THE PROBLEM OF IRAQ
As best we can tell, Iraq was not involved in the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. American intelligence officials have repeatedly affirmed that they can't connect Baghdad to the attacks despite Herculean labors to do so. "There's not a drop of evidence" linking Iraq to the attacks, one senior intelligence official told The Los Angeles Times. Iraq's ties to Usama bin Ladin's al-Qa'eda terrorist network were always fairly limited. Saddam generally saw bin Ladin as a wildcard he could not control and so mostly shied away from al-Qa'eda for fear that a relationship could drag him into a war with the United States that was not of his making. Likewise, bin Ladin detested Saddam for his lack of piety, his cynical support for Islam only when it was politically convenient, and his brutal suppression of Islamic leaders who challenged his control over Iraq.
So far, the evidence that has been produced to claim an Iraqi link to the 9/11 attacks has failed to measure up. The claimed "smoking gun" was a reputed meeting between the 9/11 mastermind, Muhammad Atta, and an Iraqi intelligence official in Prague during April 2001. However, the Czechs have changed their story on this meeting several times, and U.S. intelligence officials are skeptical that the meeting took place. Even if they did meet, since no one knows what they said and there is no other evidence to implicate Iraq, the fact of a meeting itself isn't going to allow us to make the case that Saddam was behind 9/11. Likewise, stories have emerged that Iraq has supported an Iraqi Kurdish group with strong ties to al-Qa'eda, initially called Jund al-Islam but later called Ansar i-Islam, as a proxy against the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) -one of the two main Iraqi Kurdish factions, and whose leaders are trying to convince the United States to oust Saddam. Although the claims come from prisoners of the PUK and therefore should be treated with caution, they may be valid. Nevertheless, even if it does turn out to be true that Saddam has supported a small faction of pro-al-Qa'eda Iraqi Kurds against the other Kurdish militias, this is still a far step from demonstrating that he was behind al-Qa'eda terrorist operations against the United States. Both the United States and Iran supported the Bosnian Muslims during the 1990s, but that doesn't mean the United States was behind Iranian terrorist operations.
U.S., British, Israeli, and Arab intelligence services generally agree that the links between Iraq and al-Qa'eda were fairly tenuous. Iraq does support terrorist groups, and Iraq's main intelligence service, the Mukhabbarat, engages in terrorist actions itself. As such it is involved in the terrorist underworld and at times Mukhabbarat agents have made contact with al-Qa'eda operatives. It also seems likely that Iraq and al-Qa'eda have probably exchanged services at various times (like Iraq selling al-Qa'eda forged passports or al-Qa'eda providing Iraq with intelligence). Finally, there are some rumors that over the years members of both groups have tried to explore ways to cooperate against their common foes, including the United States. However, none of the Western agencies have found any evidence of sustained contact or cooperation. Instead, whenever information has been available, it demonstrated that neither side wanted to have too much to do with the other and they mostly went their separate ways. After all, Saddam Hussein is an avowed secularist who has killed far more Muslim clerics than he has American soldiers and this puts him high on Bin Ladin's list of enemies. As a more general point, Paul Pillar the National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, and the former Deputy Director of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center has written that "Terrorism is by no means the main U.S. concern regarding Iraq."
Even though it appears doubtful that Iraq was involved in the September 11 attacks, the question of U.S. policy toward Iraq is still very relevant in the post-9/11 world. The tragedy of September 11th was a wake up call to the American people. After the victories of the Cold War and the Gulf War, many Americans felt safe. Threats to U.S. national interests, let alone to American civilians themselves, seemed small and distant. The U.S. public grew complacent about its security. September 11th shattered that sense of complacency. It drove home to many Americans the realization that there are still deadly threats in the world and that there are people who are looking to inflict terrible destruction on the United States. September 11th convinced many Americans that we needed to be more engaged in the world, to actively seek out threats, and destroy them before they could strike at us.
Iraq is clearly one of these threats. In the months after the September 11 attacks, polls consistently showed large majorities of Americans desirous of using force against Iraq. For example, in a poll conducted six months after 9/11 by the Pew Research Center, the Council on Foreign Relations, and The International Herald Tribune, 69 percent of Americans favored military action against Iraq to end Saddam Hussein's regime. As September 11th recedes into history, these numbers have begun to decline--another poll conducted by Gallup in June 2002 found that those supporting a military campaign to topple Saddam had fallen to 59 percent of those polled. It is also unclear from the polls to what extent the public understands how much force would likely be required to oust Saddam or the potential costs of doing so. Nevertheless, these numbers are still remarkably high. The combination of popular willingness both to use force against Iraq and to make sacrifices to safeguard the nation open up the possibility of new policy options toward Iraq-policy options previously considered unfeasible because of an assumed absence of public support. For instance, before September 11th, the notion of mounting a full-scale invasion of Iraq was thought politically impossible because no Washington decision-maker believed that the U.S. public would be willing to shoulder the potentially heavy costs of such an endeavor. As a result, those who favored regime change had to argue for policies based on covert action or limited uses of military force instead. Today, a full-scale invasion is considered a highly plausible course of action because Washington believes that the American people would support it.
