The Right Priorities?

September 26, 2002

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.

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WHERE DOES IT go from here? NEWSWEEK’s Arlene Getz spoke to Warren Bass, a senior fellow specializing in U.S. foreign policy and Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and editor of its “Terrorism: Questions” Web site about the latest developments. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: President Bush has spent a lot of time trying to win support from world leaders for possible military action against Saddam Hussein. Is the administration just going through the motions before launching a pre-emptive strike, or is this genuine effort at consultation?

Warren Bass: I think it’s a genuine effort at consultation, but it’s also a genuine Bush effort not to get sidetracked. There is one set of perils for the administration in being forced to go it alone, and there’s another set of perils for the Bush administration in being forced to go through the mechanisms of the United Nations. They’re trying to steer between those two sets of perils.

Which is worse?

I’m not going to take a swing at that one. But there are real risks for Bush Two in not repeating some of the shrewdest diplomacy done by Bush One. If part of the point of getting rid of Saddam is to change something about Arab politics, then this should be done in a manner that doesn’t look like gunboat diplomacy.

By some accounts, the U.N. Security Council was thrown into disarray over how to respond to Saddam Hussein’s promise to re-admit arms inspectors. Has this destroyed American chances of building a coalition to act against Iraq?

I’m not sure that it has. The two people who’ve done some quite effective work in building an anti-Saddam coalition in the past 10 days have been George [W.] Bush and Saddam Hussein. Bush did important work by showing that he wasn’t hellbent on being contemptuous of the U.N. and the will of friendly Arab states and America’s European allies. Saddam did a lot of important coalition building by looking guilty and uncooperative and every inch a man who has something to hide.

What about Saddam’s promise to allow the arms inspectors back in unconditionally?

That unconditional offer isn’t so unconditional.

In what way?

Instead of saying, “You can have unconditional inspections, come on in whenever you’d like,” they said: “We’re looking forward to talks with you and officials on the practical arrangements.” That could drag out for weeks. The Iraqis have also been talking a lot about how the new inspection team would have to respect it sovereignty, its independence, its territorial integrity—those sound awfully like conditions to me.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said earlier this week that the administration had private promises of support from various nations. Which ones?

We just don’t know. We know that Qatar is potentially going to let itself be used as a U.S. staging area and base. We know that the Saudis hate saying in public that they’re going to help the United States out but are now stressing the fact that they’re willing to be helpful if the U.S. goes through the Security Council. We know about the Brits [being supportive] and to some degree the Australians. But it’s not the sort of huge sweeping coalition that Bush Senior put together.

Can Bush convince Russia and China to come on board?

The first thing you have to think about when you go to the Security Council is the permanent five [members]. Russia has been enormously friendly and helpful since 9-11, and China will probably abstain, but it’s very difficult to imagine that they would veto. The French have said that so long as the U.S. is willing to work through the U.N. all options remain on the table—including force.

There’s a lot of talk now about coercive inspections—backing up the inspectors with the U.S. military. Is that a viable plan?

It’s interesting, but it suffers from a few defects. First, how coercive are the inspections really going to be? Do you just fight to get the inspectors into a given facility, or is there an armed force waiting behind the inspectors to go in and get rid of Saddam if he doesn’t comply? Can you have thousands of American troops sitting somewhere else in the [Persian] Gulf to see how these new inspections fare? Or would you in fact try these inspections, have them fail, and then start to get on a war footing?

Are inspections likely to uncover anything the Iraqis want to hide?

If inspections are tough and smart and have access, then they can actually do a reasonable job at going down that checklist [of sites provided by the Iraqis] even when you’re dealing with a dictatorship that is as reflexively mendacious as Iraq. But in terms of wandering around a country that’s the size of California with a regime that’s gotten very good at hiding the assets it most desperately wants to keep—it’s the mother of all needles in the mother of all haystacks.

If theU.S.military moves into Iraq, it’s presumably going to have to pull troops away from Afghanistan?

Hamid Karzai himself says he’s worried about this, that Afghanistan might somehow get orphaned for Iraq. The Bush administration needs to work out what its No. 1 national-security priority is. Is it Al Qaeda or is it Iraq?

Is a war against Iraq still the most likely option?

We don’t know. I have much more evidence pointing in the direction of war than I have evidence showing that this could be satisfactorily resolved by the rather weak inspections mechanisms that the U.N. has on offer. They’re just not much of a match for Saddam’s determination to hold on to his weapons of mass destruction … What the American debate should revolve around is not so much the question of whether Saddam is a brutal dictator, which he is, or a serial aggressor, which he is, or someone determined to get weapons of mass destruction, which he is, but whether he is the principal threat to American national security. And whether this has to be done now, or whether there are things related to Al Qaeda and homeland security and loose nukes in the former Soviet Union that are even graver national-security threats to America and that need to be taken care of before Iraq.

Has the administration answered any of these questions?

I have heard a weak and now largely dropped attempt to prove that Saddam had his fingerprints on 9-11. But beyond that I haven’t heard them explain why Saddam, who rules a state, and who we have been able to deter in the past, is a worse threat than Al Qaeda, which is not a state, which would be far more likely to use weapons of mass destruction and which is extraordinarily difficult to deter because of its fanaticism.

What about the view that the war talk is a way to deflect attention from the failure to catch Osama bin Laden?

I don’t want to cast aspersions on the Bush administration’s motives. I think they are correct in identifying Saddam as a high national-security priority for the U.S. But there’s something about the menace of Al Qaeda that makes it a new and different type of American foe. I think the Bush administration does need to explain to the country why Iraq has to be the focus now—potentially at the cost of our war with Al Qaeda.

In terms of international relations, wouldn’t it be worse if theU.S.decides to go it alone after consulting the U.N.?

It’s very important to go through the U.N., because [it] can do something that no other body can, which is put the legitimacy of international law behind a decision to pre-empt a national-security threat.

Is Congress going to back Bush?

The Democrats are extraordinarily quiet on this one. [They] remember getting caught on the wrong side of the debate in Desert Storm. There is no evidence yet of Democratic senators getting in the way of a push toward war in this case.

American and British warplanes recently started bombing air-defense sites in the no-fly zones of Iraq. Does this have tactical value, or is its goal to send a message to Saddam?

It’s of some operational value, but the bottom line is very clear: we own the skies above Iraq. If there is going to be any fighting, the U.S. and any of its coalition partners will do it with overwhelming air superiority.

Do you see any changes in policy on sanctions against Iraq?

No, I don’t. The conversation has shifted—the tenor of the whole Iraq debate has moved quite sharply.

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