A 'Great Victory' for Iraq

William Kristol & Robert Kagan
The Washington Post
February 26, 1998

The devil is in the details. With this mantra, critics indicate their prudent reservations about the deal struck by Kofi Annan in Baghdad this week. And the Clinton administration, too, is concerned about the details, fretting over the composition of the inspection teams, the chain of command, the relationship between UNSCOM's chief and the secretary general, and other questions raised by Annan's intentionally vague agreement.

But the details are not the problem. The real problem is the Clinton administration strategy that made this deal inevitable. The administration's strategy was limited to "containment" -- getting the inspectors back in, not getting Saddam out. It was limited in the military means it was willing to employ -- air attacks only. That's why the concessions Kofi Annan made to get Saddam to approve the latest agreement should not be surprising. It is doubtful Madeleine Albright could have done better. This deal merely ratifies the fact that as long as Saddam remains securely in power, unthreatened by internal uprisings or American ground troops, he has the upper hand. This is the truth of "containment."

Make no mistake: The deal is, as Tariq Aziz claims, a "great victory" for Iraq. Even a return to the status quo ante would have been bad enough. But Saddam obtained concessions this week that administration officials would have considered unthinkable five months ago. Saddam Hussein is now able to sell more oil; he will enjoy a weakened inspections regime; he has a new advocate in the person of the secretary general of the United Nations; and he has every prospect of greater international support for a loosening of sanctions and the eventual collapse of the coalition that was arrayed against him seven years ago.

The fact that UNSCOM will be allowed to continue its mission in some form, moreover, does not mean the inspectors will be any closer to finding Saddam's biological and chemical weapons than they were before. After all, as administration officials acknowledged just last week, after 6 1/2 years of inspections, the United States still has no idea where the weapons are hidden. Saddam has now had four months to conceal his weapons. How many months, or years, will it take the inspectors to get back on the scent?

In short, the situation today is precisely the opposite of the administration's depiction of it. Saddam has not "reversed" himself, as Albright insists. It is the Clinton administration that has reversed itself and retreated in the face of Saddam's determination. A year ago, Albright declared that she could not imagine lifting sanctions against Iraq so long as Saddam was in power. Now, buffeted by international pressures, the administration has declared a willingness to see sanctions lifted with Saddam still in power -- and this expectation is codified in the deal signed by Kofi Annan. A couple of months ago, Albright's spokesman was chastised for suggesting that Saddam would be offered a "little carrot" in exchange for compliance. Now the United Nations has offered Saddam lots of big carrots in exchange for a signature. Last fall, it would have been unthinkable for the U.N. secretary general to interpose himself as a neutral arbiter between UNSCOM and the outlaw regime in Baghdad -- between the prison guards and the prisoner. Now Kofi Annan chastises U.N. inspectors for trying to do their job and praises Saddam Hussein as someone you can do business with.

Bad as this deal is, however, it is the logical conclusion of a policy of containment. Seven years of such policies have proven that, in the end, "containment" of Saddam cannot be sustained, diplomatically, financially or militarily. Over time, containment of Saddam becomes "detente," and eventually detente becomes appeasement. Why? Because Saddam is so determined to obtain weapons of mass destruction, his route back to strategic dominance in the Middle East, that he is willing to weather sanctions, threats and even airstrikes to pursue this goal. The only thing Saddam fears is the one thing that containment does not threaten -- his removal from power.

Events of recent weeks proved this once again. The administration likes to claim that the Annan deal is evidence of the efficacy of diplomacy backed by force. On the contrary, it was the failure to adopt a convincing military option that produced the present disastrous outcome. Saddam did not sign this deal because he was afraid of airstrikes. He signed it because it locked in the extraordinary diplomatic and strategic gains he has made since last fall.

Containment of Saddam Hussein is an illusion. The notion that we can sustain a policy of deterring Saddam for another 10 or 20 years is ludicrous. The administration couldn't hold the international coalition together; it couldn't control the U.N. secretary general; it couldn't get Arab states to allow U.S. aircraft to launch attacks; it couldn't survive an Ohio "town meeting"; and it couldn't bring itself to launch an airstrike. Whenever Saddam decides to violate the present deal -- whether next week or next month -- the administration's promise of a retaliatory airstrike will be just as hard to fulfill as it was this time, and just as futile. Who honestly believes this administration will be capable of sustaining a containment policy for another six months, much less into the next century?

It is clearer now than ever that there are only two real choices: ever more Kofi Annan-style concessions leading eventually to the full emancipation of Saddam, or a serious political-military strategy to remove Saddam and his regime. And let's not kid ourselves: In any such political-military strategy, the military element is central. Unless we are willing to live in a world where everyone has to "do business" with Saddam and his weapons of mass destruction, we need to be willing to use U.S. air power and ground troops to get rid of him.

William Kristol is editor and publisher of the Weekly Standard. Robert Kagan, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was a State Department official in the Reagan administration.