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Deter and Contain

Author: Morton H. Halperin
November 4, 2002
American Prospect


The simplest question that supporters of going to war with Iraq cannot answer is why would Saddam Hussein be less likely to use his weapons of mass destruction if we attack than if we contain him. This debate, essentially within the Republican Party, closely mirrors the struggle over the proposed rollback of communism that raged in the GOP in the late 1940s and early 1950s—until President Dwight Eisenhower settled it. As we currently debate whether some form of containment can work, it is worth reviewing the lessons of that history.

Those who advocated preventive war against the Soviet Union advanced the same arguments being made today: Time is not on our side. We must act before Joseph Stalin gets nuclear weapons. He is a ruthless leader who is not rational and cannot be deterred. If we let Russia get nuclear weapons, she will use them to blackmail her neighbors and we will not be able to intervene for fear of provoking a nuclear exchange.

When Dwight Eisenhower took office in 1953, he set in motion a process within the executive branch that permitted a full and unfettered debate between the options of preventive war and containment. When it was over, the advocates of containment had prevailed. They argued that war was dangerous and costly, and that the outcome could not be predicted with any precision. They argued that under the United Nations Charter, preventive action could not be justified unless an act was imminent, and that no such case could be made against the USSR. They suggested that Stalin, above all, wanted to survive, and that he was cautious and not reckless with his own scalp.

And so the United States set to work to make containment succeed. There were some dangerous moments to be sure, including the Cuban missile crisis and the various Berlin crises, but we succeeded. It took less time than many feared and more than some hoped, but, in the end, the Soviet Union collapsed before any nuclear weapons were used.

What reason is there to believe that an active containment effort would not succeed against Saddam Hussein, who is clearly much weaker than Stalin and rules a country with far fewer resources?

We should start with the simple fact that containment has worked since the end of the Gulf War. Hussein has made a few moves to test our will to defend his neighbors, enforce the no-fly zones and protect the Kurds, but in each case he pulled back quickly, and even those probings seem to have ended. He has now recognized the independence of Kuwait. He can have no doubt that the United Nations and the United States would respond with overwhelming force were he to attack his neighbors or even to threaten them. He may still dream of controlling areas beyond the part of Iraq that remains under his control, but he gives every sign of understanding that any effort to fulfill this dream would mean his doom.

The argument that time is on his side is difficult to understand. By every indicator, Iraq's conventional military capability is declining. Saddam Hussein continues to have some chemical and biological capability, but with limited capacity to deliver it. There is no reason to believe that his capabilities in these areas will change in any fundamental way over the next few years. The Kurds are continuing to solidify their control in the north and seem to have their internal feuds under control.

Thus, the argument that time is not on our side is entirely about nuclear weapons -- just as it was in the case of the Soviet Union. No one believes that Saddam Hussein now has nuclear weapons. The fear that he could have them soon depends on his acquiring weapons-grade fissionable materials from another country. While nothing is impossible, it is hard to see where those materials would come from, why they would be provided to him and how they would be successfully smuggled into Iraq via one of its neighbors, none of whom have any interest in Saddam Hussein acquiring nuclear weapons. While there have been press reports from time to time about fissionable materials being available on the black market, none of the stories has turned out to be accurate. We can further reduce the very low risk of someone being willing to sell weapons-grade materials to Iraq by tightening the physical embargo as part of a "containment-plus" strategy.

A completely indigenous nuclear effort would take at least four or five years and would almost certainly be detected. If we saw Saddam Hussein getting close, we would certainly destroy the facilities and likely move on Baghdad.

Even in the absolute worst-case scenario -- that Saddam Hussein acquires a few nuclear weapons -- he would still have only a limited capacity to deliver them within the region and would be deterred by the certainty of a massive response that would surely remove him from power. How would using or threatening to use a nuclear weapon be consistent with his desire to survive and continue to rule that part of Iraq that is currently under his control?

The far more likely catalyst for Saddam Hussein to employ his weapons, nuclear or otherwise, is an imminent U.S. attack. The argument is familiar but worth heeding: If his survival is threatened by a military attack whose goal is his unconditional surrender, then we have abandoned containment -- and deterrence would no longer work. At this point Saddam Hussein would have nothing to lose, and he might use his weapons of mass destruction in the last desperate hope that the world would force the United States to stop, or at the very least to destroy others with him. Thus not only might Saddam Hussein turn his weapons of mass destruction and chemical weapons against our troops, he likely would wield them against the civilian populations of neighboring countries and against Israel.

U.S. military action also entails a host of other costs and considerations. Choosing this course would require sufficient military forces to defeat the Iraqi army on the battlefield and in combat within Baghdad. We must be ready to accept substantial casualties among our own forces, those of any allies and of Iraqi civilian populations. We must be ready to occupy the country and to stay for a significant period of time, coping with a range of security and economic problems. It is this aspect of a campaign against Saddam Hussein that would pose the greatest challenge, and for which the administration is most woefully unprepared.

There can be no question that the financial cost of this option would be enormous. We are entitled to know what the budget costs would be and whether we would pay for them with larger deficits, new taxes or drastic cuts in domestic spending. We must also accept the risk that oil prices would escalate and that there could well be a sharp decline in the value of the dollar. These economic consequences would need to be borne if our security required an attack, but if there are other options, it is important to consider the economic consequences of each.

