Don’t Let Saddam Hussein’s Eruptions Drive American Policy

Robert E. Hunter, senior advisor at Rand Corp. in Washington, was U.S. ambassador to NATO from 1993-98

The easing of the Iraq crisis is a tactical success for President Clinton and a loss for Saddam Hussein. Clinton restored access to Iraq for U.N. weapons inspectors and did so without war; Saddam was seen to back down in face of military threat. But tactics gain value only as part of strategy, and that is what the United States now needs.

Eight years after the Gulf War, Saddam has defied expectations that, by now, he would have been long gone or at least neutralized. He remains a lively presence, continues to appeal to the Arab “street” against the West and discomfits his neighbors. America’s power in the region goes unchallenged, but its influence slowly erodes, worn down by recurrent Iraqi brinkmanship.

At the moment, this may not seem to matter. U.S. security is not threatened from the Middle East, and this is unlikely to change anytime soon. But U.S. pretensions to be the “indispensable power,” along with responses by others who take us at our word, set the test of American leadership and credibility far higher than objective circumstances dictate. A succession of local crises like those of the last year may not benefit Saddam and Iraq, but they also do not help America.

President Clinton inherited a muddled policy. Iraq’s use of Scud missiles during the Gulf War, coupled with Saddam’s bloody record, convinced many Western analysts that he not only would develop weapons of mass destruction but also would use them. Deterrence, the U.S. response to Soviet and Chinese nuclear and other weapons programs, was set aside in the unexamined and improbable belief that the Iraqi dictator values nothing and thus can only be preempted or disarmed.


Meanwhile, the United States was still smarting from its humiliation by Iran during the 1979-81 hostage crisis. Washington judged that leaders in Tehran would be unwilling to moderate either their hostility toward the Great Satan or their support for terrorism and opposition to Arab-Israeli peacemaking.

With this analysis, there seemed to be no alternative to containing both Iraq and Iran. But this so-called dual containment policy imposed heavy demands on the United States, especially since neither Iraq nor Iran could be used to help balance the other. Meanwhile, European allies would not accept, uncritically, the U.S. definition of both countries as “rogue states” that could not be influenced by conventional tools of statecraft; and regional Arab states blew hot and cold in their support of U.S. actions against countries with which, ineluctably, they must continue to live. Saddam also accused the U.S. of being in Israel’s pocket and cited as evidence the lack of progress in Arab-Israeli peacemaking.

Not surprisingly, America has found itself facing the security burden in the Gulf largely by itself, without the prospect of creating a regional balance of power that Washington could guide with a relatively light touch. It also has been saddled with a standard for rendering Iraq squeaky clean of mass destruction weapons that can’t be attained without a massive, perpetual inspection regime or a change of power in Baghdad that produces leaders very different from Saddam. The U.S. also has found that instruments available to press Iraq--sanctions and occasional military threats--are either ineffective in the long term or self-limiting. Lack of money is not Saddam’s problem in developing mass destruction weapons, and military attack either cannot eliminate them, will provoke adverse reaction from peoples in the region or cannot be targeted against the Iraqi dictator because of U.S. aversion to assassination.

If American credibility and leadership in the Middle East matter, something new is needed. Envisioning Iraq after Saddam and working to that end is one step, and Clinton correctly took it this week, although it would have been wise to have devised a method before proclaiming the goal.


Step 2 should be to dust off the doctrine of deterrence, which seems in fact to have been validated during the Gulf War, when the U.S. threatened to wipe out Baghdad if any mass destruction weapons were used.

Step 3 should be to refocus the rhetoric of containment against Iraq’s conventional military strength and its nuclear program--instruments with both political and military value--instead of chemical and biological weapons that cannot be totally eliminated, that ultimately can only be countered through deterrence and that, when overemphasized, confer political value out of proportion to their military utility.

Then there needs to be an acceleration of efforts to bring Iran back into the community of nations, in order to restore it to the Middle East balance against Iraq. Tehran bears much of the responsibility for change, but the U.S. administration has been unduly timid in trying to implement a basically sound policy. Also sound is the renewed U.S. effort to produce progress in Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking; indeed, Clinton was no doubt able to rally more Arab support during the recent Iraqi crisis because of his personal role in October’s Wye Plantation accord.

Finally, pursuing all these steps together can strengthen the U.S. hand in demanding greater support from European allies and Arab states. By having a clear, coherent strategy, pursued consistently rather than just in Saddam-induced crises, the U.S. can begin to regain the initiative and create a basis for securing its long-term interests.