Real or Expedient: The Threat Posed by Iraq


On 24 January 2002, the Washington Post reported that the Bush administration’s decision-making on Iraq is stalled.  As of 28 January, the debate-between the Powell pragmatists and the Wolfowitz-led ideologues-is still raging and a victor has yet to emerge.

It is a debate shaped primarily by ideology-is U.S. dominion best maintained by creating an international coalition led by Washington, or by unilaterally asserting military force as the right of the world’s sole superpower?

The Changing Political Terrain: 

What is dramatically different is the political terrain on which the battle is fought.  Prior to the events of 11 September, supporters of an escalated military attack on Iraq were dismissed by many policymakers and pundits as unrepentant hawks out of step with today’s world.  But after 11 September, in a foreign policy debate given new public resonance and urgency by the attacks, their credibility was transformed.

Secretary of State Powell’s emphasis remained containment: re-tooled economic sanctions, tightened military sanctions, and sustained low-level bombing in the no-fly zones.  Before 11 September, Washington’s Iraq policy aimed to placate domestic concerns about appearing “soft on Saddam,” and to shore up the almost collapsed allied coalition-especially its Arab members-supporting the United States.  After 11 September, “anti-terrorism” pressures on coalition partners meant that U.S. influence was stronger yet.  In return for immunity from human rights criticisms, Washington reaped virtually complete support from its allies.

One sign was Powell’s abandonment of his “smart sanctions” proposal in the UN.  Originally embraced as a public relations ploy to undercut growing concern about the dire conditions facing Iraqi civilians, smart sanctions would have only tinkered with the sanctions’ impact, not reversed them.  After 11 September, Washington no longer felt compelled to respond to how the world perceives the impact of sanctions.  “Smart sanctions” were replaced with an extension of the existing sanctions arrangements and an agreement within the Council to negotiate new regulations for importing goods to Iraq.

Powell’s opponents within the administration-including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his Deputy Paul Wolfowitz, long-time backers of a much more militarily aggressive policy-were less interested in the details of sanctions.  Both before and after 11 September, they emphasized increased military support for the so-called Iraqi opposition and overthrowing Saddam Hussein in what was primly defined as a “regime change.”  Their plan called for providing military training to the London-based Iraqi National Congress (INC), who would, with the help of U.S. forces, “liberate” Iraq by defeating the 400,000-strong Iraqi army.  Committed unilateralists and military strategists all, this group cared little for the niceties of coalition politics.

The Question of Iraq:

Top administration officials as well as Israeli intelligence confirmed there was no serious evidence of Iraqi involvement in the attacks.  To the contrary, bin Laden’s antagonism toward Iraq was well known.  According to the New York Times, “shortly after Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait in 1990, Osama bin Laden approached Prince Sultan bin Abdelaziz al-Saud, the Saudi defense minister, with an unusual proposition. … Arriving with maps and many diagrams, Mr. Bin Laden told Prince Sultan that the kingdom could avoid the indignity of allowing an army of American unbelievers to enter the kingdom to repel Iraq from Kuwait.  He could lead the fight himself, he said, at the head of a group of former mujahedeen that he said could number 100,000 men.”  Even if the claim was false, bin Laden’s hostility towards Iraq remained.

The post-11 September calls for expanding the war to Iraq have no connection to any verifiable information regarding Baghdad’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs.  When the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors left Baghdad in December 1998, on the eve of the U.S. bombing raids, Iraq was close to a clean bill of health regarding its WMD production, though questions remained about biological

Since that time, there has been little credible, new information regarding Iraq’s current capacity.  A small stream of defectors eager to sell their stories continues to emerge with tales of grandiose WMD programs still underway.  But without inspectors on the ground it remains impossible to verify their claims.

Expanding the War on Terrorism:

Public calls to “expand the war to Iraq” continue to escalate.  Given Washington’s rejection of the need for UN authorization for a military response to the 11 September attacks, it is likely that any future attack on Iraq would be orchestrated unilaterally too.

For now the debate remains unresolved.  In mid-December Congress voted 393 to 12 to brand any Iraqi rejection of new arms inspectors a “mounting threat” to U.S. security, thus ratcheting up the call for a new war.  Many in Congress, as well as other policymakers and pundits, now seem to accept the once marginalized claim that Iraq should be attacked anyway because it is a state with WMD potential, that could provide weapons to unknown terrorists in the future.

More troubling is the weakness of international opposition.  According to the Berlin daily die Tageszeitung, at Washington’s request, Prague will send 350 soldiers, most of them from the Czech Ninth Special Chemical Weapons Unit, along with special tanks, to Kuwait over the next two months.  Plans were also revealed for sending German chemical warfare troops, and specialized Fox tanks designed for chemical warfare, in response to Washington’s September request.  Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder recently reiterated firm opposition to expanding the war to Iraq, largely to keep his coalition with the Green Party intact, but the deployment is to go ahead nonetheless.

The movement of small numbers of European tanks is not proof of actual, let alone imminent, U.S. intent towards Iraq.  More significant is the ambiguity of elite opinion within the United States.  The recent shift in Bush administration officials’ rhetorical focus from Iraq to threats in Somalia or Yemen, plus the increasing presence of military “advisers” in the Philippines’ campaign against Abu Sayyaf, mean that Iraq’s rise to the top of the target list, would be unlikely until perhaps late spring.  Even then, the less ideological of Bush’s advisers will be appropriately wary of the military challenges Iraq poses, as well as of the likelihood of greater international isolation

The danger of a new U.S. war against Iraq cannot be dismissed.  As Henry Kissinger wrote in the Washington Post, “Creating an appropriate coalition for such an effort and finding bases for the necessary American deployment will be difficult. … Nevertheless, the skillful diplomacy that shaped the first phase of the anti-terrorism campaign would have much to build on.  Saddam Hussein has no friends in the Gulf region.  Britain will not easily abandon the pivotal role, based on its special relationship with the United States, that it has earned for itself in the evolution of the crisis.  Nor will Germany move into active opposition to the United States-especially in an election year.  The same is true of Russia, China, and Japan.”

For now it seems Powell’s pragmatic approach still retains the upper hand.  Turkey, a key ally needed for bombing base rights, vacillates between unease and adamant opposition to a new war against Iraq.  Europe still, despite the troops moving towards the region, remains politically opposed to expanding the war.  Growing unease from a few influential members of Congress and former diplomatic and military officials, and the continued pressure of a small but vocal anti-war movement, will raise the domestic political stakes for a war which all agree will not be an Afghanistan-style walk-over.

It is far from certain that President Bush is willing to risk his post-11 September 90 percent plus ratings by launching a war which could lead to failure.  It was the Pentagon’s own General Anthony Zinni, now a top Middle East envoy for the Bush administration, who memorably said that a military effort to overthrow Saddam Hussein would turn Iraq into a “bay of goats.”  Not an optimistic legacy for an election year.

Phyllis Bennis is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. The above text may be used without permission but with proper attribution to the author and to the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine.