U.S. Has ‘Strategically Sound and Morally Just’ Reasons to Invade Iraq, Says Council’s Middle East Director Rachel Bronson

December 12, 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.

Rachel Bronson, the Council’s Director of Middle East Studies, says that there is a 75 percent chance of war this winter with Iraq. She contends that an invasion of Iraq would be “strategically sound and morally just.” The entry of the U.N. inspectors into Iraq somewhat earlier than predicted was “a huge unsung win” for the Bush administration because it gives it more time to let diplomacy play its course before Washington has to decide what to do.

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Bronson, who is also a senior fellow at the Council, made these comments in an interview with Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on December 11, 2002.

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Q. Over the past weekend Iraq turned over to the United Nations its vast declaration on its weapons of mass destruction. The table of contents has been published. What do you make of it?

A. The Iraqis have turned over a massive trove of documents. Security Council resolution 1441 called on the Iraqis to turn over all of the information they had on chemical, biological, and nuclear programs— those programs that related to weapons and even those that didn’t. And so, not surprisingly, they’ve produced about 12,000 pages. Many of these pages, I suspect, deal with programs that we are not interested in, and they know we’re not interested in.

The Americans will be looking for areas in which the Iraqis are not telling the truth. This can be and will be done in several ways. We often believe that all pertinent information is in the classified realm but there is a lot that is unclassified that experts will be looking at and that the public can consider as well. First, the British have put forward issues of concern in the form of Tony Blair’s dossier, and the report put out by the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, one of the world’s most prestigious think tanks. And UNSCOM, in 1999, produced its report about what its concerns are as well, and the U.S. has put out some of its concerns. These will be the guides for the administration and the U.N. workers to decide whether Iraq is being actively compliant with the resolution. Of course there is much in the classified realm as well that certainly U.S. experts will be sifting through.

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Q. Were you surprised that the inspectors got started so soon?

A. The fact that the inspectors began so quickly after the passage of 1441 was a huge unsung win for the administration. Since August, the Iraq campaign has been about time. The Americans want to move the diplomacy as quickly as possible, so we can keep the momentum that we have, keep the Security Council united, and so that if it does come to war, we can do it in the cooler weather. The Iraqis know this and they want to delay this as long as possible, hoping to exploit divides among the Security Council’s members.

Resolution 1441 called for the inspectors to begin inspecting within 45 days of the passing of the resolution, or around December 23. I certainly believed that Saddam would find a way to stall the inspectors until then. Rather, inspections began just a few weeks after the resolution was passed at the end of November. This has a number of important ramifications. The most important is that the inspectors have to report back on what they find within 60 days of the start of inspections. That brings us to the end of January.

Q. So that’s a month earlier than you originally anticipated?

A. Yes.

Q. Why does that matter?

A. It gives the administration a little bit more leeway to let the diplomatic process run its course. They can wait for the inspectors to report back. They are in no rush on it now. They don’t have to jump the gun, which they might have done if the inspectors didn’t start until December 23. I believe that Saddam truly blinked by allowing them in so early.

Now there are some costs associated with that. One is that for the first few weeks we only had a skeletal staff of inspectors in Iraq, rather than the full complement. They were only able to do limited inspections If you were a believer in the fact that inspectors might actually turn something up, you would be understandably frustrated that it’s taking so long to get the inspections up and running and by the criticism coming from some quarters that they haven’t yet mounted a serious inspection.

But the benefits in my mind are that it gives the administration some breathing space to decide what they want to do. They can wait for inspectors’ reports and they can let diplomacy run its course, which I don’t think they could have done had they not gotten inspections done earlier.

Q. Do you think there is any chance the inspectors will actually find something?

A. I think there is a chance but I’m not betting on it. I don’t think the administration is either. I think Saddam has learned a lot, not only from the Israeli attack on Iraq’s nuclear facilities in the early 1980s, but from the inspections that Iraq has endured during the 1990s. He has learned about what inspectors do, what they look for, the kinds of the questions they ask, etc. If the Iraqis are smart, and I assume they are, they have effectively hidden any programs that they had. They have also well rehearsed how to divert inquiring minds. Sure they could get lucky. And what the administration is hoping for is defections like the one that occurred in 1995 when Hussein Kamel provided a treasure trove of information. [Kamel, Saddam’s son-in-law and the-then head of Iraq’s weapons program, returned home in 1996 and was murdered.] But I don’t think the administration has ever built its case on inspections. It’s always been about, and again I think appropriately so, what we know they have and what they say they have and the divergence of the two.

Q. When do you think, or do you think the administration has to make public what it knows?

A. I think the administration has probably been smart in not issuing much information up until to now. And that is because we do not want to tip off the Iraqis about what we know. But we are now at the witching hour when the administration will have to provide some information. There are three sets of information it should be focusing on.

The first is what is already out there. There is a lot of information in the public realm, as I mentioned earlier, and the administration should have been repeating over and over again what that is.

The second set of information is that which we don’t have, and the Iraqis do, and it’s Iraq’s responsibility to be forthcoming. For instance, the Iraqis have said they have destroyed certain chemical and biological caches. But they’ve offered no proof that it’s been destroyed other than their word, which, I don’t find terribly compelling. According to the inspectors, there are ways to prove that you have destroyed something and until the Iraqis provide proof, I think we should assume they still have the weapons. But the Bush administration has not been engaged in a real public education campaign on what the Iraqis have said they have destroyed and what we need to see to confirm the claim, since we don’t believe they have done it.

