatened by Iraq. In contrast, Saddam Hussein's regime,
exploiting its resource potential and historic place in the Arab world, is ever
more resistant to the U.S. squeeze. And, like a good chess player cornered by
the opposition, Baghdad's aggressive attempts to seize the initiative have
increasingly thrown Washington off its game and even cost it policy pieces.
The bottom line: In military terms, Operation Desert Storm served as a
textbook case of how to deal with aggression in the post-Cold War world. In
policy terms, the early gap between mandate and goal left the United States, as
coalition leader, perpetually vulnerable. Permissible action and mandate never
matched. The war's aftermath could well turn out to be a textbook case of
what to avoid in the post-Cold War world.
 George Bush, Remarks to the American
Association for the Advancement of Science, February 15, 1991.
 Robin Wright, "U.S. Failed to Assist
Plan to Block Kurdish Instability," Angeles Times, September 15, 1996, p.
 Madeleine Albright, speech at
Georgetown University, March 26, 1997.
 Patrick Clawson, "Oil for Food or
the End of Sanctions?" Watch (Washington, D.C.: The Washington Institute for
Near East Policy, February 1998).
 Author interviews with James Placke,
former U.S. diplomat in Iraq now with Cambridge Energy Research Associates in
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