Liberate Iraq
Reuel Marc Gerecht
The Weekly Standard
May 14, 2001

After the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, President Bush often compared Saddam Hussein to Adolf Hitler. In sophisticated American and European foreign policy circles, the allusion seemed overwrought -- a historical malapropism from a president trying hard to rally his people.

After all, U.S. diplomats and spooks, not to mention businessmen and farmers, had established a certain rapport with Saddam's regime. His eight-year, half-a-trillion-dollar guerre a outrance with Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini had ended in 1988. Victorious but chastened, the ruler of Baghdad obviously wanted stable times to rebuild his country, or so these Americans asserted. He wanted to work with, not against, the United States, which had provided inestimable aid in satellite intelligence during the most critical war years. American oilmen were clogging every first-class Baghdad hotel, eager to show how they'd tap Iraq's immense, undeveloped energy resources. American "realists" were thus certain they'd found an Arab strongman with whom they could deal.

A decade after Desert Storm, those Republican "realists" have gone to ground, pretending, as did so many Clintonites about the Cold War, that they'd known all along the evil before them. President Bush's Hitlerian allusions -- which, given Bush pere's World War II past, were no doubt uttered sincerely -- now seem apposite. America's one-hundred-hour Middle East war no longer appears so grand precisely because its end -- conditional Iraqi surrender -- betrayed the president's words, leaving in place an aggressive, vengeful, totalitarian ruler.

In the wake of two Gulf Wars, Saddam has devoured his country. The machine-gunning, bombing, and gassing of Kurds in the north; the obliteration of the Marsh Arabs in the south; the slaughter of other Shi'ites in the countrywide rebellion of March 1991; the intentionally random arrest, interrogation, torture, and murder of countless apolitical citizens; the routine, systematic rape of thousands of women of all classes, creeds, and tribes (turning shame into the ultimate political weapon against independence of body and mind) -- all of these sins and more, against his own people and his neighbors, define Saddam Hussein and the Ba'ath political party that formed him as accomplished, modern totalitarians.

Twice since 1980, Saddam has tried to dominate the Middle East by waging wars against neighbors that could have given him control of the region's oil wealth and the identity of the Arab world. He has unceasingly sought weapons of mass destruction, and will in all likelihood have a nuclear bomb within a few years. Who would like to bet that Saddam Hussein has spent hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars on biological and chemical weapons since the Iran-Iraq War only to slaughter Kurds?

In 1990, the United States very nearly did not go to war because of Washington's fear of American casualties, which led many on the left and the right to find no irreconcilable conflict between U.S. national interests and Saddam's hunger for Lebensraum. Contrary to the common depiction of him as a mad hatter, Saddam acted in a perfectly rational manner when he ridiculed the resolve of Uncle Sam in 1990. Anyone who thinks this besmirches the old man should read the Congressional Record of that year. George Bush senior's greatest accomplishment as president was his success at pushing Congress and the equally queasy bureaucrats and soldiers of Washington, D.C., to back his fight in Mesopotamia. Once Saddam has his nuke -- as he inevitably will if he stays in power -- will Washington gird its loins again, even if Saddam has not lately invaded any neighbors?

Think smaller: If Baghdad's ruler finally downs one of our pilots who constantly fly over Iraq to enforce the no-fly zones, will the United States appease Baghdad to secure the pilot's release? American and British pilots have experienced a fivefold increase in the intensity of Iraqi antiaircraft fire in the last four months. Saddam Hussein obviously thinks a captured pilot will redound to his advantage. Should he get one, a media circus would likely unfold, with CNN mixing features on the pilot's life with gripping stories about ordinary Iraqis' suffering under U.S. sanctions. Weeks of this coverage could easily distort policy planning deliberations in Washington, as hostage crises have done before. An excellent question inevitably comes to the fore: To what end are allied pilots risking their lives?

More broadly: Is the United States to hinge its Iraq policy on hope and luck -- Saddam somehow dies an early death, and his regime, which has shredded the terms of its 1991 conditional surrender, is succeeded by a "realistic" one? Is active intervention -- even preemptive military action -- unthinkable for the United States, given the political establishment's fear and firm belief that the American people, not to mention the political elites themselves, no longer believe in a Pax Americana? In other words, were the Clintonites right?

In recent years, Republicans often attacked the Clinton administration's foreign policy for its ineptitude, weakness, and lack of vision. Saddam Hussein tried to assassinate former President Bush in Kuwait in 1993; President Clinton in reprisal fired cruise missiles at an empty Iraqi building. Yet such superpower frivolousness was the product of a purposeful, consistent, and quite serious intellectual choice by President Clinton and his closest advisers: Above all, the United States would not again risk going to war in the Persian Gulf.

