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By Richard N. Haass,
Brookings Institution

The Boston Globe

15 February 1998


President Clinton and his chief lieutenants say often that they desire nothing more than a diplomatic solution to the current impasse with Iraq. As Mick Jagger reminds us, you can't always get what you want - but the Clinton administration has yet to sign onto a military option that looks promising.

Why the White House prefers diplomacy is clear. The United Nations weapons inspection effort has proved remarkably successful over the years, uncovering and destroying most of Iraq's nuclear, chemical, and ballistic missile capability. Continued inspections offer the best means of ensuring that Iraq does not create a renewed threat in this area.

At the same time, it is not clear what military force can accomplish, in large part because the opponents of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein simply do not know where he is concealing his remaining biological weapons. You cannot destroy what you cannot target, and you cannot target what you cannot locate.

In addition, any use of military force would be fraught with risk and costs. Going to war would cost billions of dollars, and some pilots would probably be lost. The Arab world, unhappy with the slow pace of the Mideast peace process and angry with years of economic sanctions on Iraq - viewed as hurting innocent civilians while leaving the regime largely unscathed - could well rise up in protest, especially when some American bombs injure civilians. US access to regional Arab military facilities is sure to be constrained.

Under such a scenario, Saddam Hussein could emerge stronger than ever, his appeal enhanced at home and in the region by the fact that he stood up to the United States and survived. At the same time, US-Russian relations could reach a post-Cold War low. Perhaps most seriously, international unhappiness with the use of US military force could lead to a significant weakening of the sanctions that sharply limit Iraqi trade.

Military force remains a serious possibility, if only because it is far from clear that diplomacy will yield what is being sought by the United States: Iraq's agreement to allow UN inspectors to do their work without hindrance or conditions. Anything less is unacceptable. Iraq cannot be allowed to ignore its obligations. This is not simply a principle, since the reality is that even a small amount of biological agents could wipe out a city.

But to say that military force is an option does not say very much. What matters more than whether force is employed is how it is used. And in that area there are difficult choices.

Originally, the Clinton administration spoke of using military force to coerce Hussein into accepting unconditional inspections of sites where weapons of mass destruction were suspected of being produced or concealed. That was reckoned to require a massive aerial attack, lasting days or even weeks, on the Iraqi military and its equipment, something that would hopefully prompt Hussein to give way on the inspections issue, lest he alienate the very constituency he relies on for his survival.

But the president apparently has had a change of heart, concluding that any such coercive attack was too risky, in that it was not certain that the United States would prevail. Hussein might be better able to hunker down longer than the United States could sustain the attack.

Instead, Clinton and his aides have set the bar lower, declaring that the purpose of any military attack would be to destroy Hussein's ability to deliver weapons of mass destruction - targeting his remaining missile production plants - and to reduce his conventional military strength. Such a punitive use of force would have the advantage of requiring only a few days, and of allowing the United States rather than Hussein to determine when it had ''succeeded.''

The problem, though, with what now appears to be US policy is that it would not eliminate the central problem - Iraq's biological weapons and possibly some of its missiles - but would make it difficult if not impossible to restore an inspection system in the aftermath. This suggests the start of a new era, one in which the United States may seek to contain the challenge posed by Iraq's unconventional arms through periodic uses of military force. That would prove difficult to accomplish.

There is a third option as well for the use of force, one being urged on the president by several members of Congress and a number of former officials. Here, the aim would be far more ambitious: to use military force to topple Hussein.

It is not hard to make the case that almost anyone would be better than Hussein, although it is far from likely that he would be succeeded by someone who embraces the basic tenets of democracy. The bigger problem with this option is what it would take to remove him.

The only sure way to bring about an alternative government in Iraq would be to invade, capture, or kill Hussein, and occupy the country until a desirable alternative was firmly in place. That would take years, cost many American lives and dollars, and even then might not succeed. Proposals for accomplishing all this on the cheap by supporting various Iraqi opposition groups are bound to fail; here, as elsewhere, you get what you pay for.

So what should the United States do when diplomatic prospects look poor and military options problematic? The least bad option appears to be to return to the notion of using force in a coercive manner in an effort to reinstate the inspections system. Should that not succeed, the administration could always fall back on the even more limited approach that it now contemplates.

The coercive option has one other advantage: It might be sufficiently menacing to persuade Hussein to reconsider his opposition to inspections. Indeed, at the end of the day, the United States may never have to actually use force. Here the difference with the prelude to the Gulf War seven years ago is instructive. Then, both the United States and Iraq were confident that if push came to shove, they would prevail. Neither side saw much reason to back down.

Today, neither side is so confident. The Clinton administration worries that any use of force will provoke widespread protest and accomplish little; Hussein worries that a significant use of force will leave his military weak and angry with him.

The result is that the Iraqis may offer to accept UN weapons inspectors back - and the Clinton administration may accept their offer rather than order armed strikes. If this does occur, the administration should be sure to demand that initial inspections be as intrusive as can be designed and implemented. Iraq needs to know that the United States is still willing to use force if Baghdad again fails to meet its obligations.

For the next few days, though, the United States and Iraq probably will remain involved in a very different kind of struggle, one for the hearts and minds of the international community. Hussein is portraying himself as the victim of harsh sanctions, unreasonable inspections, and a superpower bully anxious to strike. The Clinton administration is reminding people that Hussein is a threat to all, someone who has used chemicals on his own people as well as on Iran, someone who has invaded Kuwait, and violated his commitments.

The United States seeks to build diplomatic and military support for pressuring and, if need be, attacking Iraq; Hussein seeks to block just this.

Through it all, the issue of inspections will remain central. The United States demands that UN inspectors be able to go anywhere at any time for as long as it takes; Hussein wants to limit inspections to selected officials going only to some sites for a limited period.

In the end, the side that is more confident of international support is likely to hang tough and welcome escalation to armed confrontation. The other side will be more inclined to compromise to avert it. Either way, the only thing that seems certain is that the problem of Hussein and his weapons is not about to fade away.

Copyright: The Boston Globe

Reprinted by permission of the Brookings Institution.




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