On Jan. 27, one day before President Bush will deliver his annual State of the Union speech, the U.N. weapons inspection teams are set to report on what they discovered in the Iraqi countryside. Truth be told, the report will be irrelevant to the Bush administration's intentions. Some of Iraq's neighbors are only now catching on to the fact that, for Washington, Saddam Hussein and his regime have always been the issue. They have even begun to explore ways to persuade Hussein and his family to seek exile.
If the world is on the brink of another war in the Persian Gulf, it is because this realization of U.S. ambitions has come so late. Here the blame falls on both the Clinton and Bush administrations, and their allies in Europe and the Middle East, for not devising a joint and comprehensive strategy to rid Iraq of Hussein. Until the Bush administration made Iraq a principal issue, the U.S. and its allies were engaged in a self-destructive dance, in which Washington, with British help, sought to maintain the integrity of the U.N.-imposed sanctions against Iraq while everyone else chipped away at them.
Inspectors or no inspectors, Hussein retains a desire and an ability to develop weapons of mass destruction -- not for self-defense, as some claim, but for imperial aims. Shortly before he invaded Kuwait in 1990, he outlined his vision of an oil-rich, militarily powerful and industrially advanced Iraq that would dominate the Middle East and restore the Arab world's influence in international politics. Swift defeat in 1991 did not curtail Hussein's ambitions one iota. If it had, the Iraqi leader surely would not now be playing cat-and-mouse games with U.N. inspectors and forsaking an estimated $100 billion in oil revenues.
The strategic dilemma that was unresolved throughout the 1990s remains: As long as Hussein rules Baghdad, the U.S. must keep a strong military presence in the Persian Gulf to enforce the U.N. sanctions, as well as protect Kuwait, the Gulf states and the Kurds in northern Iraq. This is not a role the U.S. cherishes or wants to have indefinitely.
The Kurds represent the litmus test of the administration's intentions toward Iraq. Since 1991, they have made the most of the freedom that U.S. enforcement of the northern no-fly zone has provided them. The Kurds have built civic institutions and improved their lives. The two rival governments in the Kurdish areas compete to bring services to their peoples.
It is a stark contrast to the times when Hussein's forces periodically invaded Kurdish regions and destroyed villages, gassed towns, executed tens of thousands and removed whole populations from their ancestral lands. Washington has treated the Kurds dishonorably, betraying them many times. But since the Gulf War, the Clinton and Bush administrations have made commitments to the Kurds that make it impossible for the U.S. to walk away again.
Even if Hussein acceded to all the U.N.'s disarmament demands, the Bush administration still would not eliminate the northern and southern no-fly zones, for good reason. Abandoning the northern zone would leave the Kurds open to reconquest by Hussein. Shutting down the southern zone would leave Kuwait vulnerable to another Iraqi invasion.
The price for the continued U.S. presence in the Gulf is escalating discontent among the region's inhabitants. After all, one of Osama bin Laden's principal complaints is the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, which he considers sacred soil. But critics who suggest that Hussein can be deterred by Washington, or that experience has inhibited his imperial designs, forget that experience has also demonstrated that if deterrence fails and Hussein moves again, the world would expect the United States to stop him.
The coming conflict could have been avoided had the French, Russians and other Europeans joined diplomatically with the United States to delegitimize Hussein with the aim of forcing his removal. Instead, the French and the Russians, in particular, have gone out of their way to make deals with Hussein in the expectation of resuming their lucrative commercial relations with him once U.N. sanctions were lifted. These two countries, moreover, provided diplomatic cover to the Iraqis, enabling Hussein to play one permanent Security Council member against another. In December 1998, the U.N. inspection effort collapsed. A year later, at the behest of the the French and Russians, the administration agreed to reorganize the inspection regime. Yet, when U.N. Resolution 1284, which significantly watered down the inspections process, came to a vote in December 1999, both the French and Russians abstained. This lack of unity allowed Hussein to continue to thumb his nose at the international community.
What the Bush administration has succeeded in accomplishing at a significant cost -- the threat of war and consequent mobilization of manpower and resources -- is to make the world understand that Iraq is a critical U.S. foreign policy interest. In doing so, the administration has committed its share of mistakes. Upon assuming power, it could have struck a hard bargain at the U.N. for a policy of delegitimizing Hussein in exchange for "smart sanctions" that many U.S. allies were clamoring for. Instead of building a fresh new alliance, Washington decided to go it alone, expecting others to follow suit.
Critics of war will probably contend that if the administration supplies the U.N. inspection teams with the intelligence it claims to have on Iraqi weapons programs, Hussein would be exposed, and he would be compelled to come clean. No military action would be needed. This, however, is unlikely, because the intelligence probably has an extremely short shelf life. Hussein has had ample time to perfect his concealment techniques and prepare for inspections. His biological weapons program, for example, can literally be put on wheels. Others can be hidden far from prying eyes. Even in the 1990s, U.N. inspectors relied on luck as much as tedious work to uncover evidence of weapons programs.
One lesson U.S. efforts to engage North Korea should teach us is that deals with regimes that wantonly sacrifice their populations' well-being for grandiose visions of power do not work. Such regimes have every incentive to cheat and disregard the treaties they sign. Both Iraq and North Korea have violated the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which they signed. But North Korea is surrounded by powerful states that don't want it to become a full-blown nuclear power and have the capability to do something about it. Hussein, on the other hand, lives in a neighborhood where he can throw his weight around if the U.S. packs up and leaves. Without regime change, then, the U.S. will be unable to remove itself from the Persian Gulf quicksand.