Saddam to Play for Time, Expects Council’s Director of Strategic Policy Lee Feinstein

Saddam to Play for Time, Expects Council’s Director of Strategic Policy Lee Feinstein

November 12, 2002 1:23 pm (EST)

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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Lee Feinstein, the Council’s director of strategic policy, calls the Iraqi parliament’s vote against the new U.N. Security Council resolution “a perfect illustration of what we can expect in the weeks and months to come.” Saddam will play for time and avoid precipitating any crises that could cost him his hold on power. Feinstein, a former senior State Department official, says that the showdown might yet end with “a result that falls between no military action and full war.”

He made these comments in a wide-ranging interview with Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for the Council’s website,, on November 11, 2002.

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Q. It has now been three days since the U.N. Security Council adopted the U.S.-U.K. resolution on Iraq. Initially, it got a lot of support and praise, as did Secretary of State Colin Powell. But what pitfalls do you see in the wording of this resolution? In particular, what will it take for the United States to decide, in effect, “Enough talk, let’s go to war”?

A. Let me start by talking about what happened over the weekend. The Arab League endorsed the Security Council resolution, although they added their own language, indicating some concerns they had. The Arab League endorsement, plus the unanimous Security Council vote, amounts to an achievement that outdoes even what President Bush’s father managed before the first Gulf War in 1991, when he got a 13 to 0 to 2 vote in the Security Council [with abstentions from Cuba and Yemen]. His son, the unilateralist, hung in there for eight weeks and got a 15 to 0 vote. Who would have “thunk” it? So it’s really a tribute to the president’s patience and focus.

Q. What will make this a success? What will lead to war? A success would be probable if Saddam said, “Here’s all my stuff, destroy it.” But they’re probably not going to do that.

A. This was a success diplomatically because different countries can interpret the resolution in different ways. The French are spinning the resolution, insincerely in my opinion, saying it requires a second Security Council vote before force can be used. (I don’t think that is accurate; the Americans preserved all of their red lines.) Meanwhile, the Syrians are describing their vote as the only way to prevent the Americans from going to war. That is closer to the truth since it probably helps to put the brakes on early military action. A diplomatic achievement means some of the differences were papered over, and that’s where it will get tricky.

Q. What if Saddam Hussein says he doesn’t have any weapons of mass destruction and U.N. weapons inspections chief Hans Blix says he can’t find any? Is the U.S. ready to go to war as soon as Saddam says he doesn’t have any weapons of mass destruction?

A. You have a president and an inspection team, led by Mohamed ElBaradei and Hans Blix, who have a lot of momentum behind them. From one perspective, they want to move as quickly as possible before momentum dissipates. On the other hand, they don’t want to seem like they are precipitating a crisis. And the president has the same two issues, except he would see them slightly differently. On the one hand, the president doesn’t want to appear as if he is being jerked around by Saddam Hussein. On the other, he doesn’t want Saddam to set the American timetable. In other words, if military action is the way to go, Bush wants to do it according to his clock, not Saddam’s.

So I think the way to go ahead is to have realistic expectations about what Saddam will and won’t declare. And based on his ten-year track record, we can expect a game of cat and mouse. Probably Saddam will do as much or as little as necessary to keep the inspectors off his back.

Q. The Iraqi parliament met today, and people were theorizing beforehand that this meant they would signal Iraq’s acceptance of the resolution. But in fact, they denounced the resolution, at least initially. Was this expected?

A. I think it is a perfect illustration of what we can expect in the weeks and months to come. Saddam will want to save face, including with his own people. At the same time, he is going to want to save his seat, to be polite about it. He recognizes that if he precipitates a crisis, he is a goner. So this is exactly the kind of thing we are going to see. We have the Iraqi parliament denouncing the U.N. Security Council resolution and “advising” Saddam not to accept it as is. Of course this decision, like most things in Iraq, will be up to Saddam, and he still has until Friday to accept the resolution. This kind of game-playing is to be expected.

In the meantime, the president and his administration have to keep their eye on the ball. The president has been saying in the last few weeks that his main goal is disarmament, not regime change. And what we constantly need to be weighing is whether we’re getting enough disarmament from this process, or whether we need to take military action to get what we want.

Q. Is it your feeling that Iraq has vast numbers of weapons of mass destruction?

A. Intelligence information is always uncertain. A lot could have happened since 1998 when the last inspectors left. And we see this, for example, with North Korea, which had a uranium-enrichment program going on despite the fact that the place is crawling with inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Administration. It’s possible to conceal a program, but I would agree with Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei that it would be very, very difficult for Saddam to hide any major effort. You would certainly stumble on signs of any major effort to produce nuclear weapons or acquire new missiles.

