Saddam's Time Is Up

The war on terrorism gives President Bush a unique opportunity to topple the Iraqi tyrant without firing a shot.


December 2 2001

BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- For the first time since the war on terrorism began, President Bush has set his sights on Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. Unless Baghdad relents and allows the return of U.N. weapons inspectors, the president warned last week, Iraq will face "consequences." Previously, talk of Hussein had centered on his possible role in either the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks or the anthrax scare. No solid evidence implicating the Iraqi leader has surfaced, which makes the administration's change in rhetoric all the more significant. It has taken 10 years since the successful conclusion of the Persian Gulf War for Washington to wake up to the fact that Hussein has become a terrible strategic burden. Soon after assuming office, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, in March 1997, gave a speech in which she said the second Clinton administration would get tough with Hussein. Her announcement followed one of the administration's most embarrassing foreign-policy failures in Iraq. In August and September of 1996, on the eve of presidential elections, Hussein, in alliance with a Kurdish faction, romped through northern Iraq even as U.S. jets flew overhead. Iraqi forces decimated the main opposition alliance, which years of overt and covert U.S. aid had built up. Many of the opposition leaders were caught, tortured and summarily executed. Washington responded meekly: It lobbed a few cruise missiles at Iraq. The administration simply didn't want a foreign-policy crisis so close to an election.

Albright's new Iraq policy, however, fell victim to President Clinton's multiplying scandals. Iraq policy got mired in the executive-congressional food fight when the majority Republicans on the Hill decided to put the administration on the defensive by targeting its lackluster Iraq policy. In 1998, Congress passed the Iraqi Liberation Act, which the president felt compelled to sign. The law forced the administration to help what by then was an internally divided and hapless Iraqi opposition. As Congress continued to push the administration to adopt a more belligerent policy toward Hussein, it was increasingly anxious about how military action would be perceived at home and abroad. When Operation Desert Fox was launched at the end of 1998 to punish Iraq for kicking out U.N. weapons inspectors, many outsiders interpreted--unjustly--the action as a diversion from the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal. As a result, the United States has had to maintain troops and equipment in the Persian Gulf, and operate no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq. This isn't an assignment the Pentagon relishes. Opposition to U.S. troops on Saudi soil, furthermore, has become a rallying point for extremists in the Gulf and beyond.

The events of Sept. 11 have thus underscored how menacing that presence has been to the stability of local regimes. Ironically, the Pentagon and Osama bin Laden are perhaps in agreement that U.S. forces should leave the Gulf region. But there is another factor driving the administration's tougher attitude toward Hussein: The degree to which U.S. authorities were caught off guard by the relatively--so far--minor anthrax scare has doubled the determination of many in Washington to push for Hussein's overthrow. Hussein's past use of weapons of mass destruction--his army resorted to gas during the Iran-Iraq war against his own civilian Kurdish population--and his proliferation record make him a suspect. More important, the administration may want to make an example of Hussein to deter similarly minded regimes.

Must the administration resort to military action to topple Hussein? No. Much of Hussein's resilience has flowed from his ability to play U.N. Security Council members, and regional powers, against each other. His chief supporter at the United Nations has been Russia. But Sept. 11 has changed the international calculus. The recent meeting between Presidents Bush and Vladimir V. Putin represented a potential new beginning in U.S.-Russian relations. The Russians are eager to improve their standing in the West by exploiting the opportunities created by the war on terrorism. They also realize that the administration's desire to jettison the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty stems in part from its fear that Hussein may acquire or build ballistic missiles. The combination of these two factors may convince Russia that the wisest course of action would be to part company with the Baghdad tyrant.

To push Moscow toward this conclusion, the U.S. should put together an alliance of countries critical to Iraq--Russia, France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other regional powers--to pressure Hussein to receive weapons inspectors while retaining the military option. None of these countries wants the U.S. to unilaterally overthrow Hussein; they certainly oppose the use of force. But as long as these countries believe we will use military force--our record in Afghanistan will surely impress them--they are more likely to cooperate on a diplomatic venture. Because Hussein has successfully dangled lucrative oil-for-food contracts and other illicit gains to win the cooperation of these countries, we, too, will have to cut side deals with them. After all, this is what got Pakistan and others on our side in the war against terrorism.

In winning the cooperation of these countries, the U.S. should make the most of the biological weapons threat. If Washington and New York can be targeted today, Paris, Berlin and Moscow could be next.

There are other elements to this coercive diplomatic strategy. One, the U.S. should go back to the U.N. Security Council and, with the backing of its five permanent members, strive to reinstitute a meaningful weapons-inspection regime that would force Hussein to either capitulate or say no. Second, in coordination with its allies, it must step up the psychological campaign to isolate Hussein from his people. A good way to do this to offer the Iraqi people an economic and political vision of life after
Hussein. Past administrations, and the current one, have made little concerted effort to address the Iraqi people directly.

Finally, the U.S. should play on Hussein's Achilles' heel--his paranoia. By compiling a list of, say, 50 of his closest collaborators and declaring them all to be subject to international prosecution, Washington and its allies would be saying to everyone else in the armed forces, security apparatus and bureaucracy that they will not be held accountable for the regime's past sins. This would fuel the deep mistrust between Hussein and his army, which, in the absence of any other institution, is the only other source of power in Iraq, and make army commanders more fearful of his vengeance. Such a diplomatic strategy may prove as ineffective as sanctions in dislodging Hussein. Yet, unlike before, the administration has some factors working in its favor. It is setting the agenda in the war on terrorism and thus can raise the stakes with its allies by putting Hussein's removal at the top of its list of priorities. Its allies and foes are aware that the American public, still outraged over the Sept. 11 attacks, would readily support any attempt to forcibly remove Hussein, if that became necessary. And nothing succeeds like success: a convincing victory in Afghanistan will significantly enhance Washington's clout.

Henri J. Barkey, a professor of international relations at Lehigh University, served on the State Department's Policy Planning Staff from 1998-2000.