Murphy Says He Expects War by End of February; Saudis Promoting Plan to Persuade Saddam Hussein to Go Into Exile

January 30, 2003

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Richard W. Murphy, the Council on Foreign Relations Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow in Middle East Studies, says that, barring some major concessions by Iraq, he expects a war by the end of February. On a recent trip to the Middle East, he found Arab states resigned to a war, although Saudi Arabia was also promoting a general amnesty for all but the top 100 or so aides to Saddam Hussein. Such an amnesty offer, the Saudis are thought to believe, might convince Saddam that his supporters could surrender, and therefore it would be wise for him and his entourage to go into exile and avoid a war.

Murphy, a former United States ambassador to Syria and to Saudi Arabia, was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on January 29, 2003.

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Q. What does Secretary of State Colin Powell have to tell the U.N. Security Council next week to make the administration’s case for war with Iraq credible?

A. The nature of the materials he has from the United States government and other sources such as the British government apparently will contain much which is circumstantial in nature. Forty years ago during the Cuban missile crisis, Adlai Stevenson [the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations] presented to the council high-quality photography showing the Soviet missiles in Cuba. It appears that Powell’s case may be less immediately persuasive.

Even though the Russians have come along in recent days to show more support, the United States right now does not have a majority in the Security Council behind launching a military attack on Iraq. Powell and the president have to decide whether to ask for a second United Nations resolution and risk losing the vote, even risk getting a veto, or simply deciding to go ahead and saying, as they have said publicly, that if we don’t find the council ready, then we will be obliged to act on our own with the support of several other states.

Q. A major question for most people in the United States and other countries is “why now?” What is so urgent?

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A. The president obviously realizes this is the crucial question and that he will have to go beyond the exhortation in his State of the Union message to “imagine if” the perpetrators of 9/11 had carried with them toxins such as anthrax and botulism. The audience, both in the United States and abroad, does not want just to “imagine.” It wants to be persuaded that links exist between Saddam Hussein and terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda. So the president and Powell have to provide the most solid information available. The CIA analysis until now has been that Saddam will not hand WMD [weapons of mass destruction] over to terrorist groups unless in extremis, that is, when he believes he is going under.

Q. Why doesn’t Saddam cooperate more?

A. So far, he appears to be operating under his old assumption that he can win time, and time is for him critical. After all he “won” 12 years of survival after Desert Storm in 1991. I imagine that at this moment he is reviewing the specific points Powell and [chief U.N. weapons inspector] Blix have made public about Iraq’s lack of cooperation, which included not allowing the use of the U-2 [surveillance airplane], of not allowing inspectors to speak in private to Iraqi scientists, etc. He will offer the least damaging concessions from that list to buy time. He is convinced he is a winner.

Q. You’ve just come back from the Arab world. Is the mood changed at all? Are Arab leaders more sympathetic to the American position? Is the “street” still very anti-American? If the war starts, what will be the reaction in the Arab world?

A. My January trip was to Syria, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia. I would say, at the official level, those I talked with were already resigned to the probability of war. A Syrian cabinet minister remarked, only half-jokingly, that he hoped the war would not end with Syria getting Iran as its neighbor, meaning there would not be a breakup of Iraq and a Shiite republic established in the south which would effectively be an Iranian instrument.

In Saudi Arabia, they were worried that the United States had not paid enough attention to the difficulties of the “day after” a war. They described, accurately I believe, the Iraqis as a tough, hard, and very difficult-to-govern people. The Saudis asked whether our planners were taking sufficiently into account the problems that Washington would face, particularly if it decides it has no alternative but to attack without a United Nations blessing. Washington will then, they said, inherit the obligation and responsibility to carry on, on its own. They predicted that this would create more anger within Iraq directed not only toward the United States, but also inevitably toward Arab states which have been close to the U.S. over the years. They believe their government will be seriously criticized by their own people for not being able to persuade the United States, given our long-standing ties and cooperation, first to prevent this war, or failing that, to make sure that it was a United Nations operation.

Q. You’re of the opinion that it is really crucial for the United States to get Security Council backing.

A. I’m sure there will be very careful consultations to try to make sure that there will not be a veto. And I do place a high value on our getting the maximum possible Security Council backing.

Q. Did you hear any ideas during your trip about what we should do about Saddam other than getting rid of him through launching a military attack?

A. In Saudi Arabia, I heard from some senior officials the idea of offering a general amnesty right now to all but the top Iraqi leadership. They believed that this could wean Saddam’s loyalists away from him and effectively forestall a war. They had in mind targeting members of the Special Republican Guard and the other security services dedicated to the regime’s survival. The Saudis see these men as having every reason to believe that they are doomed if Saddam falls. If they see a way to survive Saddam and avoid prosecution by a new government, they would be more apt to pull away from him and disobey his orders.

Q. How did they see such a commitment being made?

A. They thought the proposal of a general amnesty would only be persuasive if it was extended by President Bush, possibly through the Security Council.

Q. There have been rumors that the Saudis were planning to stimulate a coup against Saddam. Did you learn anything about that story?

A. I think their suggestion of a general amnesty may have stimulated reports that Saudi Arabia was engaged in “coup planning.” I doubt there is any Saudi plan for a direct overthrow of the Iraqi regime. The Saudis, however, seemed to expect that, once a general amnesty was in play, the top Iraqi leadership, which they estimate at 100-120, would realize their time was up and, being no longer able to rely on the loyalties of their strongest supporters, they would opt for exile. They noted that Saddam has been speaking publicly about the danger of treason in the ranks of the military.

Q. Is there any prospect that the U.S. administration would support such an idea?

A. Possibly, if they see this as an extension of the psychological warfare program they’ve already started through dropping leaflets and warning Iraqi officers by e-mail that they would be prosecuted for war crimes if they obey orders to use WMD. Proposing a general amnesty would be more proactive. The idea, however, might be seen in Washington as betraying the Iraqi opposition and be resisted by those in the administration who believe that war should lead to a widespread purge of the Iraqi government as the prelude to launching its successor on the road to democracy.

Q. So summing up, do you have any doubts that there will be a war? At one point, you were talking about a 50-50 chance of avoiding one.

A. The chances of war are rising quickly. The president in his State of the Union used the phrase “in the coming hours.” That makes me think that by late February there will be military action, barring a change in the Iraqi position, which is increasingly hard for me to foresee. Saddam could still forestall a war. But to do so he will have to go beyond anything he has hinted at doing over the past years in terms of accounting for the stocks [of weapons-related materials], such as anthrax and botulism remaining from their alleged destruction in the early 1990s and what has been going on since 1998. The fact that our troop buildup has been phased so deliberately indicates to me that the president has kept the door open to avoiding a war. The troops could have been in place today.

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