Q. What are the difficulties?

A. The difficulties are in two areas in particular. One is finding smuggled nuclear materials that could be used not only to produce a nuclear weapon but some kind of radiological weapon. Finding these materials can be very difficult, particularly given the many different parts of the former Soviet Union where such radioactive material is available.

The second thing that will be quite difficult is dealing with signs of a biological-weapons program. Experts believe—and the American and British governments have said so publicly—that Saddam, in addition to pursuing a nuclear program, is also pursuing a biological-weapons program. And that’s a lot easier to hide because of the dual nature of biological research.

Q. What would you expect? If it so hard to disguise a nuclear program, would you expect that Saddam in this second round—in which he’s supposed to list all his weapons of mass destruction—will actually say that some Iraqis were putting together a nuclear program that he didn’t know about, and here it is? Or something like that?

A. There is one thing inspectors can’t grapple with easily. That is people. Iraq is a very well-educated society and has a significant cadre of scientists who are schooled and knowledgeable about nuclear issues. Even if we succeed in eliminating the major elements of a nuclear program, it will be very difficult to deal with the people left over.

That’s a long way of saying that I think Saddam will probably make a disclosure corresponding to the kinds of lists he’s given to U.N. weapons inspectors in the past. And weapons inspectors can check those out. Then what we may very well see is a result that falls between no military action and full war. The administration has expressed interest in some military actions to compel Saddam’s compliance if in fact he stymies weapons inspectors.

Q. What would those be?

A. There will need to be intelligence collection from airplanes flying over Iraq to assist the inspectors, and if Saddam shoots them down or lights them up [by anti-aircraft radar], he can expect to be hit. It’s not impossible to imagine that if there is a standoff over a particular facility, and if there is a major crisis over it, that the facility would be taken over or hit. The administration hasn’t made any decision on this to my knowledge, but they have talked about coercive inspection.

Q. This is short of an all-out attack?

A. Yes.

Q. What is behind the spate of articles about U.S. military planning for a war with Iraq? If you are in Baghdad and read these articles, do you pay a lot of attention to them?

A. I think the administration hopes the Iraqis are paying a lot of attention to these pieces. What I think is happening bureaucratically is this. The Powell strategy began on September 12, when the president gave a forceful and well-received speech before the United Nations that mapped out the strategy that the administration has been following—although there has been a lot of back and forth and a lot of inside battling. Everybody in the administration agrees that strong threats to Saddam helped even if they disagree on the end, even if they disagree on when or if to use military force. They all agree that strong threats and military preparation assist the diplomacy at this point. So what has yet to be decided—and the administration feels it has no reason to decide this in advance—is what to do under different circumstances. For some people in the administration, these military preparations are intended to prepare for certain military action. For others, the military preparations are to back diplomacy by force, with the decision to be made later on whether to use force.

Q. What is your reading of whether the Arab states will offer military cooperation? Does the administration feel it will have the use of Saudi bases?

A. One of the reasons the administration came up with the military plan it has—not to deploy large forces immediately but to bring them in stages—is because of sensitivity over access to Saudi bases.

Q. So the administration would still like to use the Saudi bases?

A. I think the Saudis are telling us privately, “If you really need them, we will make them available, but don’t ask unless you really need them.” And the administration, from its own perspective, is trying to see if it can avoid having to put the question in the first place. And there is concern about terrorism at home. Deployment of large numbers of troops in Saudi Arabia, even at remote locations, is definitely something that could incite more terrorism.

Q. If you had to guess at this point, how will we come out at this point? What will be Saddam’s timetable?

A. Saddam wants to play for time. Saddam probably thinks the solidarity shown at the U.N. and now in the Arab League is temporary, and that time is on his side. He will want to stretch this out as long as possible. So he might be much more cooperative in the first two to three months in order to get past what he would see as the crisis period, in the hopes that international focus would become blurred, and he could carry on as he did between 1998 and 2001. The challenge for the U.S. is to maintain the focus throughout this period and to keep the pressure on Saddam and keep the coalition strong as long as possible.

Q. Everyone agrees that Saddam just complying to stay in power would be quite a turnaround.

A. Everyone agrees that the one thing that makes this guy tick is staying in power. That is the most important thing to him, and he will do what is necessary to stay in power. But he probably sees complete acquiescence to the Americans as also threatening to his rule. So he will try to find a way to cooperate that will keep inspectors off his back and satisfy the Americans while still looking tough and belligerent and protecting Iraqi sovereignty.

Q. Could deploying forces around Iraq encourage a coup?

A. There’s no question that the administration is trying to talk directly to the Iraqi people and military to create a sense of inevitability if there is military action—to tell them that there’s still time to make a choice about which side they will be on when Saddam is gone.

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