Given these very real concerns, what is our alternative? As everyone who has debated policy in Washington understands, one cannot defeat a proposal by advocating doing nothing, especially in the face of a real threat. There is an alternative to preventive war, and the contours of such a policy are beginning to emerge from the debate we are finally having about Iraq. Here are the elements:

--Institute containment-plus, a strategy I outlined in my testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on July 31. Containment-plus is a multifaceted approach to reducing the threat posed by Iraq. Its goal is to more effectively enforce the embargo of materials that would assist Iraq's weapons-of-mass-destruction program and to get the countries surrounding Iraq to fully cooperate, as well as to reduce Iraq's receipt of hard currency in contravention of the UN sanctions. This effort would require providing compensation to such countries for lost revenue as the UN Charter contemplates and would involve the active patrolling of all borders using all the sophisticated technology that we have and U.S. forces acting under United Nations Security Council (UNSC) authority. This could prevent Iraq from improving its conventional military capabilities and its delivery systems for weapons of mass destruction, and would decrease the likelihood that weapons-grade fissionable materials would be smuggled in.

However, containment-plus can only succeed if it is employed in conjunction with several other related strategies. They are as follows:

--Get a UNSC resolution demanding free and unfettered inspections under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.

--Back the inspectors with the threat and the use of military force. It is imperative that this force be derived from international consensus and that it constitute an integral part of any newly improved UN sanctions regime. Otherwise, we risk becoming mired in yet another round of unsuccessful weapons inspections, which in the end would only serve to undermine the power and efficacy of the United Nations and to cast doubt upon the conviction of the international community. We need to break that ugly cycle without losing sight of the real utility of inspecting and destroying Saddam Hussein's stockpile. The simplest first step to show that our global coalition means business would be to destroy from the air, without delay, any building that Saddam Hussein refused to let the inspectors into. In this way we would be initiating a profoundly different and more stringent system of inspections backed by force, though the goal of using force would remain disarmament, not regime change.

--Facilitate the economic recovery of Iraq and the reduction of malnutrition by fully implementing the new sanctions policy that U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell succeeded in getting the UNSC to accept earlier this year. This new scheme makes the import of most items such as foodstuffs and medicines, as well as material needed to rebuild Iraqi oil-production facilities, much easier while focusing on restricting dual-use and embargoed items. The first objective of this program would be to demonstrate that the embargo is not responsible for the malnutrition and other health problems in Iraq. This has always been the case, as Saddam Hussein has always had the authority to spend money to pay for food and health care for his people but has chosen not to in order to increase pressure to eliminate the embargo. The United States has managed to lose this public-opinion battle, not only in the Middle East but also throughout the world. Many people believe the embargo is causing the suffering of the Iraqi people. A new UN embargo regime that tightens controls over dual-use materials and the black market, yields hard currency for Saddam Hussein and facilitates all other trade would help to discredit this argument. We have no reason to try to limit the production and sale of oil by Iraq as long as all of the proceeds go to the fund controlled by the UNSC and are available only for purposes approved by the United Nations.

--Have the UNSC create a special war-crimes tribunal for Iraq that would indict Saddam Hussein. David Scheffer, who argued for this proposal while a member of the Clinton administration, has written recently in The Washington Post about the range of benefits that might accrue from such a course of action. As we have seen in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, ad hoc tribunals can very effectively discredit, isolate and even destroy criminal regimes and their autocratic leaders. An indictment would also, as Scheffer notes, present a clear and well-documented case of criminality and human-rights violations to the rest of the world and, in doing so, would help to support the U.S. position on Saddam Hussein. Together with the weakening effect of containment-plus on Saddam Hussein's government, a tribunal for the Iraqi dictator and his high-ranking officials would further erode the current regime's hold on power. What's more, reticent UNSC members China, Russia and France are far more likely to sign on to a law-enforcement-plus-stringent-inspections approach than they are to a full-scale, American-led war. Even if Saddam Hussein could not be brought to trial, a warrant for his arrest from the tribunal would make it hard for him to travel beyond his borders and would increase the pressure within Iraq to remove him from power.

--Continue to work for regime change by providing support for effective opposition groups if they emerge, and hold out a vision for the Iraqi people of what is to come when they rid themselves of this monster. The United States should make it clear that it does not see any fundamental clash between American and Iraq interests. We should offer financial assistance to help Iraq integrate itself back into the international economy. We should also offer support for the Iraqi people to begin moving on the path to democracy. In many ways, Iraq, with its well-educated and secular population and with the relative equality it grants to women, is better positioned than most Arab states to start on such a path.

This vigorous policy of containment-plus is much more likely to prevent use of weapons of mass destruction by Iraq. In the long run, it may also encourage a more indigenous and successful change of power than one quickly and forcibly effectuated by the United States alone. It would also permit the U.S. government to turn its attention back to where it rightly belongs: the fight against terrorism and the affirmative programs, including democracy building and poverty reduction, that we need to make the world safer for Americans and for everyone else on this planet.

Finally, consider this question: Which of these policies is most likely to reduce the risk of terrorist attacks on Americans, at home or abroad?

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