The third set consists of classified information. And here the administration is going to have to put out some information about what we think they have and why. Remember, the administration is building its campaign on a strategy that says we know they have certain things and we know they are lying. They are going to have to release some information— not only for the international community— but for the American public for us to actually believe them. Releasing such information will be very hard for this administration. This administration has been very risk averse when it comes to sharing information, very stingy with information. They withheld information on how they put together their energy policy and pretty much everything else. In case after case after case, they have been reluctant to share information. So it will go against the grain of how they operate, but because they are building their strategy on this information, they are going to have to reveal some of it.

Q. It doesn’t sound as if President Bush has enough for a Security Council endorsement of military action.

A. Well, the question is whether anything would be enough to get a Security Council endorsement. And here, I think the administration needs to do a couple of things. It does need to show it is committed to go unilaterally. I think they are doing that quite well. Part of what will motivate other Security Council members is the desire to appear to be restraining the U.S., or at least, shaping how the U.S. acts. The only way we are going to get them to go along with us is to show a commitment to unilateralism.

At the same time, and this may seem to contradict what I said just now, is that the administration has to work within the multilateral framework. That is, they need to show that they did follow the rules of resolution 1441, let the inspectors go in, waited for their report to the Security Council, did everything as they had promised in the resolution, and then decided that we still needed to invade. This will make it much more likely for others to join us. So, in a bizarre way, they need to be acting unilaterally within a multilateral context.

I don’t think any of this is about what the inspectors find, but how well America can convince others that we made a good faith effort, but, that at the end of the day, we just don’t believe the Iraqis are complying. We have to make some sort of case that they are not only in material breach, but have been over time, and are so now, repeatedly. I think the administration should be able to do this.

Q. When we talked in October, you spoke of a possible coup against Saddam Hussein as a possibility for avoiding a war. Is this still possible?

A. I still think there is a possibility. But, it has never been, in my mind, a really high possibility. I think there is still a chance you could get a coup, but you don’t get one until America is up on the borders of Iraq, teeth bared, ready to go.

Q. There was an announcement from Qatar today saying it would allow the U.S. to use its air base. By going public, Qatar is sending a signal to other states. Is this important?

A. Yes, it is very important. We have been used to leaders offering tacit support but public denials. Qatar is taking a very brave stance. We should celebrate them for it. They are not playing two hands, telling their people one thing and doing another. The emir will pay a price for it. There will be many in Qatar who don’t think it is the right thing to do. But he is being honest with his people. He can engage them on the issue rather than hide from them. It is very brave stuff for little Qatar.

Q. In October, you talked about a possible postponement of military action until the fall. Do you think that is more remote now because the inspections started sooner?

A. Yes, I do. I still think there is a chance it will be postponed because the administration could screw up the politics and then choose not to fight in the heat of summer. You will hear senior generals saying we could fight in the summer if we had to and that we can fight in the heat. And they are right. We train regularly in the summer, in the heat. Our guys are out there sweating in the camps in Kuwait January to January year in, year out. The question in my mind is this: in a war of our choosing, would the president decide to go, faced with higher risks for health and potential casualties, if he can wait a few months and decrease his problems?

And in my mind, in a war of our choosing, we should choose the most advantageous period for fighting and the summer is not that. I am more optimistic now than I was earlier because the inspectors got in early. That completely changes the calculus. But, the administration still might run into trouble. It consistently underestimates the amount of time it takes to get international consensus, but everything is made a lot easier since the inspectors got in so quick. On that, the administration deserves a lot of credit.

Q. So what would you say the chances for military action are?

A. The chances for a military action this winter are probably about 75 percent. There’s about a ten percent chance of a coup, and a fifteen percent chance that Washington still doesn’t get the diplomacy right and an attack gets pushed off to the fall.

Q. That’s been your view all along? Not only that war is inevitable, but that we should launch it?

A. Yes. It is strategically sound and morally just. The Middle East is a strategic region for us. It is where oil does play into all this. It is not about oil prices or controlling the oil as some conspiracy theorists claim. It is about stability in the region. Saddam has been very destabilizing, to say the least— in his attempts to unseat his neighbors and what he has done to his own people. The continuation of the Iraqi regime has been very difficult for our partners, the Saudis, the Jordanians, the Kuwaitis, the Turks, and the Gulf states. Over the years, they have said our Iraq policy has been a very hard policy for them to sustain.

Strategically trying to get rid of one of the most destabilizing forces in the Middle East is a good idea. But the moral aspect doesn’t get as much play as it should. What’s gone on in Iraq to the Iraqi people has been horrendous. Prisons with children of political prisoners being tortured and abused— many younger than ten years old. Just imagine. And sanctions have strengthened the reign of this maniacal leader. We put sanctions into place for very good reasons: we didn’t think they would last long, and we thought they were more just than war. But it turns out we were wrong. And this policy which we have supported and have actively defended has contributed to the aching misery of the Iraqi people. It allowed Saddam Hussein to consolidate his power and use it to horrible ends.

When Secretary Albright said it was not us causing the suffering of the Iraqi people, but Saddam, technically she was right. And everyone in the region agreed; but what they couldn’t understand was why we pursued a policy knowing that Saddam would use it to his advantage to torture his people. We were complicit. We have got to get rid of this monster. He is our Frankenstein.

Q. You mean because of money from the sale of oil not filtering down?

A. Aside from the money that goes to reparations and to administrate northern Iraq, all economic resources get directed into the coffers of Saddam Hussein, who then decides how to distribute it. It increases his power. You don’t have the free flow of trade. The results are horrendous.

The American people won’t go to war unless they feel it is in our national interest. Strategically I think this is in our national interest, but you won’t get sustained commitment to a war unless it is also morally just. Saddam is unique. He is a strategic and moral menace. For that reason, it is important for us to go after him. It doesn’t imply that anyone else is necessarily next. This is a uniquely awful problem.

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