spying on saddam
America's Iraq Policy: How  Did It Come to This? The Washington Quarterly 1998 Summer by Robin Wright >[Reprinted with permission of the author]
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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 solution.

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 Saudi Arabia.

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 aggression.

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.

Phase One: Forfeiting Options

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. [1]

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 from power.

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 diminished.

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 violations.

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.

Phase Two: Failed Containment

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 Kuwait.

  • 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 those priorities.

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. [2] 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 Warren Christopher.

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 comeback.

Phase Three: Rhetoric without Action

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." [3]

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 takes." [4]

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 member." [5]

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 government.

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 business contracts.

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 Iraq.

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 U-2.

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 destruction.

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. [6] 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 themselves.

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 questions.

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.

Lurching Toward a New Crisis

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 public events.

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 participate.

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. [7] 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 with Iran.

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 circles.

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.


[1] George Bush, Remarks to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, February 15, 1991.

[2] Robin Wright, "U.S. Failed to Assist Plan to Block Kurdish Instability," Angeles Times, September 15, 1996, p. A1.

[3] Madeleine Albright, speech at Georgetown University, March 26, 1997.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Patrick Clawson, "Oil for Food or the End of Sanctions?" Watch (Washington, D.C.: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, February 1998).

[7] Author interviews with James Placke, former U.S. diplomat in Iraq now with Cambridge Energy Research Associates in Washington.

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