Moreover, the rest of the world also recognizes that the United States has been galvanized into action by the September 11th attacks and this suggests that the U.S. may encounter less diplomatic opposition to more ambitious Iraq policies than in the past. Many nations are willing to give the United States a wider berth than in the past. No one wants to cross the wounded superpower. Others are genuinely sympathetic, recognizing that in the wake of the death of 3,000 innocent American citizens, the United States has the right to take action to protect American lives. Others simply respect American power. They see that the U.S. public is willing to make sacrifices to achieve greater security, which means that Washington can tackle much greater challenges than before 9/11. Given that the U.S. is more willing to exert itself, there are nations that are simply more willing to follow our lead.
In addition, there are potential risks if the United States does not address policy toward Iraq at this time. The global war against terrorism also could prove a distraction from Iraq. Baghdad, and many of its advocates, may believe that they can bargain with the United States, offering greater cooperation in the war on terrorism in return for U.S. concessions on Iraq. On the other hand, through its aggressive rhetoric, the Bush Administration has convinced many people around the world that it intends to use force against Iraq, and this conviction has given Iraq and its advocates pause. Should the United States not make good on those threats, international opinion is likely to be more convinced than ever that there are no penalties for non-compliance with the UN resolutions on Iraq and that the United States will never be willing to incur the costs necessary to actually overthrow Saddam's regime. At the very least, the United States needs to seize the opportunities of this moment to put in place a new policy that can address the problem of Saddam Hussein's Iraq beyond tomorrow.
The Erosion of Containment
Perhaps the single most important reason that the United States must act soon to adopt a new policy toward Iraq is that our old policy, the policy of containment, is eroding. Containment served the United States well since 1991, and much better than most ever thought it could. But it is failing. The United States missed opportunities throughout the post-Gulf War era, first to build a better containment policy and later to reform it so that it could last over the long term. The fault was not entirely our own. Many of our allies proved perfidious, feckless, or outright duplicitous. Moreover, in the end, Saddam devised a strategy that took advantage of our own mis-steps and the shortcomings of our allies to undermine the policy and help speed its demise. Containment is not going to disappear tomorrow. We could cling to it for a few years more even in its current, wounded state, but it is not long for this world.
Containment of Iraq was always a subtly different strategy from that which the United States had successfully employed against the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War. With the Soviets, U.S. strategy was simply to deter or prevent them from pushing out beyond the borders of their "bloc"-the USSR itself and its satellite states in Eastern Europe and Northeast Asia. What the Soviets did within the confines of the Iron curtain was their business. From the start, containment of Iraq was intended to be different. It proceeded from the central premise that Saddam Hussein was too dangerous a leader to allow to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and particularly nuclear weapons. Thus, containment of Iraq was intended not just to prevent Iraq from conducting new aggression beyond its borders, but to prevent Iraq from rebuilding the military power to be able to even entertain new aggression. The United States did not want to have to deter or defeat another Iraqi invasion. Instead, the goal was to deny Saddam the capability to mount a threat in the first place. Consequently, containment of Iraq was always an ambitious undertaking.
When originally conceived during 1991-92, containment consisted of four central elements designed both to prevent Iraq from rearming and to keep it from making trouble in the vital Persian Gulf region. The lynchpin of the effort was a UN disarmament program intended to strip Iraq of its extant WMD and ballistic missile arsenal as well as its capability to produce new such weapons. Although it was assumed that the actual disarmament would be over quickly, the UN also created a mechanism for long-term monitoring intended to prevent Iraq from ever reconstituting these programs. To ensure Iraq's compliance with the disarmament provisions, the draconian sanctions first imposed on Baghdad in 1990 to try to force Saddam to rescind his conquest of Kuwait were kept in place. Strangely, although no one believed the sanctions would have been adequate to force Saddam to give up Kuwait by themselves, great confidence was placed in them to force Saddam's full compliance with the UN's disarmament provisions. Later, the sanctions took on a larger role within the containment policy as another means of preventing Iraq from rebuilding its military, especially when it became clear that Saddam had no intention of complying with the UN's disarmament program.
