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By Shibley Telhami,
University of Maryland and the Brookings Institution

Los Angeles Times

25 March 1999 


Congressional opponents of the Clinton administration are challenging its support for the U.N.'s oil-for-food deal with Iraq; some want to arm Iraqi opposition groups to accelerate the demise of Saddam Hussein. This advice may be dangerous.         

If the assumptions propelling this advice and current U.S. policy hold, here is a likely outcome in the not-so-distant future: An increasingly desperate Saddam, having confronted a few more attempts to overthrow him, goes on TV to declare that Iraq now has usable weapons of mass destruction, and issues ultimatums to U.S. forces and his neighbors.         

How does this follow? Both the administration and Congress strongly believe that Iraq's ruler never stopped hiding and seeking weapons of mass destruction--although UNSCOM inspectors slowed him down substantially.         

Since December, UNSCOM has been out of business, and Saddam probably has concluded that toppling him is an American priority. Assisting opposition groups and launching limited airstrikes are now the U.S. alternative to UNSCOM. The race has thus become this: Will the U.S. topple Saddam before he acquires usable weapons of mass destruction? The odds are not promising.         

From the point of view of Iraq's smaller neighbors, this outcome could come exactly at the moment when they are vulnerable to intimidation. Already in deep economic trouble because of depressed oil prices, they are likely to be in deeper trouble if current oil projections hold. Having condoned a policy aimed at overthrowing another government, Arab rulers will become easier targets themselves.        

Saddam unwittingly helped the U.S. muster support among Arab governments by calling for their overthrow after the December bombings. But since then, Arab public concern about U.S. policy has risen, especially given revelations about U.S. spying through UNSCOM, and regular bombings of Iraq. Arab governments see no evidence of the imminent demise of Iraq's rulers. The longer Saddam survives, the more uncomfortable they will grow with U.S. policy.         

All this means that our policy increasingly will alienate allies and is ultimately dangerous. What is the alternative? There are only two serious options. The first is stark: If the U.S. truly believes that the survival of the Iraqi ruler poses an unacceptable threat to vital U.S. interests, then nothing short of a ground war is necessary. This is a highly expensive option, with risks of extended U.S. military presence, but it is more likely to topple Saddam before he acquires weapons of mass destruction. Since there seems little possibility today of persuading the American public and international allies that the threat is of such magnitude as to warrant these costs, this option is remote.         

The other option is more modest. It begins with the observation that the oil-for-food deal seems problematic because Iraqi weapons programs are now completely inaccessible to international inspectors. It trades the gradual removal of some economic sanctions for reinstating and extending international controls on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.   

Although Iraq wants to keep international inspectors away, it wants the removal of economic sanctions even more. In real economic terms, the removal of sanctions will not mean substantially new income for Iraq, since the current oil market prevents Iraq from even reaching the levels already allowed by the U.N. Iraq will certainly try to acquire new weapons capabilities, but international inspections and the continued U.S. military presence next door will slow it down.    

Its biggest weapon in the Arab world--being seen as the victim of economic sanctions--will have vanished. U.S. policy will garner more international support. Gradual opening to the outside world may even have side benefits for the U.S.: Do Iraqis have a better chance at challenging their rulers while isolated or with access to the outside world?         

Let's be clear: No option is ideal, and the Clinton administration is not responsible for this dilemma. Iraq has been a bipartisan issue, with substantial congressional input. But all options are not equally bad. Is Iraq more likely to acquire weapons of mass destruction with significant international controls or without? Would Iraq have been able to build nuclear weapons in the past nine years without UNSCOM? Are Iraq's rulers more likely to make such weapons their top priority when their necks are on the line, or when they see possible relief?         

If one believes that Iraq's leaders are not only wild risk-takers but even void of a survival instinct, then the likely outcome of the current course is doubly dangerous. There is surely a chance that Saddam will soon be overthrown, but there is a bigger chance that the U.S. will be facing an increasingly desperate ruler armed with weapons of mass destruction.  

Shibley Telhami Holds the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland and is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved.

Reprinted by permission of the Brookings Institution.





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