U.S. Goals Fail Unless Ruler Falls

Howard Teicher, the author of "Twin Pillars to Desert Storm," served on the staff of the National Security Council from 1982-87

Saddam Hussein’s decision to stop cooperating with U.N. weapons inspectors eviscerates the tattered remnants of U.S. policy toward Iraq. Washington has sought to eliminate Iraq’s potential to develop and produce weapons of mass destruction and deter any regional aggression by Hussein. But this latest confrontation should prompt Washington and its coalition allies to adopt a policy that goes beyond containment to end the menace of Hussein.

Regrettably, Washington’s failure to deal decisively with Hussein at the end of Operation Desert Storm in 1991 or since has severely circumscribed U.S. options. As now seems most likely, we can attempt to deter Iraq unilaterally, and preserve our policy of containment, by using military power. Or we can pursue a much bolder policy of eliminating Hussein’s regime and establishing, over a period of years, a democratic Iraq. The latter option, despite its inherent risks, is the only coherent policy that can advance vital U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf.

Hussein’s continuing contempt for the sanctions the United Nations imposed on Iraq for its invasion of Kuwait in 1990 is rooted in his certain belief that the international community lacks the resolve to eliminate him or his weapons of mass destruction. Possibly misreading the political implications of the House of Representatives’ impeachment hearings, Hussein may believe that President Bill Clinton will not confront him unilaterally over his flagrant violation of the terms of the 1991 cease-fire.

It should be obvious by now that every step Hussein takes is calculated to strengthen Iraq’s ability to intimidate its neighbors, dominate the region and exact revenge for Desert Storm. Left unfettered, Hussein would again invade Kuwait, launch missile attacks against Saudi Arabia, Israel and other countries, and use weapons of mass destruction.


But some critics of U.S. policy maintain that eight years of containment is enough, that sanctions have exacted a terrible toll on innocent Iraqi civilians and that inspections have reduced Iraq’s capability of producing weapons of mass destruction. These apologists contend that Washington should declare victory, disassemble both the inspections and sanctions regimes and walk away from the multilateral structure that the United Nations has kept in place since 1990.

This “minimalist” approach, however, has as its premise the fatally flawed assumption that Hussein and his regime respond to deterrence. The United States, for example, has organized extensive military arrangements with members of the Gulf Cooperation Council to enable Washington to help defend these states from aggression, but Hussein is simply not impressed. Thus, a minimalist policy would be nothing more than appeasement. It would be wrong-headed and would lead to a major victory for Hussein at home and abroad.

Washington can pursue containment and escalate international enforcement actions through airstrikes. Having failed to root out all of Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction through U.N. inspections, coalition forces can launch a wide range of military operations aimed at destroying these weapons and compelling Hussein to agree to permanent inspections. Research and development labs, manufacturing facilities and storage depots for weapon components, if they can be found, should be targeted. At the same time, other strategic military targets should be hit, including Iraq’s air-defense infrastructure and command, communications and intelligence systems.

Such a sustained military campaign would weaken Hussein militarily but strengthen him politically. Based on the Gulf War experience, it is doubtful that airstrikes alone would destroy Hussein’s military infrastructure. Indeed, most of Iraq’s missile sites and weapon depots were untouched by bombing raids in 1991 because of poor intelligence.

Would the Russians, Chinese and French support military enforcement of containment now, after they so adamantly opposed it last February? The opposition of these permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, as well as Arab chilliness toward military action, was a main reason for not using force when Hussein restricted the movements of weapons inspectors in late 1997 and early this year. While Beijing has not altered its opposition to force, both Moscow and Paris joined in the U.N. Security Council’s most recent condemnation of Hussein. Nor do Arab leaders seem as opposed or especially concerned about domestic unrest in response to military strikes.

Yet, the most important policy question facing Washington is whether deterrence or containment, however aggressively enforced, is enough to protect vital U.S. interests. The dangers posed by a resilient, vengeful Hussein argue in favor of an active and explicit campaign to remove the Iraqi leader’s regime from power.

This will not be achieved by economic sanctions, U.N. weapons inspectors and a limited use of force. Rather, what is required will be sustained military operations, including airstrikes and ground forces, designed to destroy Iraq’s military capabilities. Simultaneously, the promotion of rebellions in southern and northern Iraq is essential to turn the Iraqi people against Hussein. Operating from Turkey, Jordan, Kuwait, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Iraqi opposition groups must be equipped, financially and militarily, to undermine and defeat Hussein. The CIA should stimulate and support opposition in Baghdad, as well.

The liberation of Iraq could begin in either the north or the south, two areas populated by distinct ethnic groups--Kurds in the north, Shiites in the south--with long-standing grievances against Hussein. The United States already maintains command of the airspace over these territories through its enforcement of the “no-fly zones.” A strong presence could be established on the ground to take advantage of U.S. air superiority to arm and train opposition forces and launch strikes against Hussein’s forces.


The goals of eliminating Hussein’s regime and changing the political order in Iraq would not be easy to achieve. Washington would have to define and articulate a political strategy designed to establish a stable, democratic order. Some form of military occupation would inevitably be required to permit any new order to emerge. As such, the United States and members of the Gulf coalition that chose to participate should expect to pay a heavy price in blood and treasure. There would be harsh international and domestic criticism of this policy.

Because it is the path of least resistance, “aggressive containment” seems the more likely policy choice today. But it should be clear that this option will not eliminate the fundamental danger confronting the United States and the international community in the Persian Gulf. It will not restore an effective inspection regime capable of eliminating Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, nor will it weaken Hussein.