Meanwhile, U.S. military forces would remain in the Gulf to deal with the much reduced military threat Iraq presented after the devastation of the Gulf War. In addition, at least among the U.S. government's Iraq experts, it was always recognized that U.S. forces would also be required to periodically punish Iraq when Saddam inevitably cheated on his international obligations. Saddam was not one to go gentle into that good night; he was always going to have to be dragged forcibly and a U.S. military presence would be needed for that onerous task. Unfortunately, the U.S. gave up its greatest leverage to enforce Iraqi compliance when it precipitously withdrew its forces from southern Iraq, leaving us to do it the hard way, from outside the country. Eventually, the U.S., UK and France, would add two large No-Fly Zones (NFZs), in which Iraqi aircraft were prohibited. Although principally intended to limit Saddam's ability to repress Iraq's Shi'ite and Kurdish populations, in practice they were more useful as elements of containment in maintaining pressure on the regime and preventing an Iraqi threat to Kuwait, Jordan, or the Kurdish-held lands of northern Iraq.
The problem the United States faces today is that all of these elements of containment are foundering. The UN disarmament effort died when Saddam evicted the weapons inspectors in the fall of 1998. Even at that time, the UN inspectors believed that Saddam preserved a hidden cache of chemical and biological weapons (CW and BW), and ballistic missiles. They also were convinced that the Iraqis had retained the know how and probably much of the equipment they needed to rebuild their WMD and ballistic missile arsenals and to get back to work building nuclear weapons. Since then, defectors have revealed that Saddam had concealed quite a bit more than even the inspectors realized, and that soon after ousting them he resumed his WMD programs to regain and surpass the capabilities he had amassed before the Gulf War.
The American military presence in the Gulf is under pressure. The people of the region are generally unhappy with the presence of U.S. military forces in their countries. Some see it as a necessary evil, others slander it as a form of imperialist occupation. Painfully few welcome it. The governments of the region continue to want our presence, but they recognize the popular disconent and increasingly bend to it. Although there is no sign that U.S. forces will be asked to leave soon, it also appears ever more clear that the days of our current force levels in the Gulf are numbered. Perhaps we could maintain the same presence for five years, perhaps longer. Few believe that we could maintain the current force posture in the region-with major bases in five of the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states-for another decade or more.
Of greater importance still, the ability of the United States to employ limited military operations to compel Iraqi compliance with UN resolutions is effectively gone. This is a critical point with which few Americans have yet come to terms. Starting in 1996, the GCC states began to grow uncomfortable with American airstrikes against Iraq. Over time, these problems worsened. On some occasions, the Saudis and other regional allies indicated that they simply would not support a U.S. military operation against Iraq. More often, they restricted how the U.S. was able to operate. In particular, the Saudis now forbid us from flying strike missions from their air bases, insisting that they be launched instead from Kuwait, Bahrain, or carriers in the Gulf. Today, the GCC states and Turkey are dead set against new, limited military operations (Chapter 5 discusses the reasons for this state of affairs). They have made very clear that while they would support one last, massive operation to remove Saddam from power once and for all, they are just not interested in waging an open-ended war against Iraq. Thus the coercive military operations that were an essential part of containment have largely been taken out of our hands.
The No-Fly Zones themselves are becoming hard to hold on to. As part of their overall distaste for limited U.S. military operations, many of the moderate Arab states would like to see the No-Fly Zones eliminated. Since early 1999, Iraqi air defense forces have been shooting at Coalition planes patrolling the No-Fly Zones on an almost daily basis, provoking the Coalition pilots to respond in self defense from time to time. Iraqi propaganda has successfully convinced much of the Arab world that the No-Fly Zones are illegal, and that the U.S. and UK response strikes are killing large numbers of innocent Iraqi civilians. Although most of the Arab governments know that this is false, they also hate the anger that these responsive strikes create among their publics. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia continue to support the NFZs only because the southern zone provides vital warning of an Iraqi attack, and Turkey puts up with the northern zone out of deference to its NATO alliance and fear that the United States would retaliate against other key Turkish interests (Cyprus, their application for European Union membership, etc.) if they did not. However, none of them cares for the NFZs and would prefer that we found another way to handle these requirements. Even our British allies are tiring of the commitment to the NFZs (the French bailed out several years ago) and would like to see us drastically scale back our sorties. London dislikes the constant conflict with Iraqi air defense forces, fears that it might lose a plane (and have a pilot captured by Iraq), and worries that the anger of Arab publics against the allied responses are undermining both their standing in the region and other aspects of containment.
