A Long Twilight Struggle

Peter W. Schramm

February 21, 1998

What do we do about Saddam Hussein, a Hitler with weapons of mass destruction, as someone called him? Three possible responses have been discussed: bomb the sites where he has hidden his chemical and biological weapons and the means to make them; attack the elite Republican Guards and other security forces that help prop up his regime; and invade Iraq. The first two will not solve the problem and the last will create as many problems as it solves. Wisdom in this situation is realizing the limits to what we can do and resolving to act within those limits and remain patient. First, consider why the current suggestions won’t work.

No one believes that when we bomb the weapon sites that we will hit all of them or that those we hit will be completely destroyed. Besides, Saddam rebuilt after the intense bombing of the Gulf War; he will rebuild again. Saddam can probably smuggle enough oil out of Iraq to continue a weapons program.

Since Saddam is the problem, why not bomb not only the chemical and biological sites but also his Republican Guards, the elite military forces that help prop up his regime, and the other security forces he depends on? If they are hurt badly enough, perhaps they will turn on him or, if they are weakened enough, perhaps those opposed to Saddam will be able to get rid of him. Secretary of Defense Cohen has recently said that the Guards will be a target. But the Guards were mauled in the Gulf War and, as far as we know, mostly stayed loyal. There have been reports of attempted coups against Saddam but none has come close to succeeding. Saddam has a pervasive and ruthless security system. It seems unlikely that coups will succeed in the future. Even if the Republican Guards are weakened, there is no evidence that an effective opposition to Saddam exists that could take advantage of such weakness.

Since bombing won’t work, we must invade, some say. Let’s put U.S. troops on the ground and finish the job we started during the Gulf War. Set aside the costs in lives that such an effort would entail and consider this option strategically. The reason we don’t want Saddam to have weapons of mass destruction is that it would give our enemy enormous power in one of the few regions of the world we need to dominate. But invading Iraq would actually weaken us in this region in the long run by inflaming Arab and Muslim passions against us. Also, after we take Baghdad, what do we do with Saddam if we catch him? What do we do if he is granted exile in a neighboring country? What do we do with Baghdad? Occupy it for 20 years? Arrange a quickie election that brings to power an unstable government and spawns anarchy that our enemies can exploit? Turn it over to the UN and watch the same or worse happen?

The fact is, there is no “solution” to the problem of Saddam Hussein. We should bomb the weapon sites. We should bomb the Republican Guard and Saddam’s security forces and everything they value. We should also keep economic sanctions in place and try to build up whatever exists of an Iraqi opposition. We should continue to try to build a consensus against Saddam in the region and with our European allies. But we must realize that all of this, unless we are very lucky, will not solve the problem of Saddam and his weapons of mass destruction, at least not quickly. We may well have to bomb him again and again.

This may seem unacceptable, but we must realize that the problem of the spread of weapons of mass destruction cannot be solved easily or once and for all by a bombing raid or a treaty or on-site inspections. This problem will be with us in Iraq and in other places for some time to come. To deal with it we must remain patient and resolute no matter how long it takes or how inconclusive the outcome of our actions in any particular case.

Patience and resolution are not enough, however. President Clinton is right to argue as he did in his speech to the nation the other day that stopping Saddam and others who want to acquire weapons of mass destruction is a top national priority. But the Clinton administration must start to practice what the President preaches. It needs to focus on this problem. Dealing with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction will be expensive and time consuming. The administration, therefore, should stop wasting our energy and military resources on fruitless gestures such as restoring democracy to Haiti. Even if we avoid such operations, we will probably have to spend more on national security than we now spend, a sum that as a percentage of our national wealth is at its lowest point in decades. But if the President meant what he said, he should agree that this would be a wise investment in our future.

Peter W. Schramm is the Executive Director of the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.