Impasse in Iraq

by Stanley Meisler

December 11, 1998

The American impasse on Iraq derives from two American faults: sound-bite thinking and too much empty bombast. For almost a decade, American policy towards Saddam Hussein has been based on the assumption that he can't last very long. This has produced a lot of threats and blather without too much thought about what would happen if someone didn't rescue us from our threats. The confusion has led us to the present snarl where options are limited and we do not know what to do.

None of this would be with us, of course, if President George Bush had finished the job and ordered the troops into Baghdad to bring down Saddam. But we can't blame Bush much for this. That was not a war aim at the time. Policymakers, in fact, did not want Iraq so weak that it could not balance the power of our then bÍte noire, Iran. Moreover, the Bush people had every right to expect the Iraqi military to get rid of its disgraced leader. It's hard to recall any leader in the last century or so who survived a defeat as total as Saddam's. Napoleon III, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Hitler, Mussolini all died or were dumped into oblivion.

Saddam, however, escaped such a fate in defeat and managed to wield unchallenged power ever since. Yet, since the end of the war, American policymakers persisted much of the time in acting as if they believed he was about to get the chop. A quick resume of the post-war narrative makes this clear.

The peace that the U.N. imposed on Iraq after the Persian Gulf War ended in 1991 was as harsh as that imposed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles after World War I. Security Council ambassadors, mocking a phrase of Saddam, called their key handiwork "the mother of all resolutions." Its most important provision kept in place stringent economic sanctions, including a ban on the sale of Iraqi oil, until U.N. inspectors destroyed all nuclear, chemical, biological and other weapons of mass destruction and set up monitoring systems to guard against a revival of these nefarious programs.

Yet this was soon deemed too lenient by the Bush Administration. In a speech two months after approval of the U.N. resolution, Deputy National Security Adviser Robert M. Gates proclaimed that Iraq must do more than destroy its arsenal; it must bring down Saddam as well. "All possible sanctions will be maintained until he is gone," Gates said. "Any easing of sanctions will be considered only when there is a new government." Since the U.S. had the power to veto the lifting of sanctions, the Bush policy wiped out any incentive for Saddam to cooperate with the inspectors. His resistance hardened, eased from time to time only by American threats to punish him with bombs.

By the time President Clinton took office in 1993, it should have been obvious that Saddam's hold on power was not in danger and that a policy based on his imminent collapse made no sense. Clinton seemed to recognize this in a pre-inaugural interview in the New York Times. He held out the hope that his administration would look on Saddam differently if the tyrant mended his ways. "I always tell everybody, 'I'm a Baptist. I believe in deathbed conversions,'" the president-elect said. "If he wants a different relationship with the United States and with the United Nations, all he has to do is change his behavior." This comment was roundly condemned, and the Clinton Administration, with U.N. Ambassador Madeleine K. Albright spewing forth her toughest talk, would never again be caught looking soft on Saddam.

Although the Clinton Administration abandoned the simplistic Gates policy linking the lifting of sanctions to the lifting of Saddam, it substituted a legalistic policy amounting more or less to the same thing. According to Albright, the United States would never allow the lifting of sanctions until Saddam complied with all the conditions set down by all the U.N. resolutions on Iraq - including such onerous conditions as accounting for missing Kuwaitis and paying compensation to all those hurt financially by the war. Otherwise, Albright argued, there would be no way of assuring the U.N. that Saddam was sincere enough to accept perpetual inspection of his weapons programs.

But this policy could not be maintained easily for long. Many outsiders including the Pope were troubled by the cruel, perpetual sanctions that, despite U.N.-authorized special sales of Iraqi oil for food and medicine, sentenced millions of ordinary Iraqis to a miserable existence. And American allies like France and Russia fretted over the lost opportunity for sales and profits.

Emboldened by these attitudes, Saddam provoked two crises in the past year, shutting off inspections twice, allowing them to resume only after Clinton almost unleashed the most powerful military strikes of his administration at Iraq. The first strike was averted in February when Secretary-General Kofi Annan made a dramatic trip to Baghdad to sign a memorandum of understanding with Saddam. The second was averted in November when Saddam gave in at the last moment, prompting Clinton to rescind an order to bomb Iraq.

The two confrontations ended in a major achievement for Saddam. Although the Clinton Administration still has not said so outright, it obviously has abandoned its policy of keeping sanctions perpetually in place. If the inspectors declare Iraq in compliance, the U.S. would now find it difficult to ward off the lifting of sanctions. Saddam has complicated the situation, however, by raising the stakes. He evidently believes that the U.N. will eventually lift sanctions even if he holds on in secret to some remnants of his chemical and biological programs.

The confrontations have sobered the Clinton Administration. Some policymakers were obviously relieved that their bombastic threats were never carried out. The administration had no clear idea of what it intended to accomplish with bombing. Ten thousand Iraqis might have died. The U.S. would have become a pariah among nations while Saddam enjoyed new status as a martyr. Inspections would have been abandoned forever. And Saddam would have remained in power.

In a recent analysis for the Los Angeles Times, Henry Kissinger, sounding very much like Teddy Roosevelt, proposed that we treat Saddam's next provocation as a kind of pretext for unleashing a military campaign (presumably by air power) that "should lead to destroying Saddam's command and control sites, suspected locations of weapons of mass destruction and the Republican Guard." There is a touch of the fanciful in Kissinger's musings, and his bloodletting would be very premature. But I think he is correct in believing that our recent procession of empty threats does not do us or our allies any good.

It would make sense now to face reality and recognize that the Iraqi military machine is a weakened instrument posing little threat to anyone. If the members of the Security Council feel that Saddam's failure to give up all his weapons documentation and all his stores of chemical agents still leave him in general compliance, we ought to go along with the fiction and join the others in voting to lift sanctions that have remained too long. We could then warn Saddam that we have appointed ourselves as guarantors and intend to crush any attempt by him to revive his mass weapons programs. Should he ever evade our oversight and launch something, a furious punishment would descend upon Iraq. Saddam would need to know that we still considered him too puny to escape punishment. It would not be a comfortable policy for us, but I think the alternatives are worse.

December 11, 1998
Washington D.C.

Author's Note: My December 11 commentary has been overtaken by events, but the basic impasse remains. U.S. policy is still based on the hope that Saddam can be brought down quickly somehow. Bombing creates new problems: the inspection system is probably over; it is very unlikely now that Iraq would allow the inspectors back in. That means sanctions will remain in place indefinitely though they will likely erode over time. So long as Saddam remains in power, the U.S. will have to serve as the main policeman batting him down whenever he seems to flex some weapons. I was surprised that Saddam defied the inspectors so soon, calling the U.S. bluff. That made military action inevitable. He would have been wiser to put on a show of cooperation. Given the logic of the U.S. short term policy, Clinton had little alternative but doing what he did. Yet what does he do now? (December 17, 1998)

see also:

Removing Tyrants
October 4, 2004

The Chaos of Iraq
June 7, 2004

Democracy: One Man, One Vote, Once
November 14, 2003

Depressing Thoughts on Our Victory
April 29, 2003

Badgering the United Nations
March 2, 2003

A Frightening Performance on Iraq
October 16, 2002

Back to top of page

sign up for StanleyMeisler.com email updates:

a Kilima.com website

© 1996 - Stanley Meisler. All Rights Reserved. Privacy Statement