Worst of all, however, is the rapid increase in smuggling to Iraq and the concomitant erosion of the sanctions. In 1999, Iraqi oil smuggling amounted to about $350 million, or roughly 5 percent of its total revenue. Today, oil smuggling amounts to $2.5-3 billion, representing 15-22 percent of Iraqi revenue. And these numbers are climbing, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey are all working to try to increase the amount of illegal Iraqi oil they can handle. Meanwhile, all manner of goods are flowing into Iraq. Throughout the period of sanctions there have been countries and companies that have been willing to sell Iraq anything it wants. For example, in 1995, Jordanian officials (acting on information provided by the UN inpsectors) intercepted a shipment of highly illegal missile gyroscopes headed for Iraq. However, the liberalization of the oil-for-food program over the last 3-4 years has made it easier for Baghdad to sneak illegal goods in and seems to have made many countries more willing to flout the remaining sanctions. For example, in 2000, the U.S. discovered that China was building a nation-wide fiber-optic communications system that was to have been employed by Baghdad's military and internal security infrastructures, including its air defense command. Such a massive project demonstrated a shocking disregard for the sanctions by a member of the Security Council's permanent five. Saddam has ever greater control of Iraq's resources and is more and more able to get a hold of prohibited items for his military.
Finally, there is the problem of Saddam's nuclear program. Iraq knows how to build a nuclear weapon and did so in 1990-the only thing they were missing was the fissile material, the uranium. Because Iraq has natural uranium deposits, all they need to do is build a process to enrich that uranium to weapons grade and then enrich enough to make one or more Hiroshima-sized weapons. Today, we have information from key defectors and a consensus among knowledgeable experts that the Iraqis are hard at work on such a program and that they have all of the know-how and the technology to do it. The only question is how long it is going to take them. Given the opportunity to deal with the Iraq problem created by 9/11 it would behoove us to decide now how the United States will deal with that eventuality.
The Menu of Decision
Containment may not yet be at a crisis point, but the ground beneath our feet is fast crumbling. Moreover, because of the window of opportunity created by the tragedy of September 11, we have reached a fork in the road. The path we are currently on leads to a particular destination-that destination is a policy called, "Deterrence." Many smart Americans are perfectly comfortable with deterrence, but many others are not and there is no question that Deterrence, as understood in the Iraqi context, is a different policy from Containment, with different risks. Indeed, it would behoove us to examine those risks and decide whether that is the policy we wish to adopt rather than simply stumbling into it (as we stumbled into Containment) for lack of a better alternative. Probably for the last time, the United States now has the chance to make a major change in its Iraq policy. At the very least, we should look hard at Deterrence and the other policy options, decide what is best for this country, and pursue that policy with conviction.
The problem is deciding what that new policy should be. Today, the United States essentially has five options:
1. Rebuild Containment so that it can last for the long term. This would require dramatically altering the sanctions to choke off the smuggling to Iraq, finding a way to restore the inspectors to Iraq and allow them to do their job for as long as it took, restructuring the U.S. force presence to reduce the strain on our regional allies, and rebuilding an international consensus to make it possible for the U.S. to employ limited force to coerce Saddam when he (inevitably) challenges the system.
2. Rely on pure Deterrence to keep Iraq from again threatening the stability of the region. The key difference between a policy of Deterrence and a policy of Containment in the Iraq context is that Deterrence would effectively give up on both inspections and sanctions and allow Saddam to build WMD, counting on the military power of the United States-and, ultimately, our own nuclear arsenal-to deter him from new aggressions.
3. Try to topple Saddam's regime by relying on traditional Covert Action methods to create or empower forces inside Iraq, probably from within Saddam's inner circle, to move against him in a coup d'etat.
4. Employ the "Afghan Approach" of support to indigenous opposition forces backed by U.S. air power and special forces to overthrow the Iraqi regime. Although the focus would be on ousting the regime without committing a heavy U.S. presence, as in Afghanistan, the U.S. would still likely find itself committed to rebuilding Iraq after Saddam's fall.
5. Mount a full-scale Invasion of Iraq to remove the Iraqi regime, scour the country for WMD, and rebuild a stable, prosperous Iraq.
As I will explain over the course of this book, I believe that the last option, a full-scale invasion, has unfortunately become our best option-or at least our "least bad" option. To understand these different courses of action, to explain why I believe an invasion is the United States' best course, and to help the reader make up his or her own mind, this book is organized into three parts. The first part presents a brief description of Iraqi history and U.S. involvement in the Persian Gulf, a short biographical sketch of Saddam Hussein, and the history of U.S.-Iraqi relations since 1979. The second part provides an overview of Iraq today, the nature of Saddam's totalitarianism, the threat that Iraq presents to the region and the United States, and a summary of how the different states of the Middle East see Iraq. The final part of the book then assesses each of the policy options in turn, drawing on the background provided in Parts I and II to explain the benefits and liabilities of each.
The place to start thinking about a new U.S. policy toward Iraq is in the lessons of the recent past. It is important to understand the Iraq's history, our own policies toward the Persian Gulf, and the history of U.S.-Iraqi relations, because the choices available to the United States today are largely a product of this history. What's more, the history of U.S.-Iraqi relations furnishes a great deal of important evidence that is critical to evaluating the policy options we now face. To decide where we should go from here, it is important to know how we got to where we are.