Once that decision had been made, everything else -- the slow-motion evisceration of United Nations weapons inspections; the abandonment of the U.S.-supported opposition group the Iraqi National Congress; Washington's embrace of the lame coup attempt by the opposition group Iraqi National Accord; the collapse of the sanctions regime; the revival of anti-Americanism in the "Arab street"; the resurrection of Saddam Hussein as the great defender of the Muslim Middle East; the mantra, repeated ever more emphatically by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, that Saddam was trapped "in a box" (which, of course, any oil analyst or Jordanian taxi driver could have told her was nonsense); and the increasingly pro-Iraqi attitudes of Paris, Moscow, and Beijing -- all this became inevitable.

Totalitarians have a sixth sense for democratic weakness. A carnivore, Saddam Hussein probably knew early on (a good guess would be June 1993, when President Clinton cruise-missiled the empty intelligence headquarters) that Washington had no will to fight. By August 1996, when the United States failed to use its airpower to defend the Iraqi National Congress's lightly armed forces against Baghdad's mechanized brigades, there was no doubt.

America's hayba -- its ability to inspire awe, the critical factor in the Middle East's ruthless power politics -- had vanished. And once hayba is lost, only a demonstration of indomitable force restores it. A U.S. election, followed by President George W. Bush's slightly bigger bombing run over Iraq on February 16, doesn't cut it after years of pointless raids accompanied by American braggadocio.

President Bush's choice for secretary of state, Colin Powell, further complicates the situation. The Iraqis know well that General Powell fought hard against President Bush's decision to go to war in 1990. Once engaged, he famously promised to "kill" the Iraqi Republican Guards -- Saddam's praetorians -- and then didn't. As secretary of state, he quickly voyaged to the Middle East to solicit very publicly the opinion of former Arab "partners" in the Gulf War coalition, telling all that Washington was after "smarter" (read fewer) sanctions. He made appeals for renewed U.N. weapons inspections without making ironclad military threats to reinforce America's determination to search Iraqi installations.

In other words, the general sent a signal that the Bush administration was retreating. With one trip, Powell unintentionally dissipated the tougher-than-Clinton aura of George Bush II in the dynastically minded Middle East. He provoked memories of Warren Christopher.

Intellectually honest, Secretary Powell knows that the principal reason he was in favor of sanctions in 1990 was that he feared war more than he feared Saddam Hussein. But does anyone today doubt that the war needed to be fought? Does anyone seriously believe that sanctions would have rolled Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait a decade ago? Does anyone really believe that sanctions today, no matter how much you increase their IQ, will prevent Saddam from acting for a third time on his dreams of a new Babylonian empire? Can anyone seriously contend, in an age of rapid proliferation, that Saddam Hussein's megalomania and quest for vengeance will not send shock waves well beyond Tel Aviv?

Nonetheless, one can easily appreciate the State Department's distaste for the sanctions regime. Sanctions don't weaken the merciless hold Saddam Hussein has over his people. They make daily diplomacy -- delivering demarches, which are increasingly derided and ignored -- unpleasant and embarrassing. But lightening and (in theory) tightening sanctions doesn't, of course, reverse their effects. Saddam Hussein isn't strong because his people are poor. He was strong when they were rich. As Adolf Hitler knew well, totalitarians need not fear affluence.

And Saddam can, if he wants, alleviate the suffering of his people. He has more than enough oil money to do so. The sanctions are debilitating to the common man primarily because Saddam wishes it so. Arab leaders have moved away from the United States not because their hearts and souls bleed for the Iraqi people, nor because they truly fear "popular opinion" or riots in sympathy with the "America-oppressed" Iraqis. The denizens of Cairo may riot over the price of bread; if they riot over Iraq, it is because their leaders have told them to do so.

The "Arab street" has turned against the United States because Saddam Hussein once again has the look of a winner. Always popular with influential writers and intellectuals in the Arab world for his fire-breathing rhetoric against the age-old Western enemy, Saddam has restored his hayba by surviving and increasing his strength. By contrast, he casts Muslim Arab rulers who too closely associate with America as quislings, not statesmen wisely dealing with an indomitable, foreign power.

Saddam, like other Arab dictators, has benefited enormously from the Muslim world's unhappy collision with the modern West. Triumphant for a thousand years, Muslims have now witnessed three-hundred years of unrelenting defeat. Unfortunately, the Arab Middle East easily takes solace in a ruthless despot who can intimidate America. The hundreds of thousands who have died because of Saddam's unceasing aggression vanish silently in the collective indignation of an embittered civilization. "There has been an implosion, a moral collapse in the Arab world," writes Kanan Makiya, the most eloquent of Iraqi dissidents. "The consequences of this collapse are going to remain with us for generations to come, no matter what happens in Iraq . . . and irrespective of whether or not the holy grail of an Arab-Israeli settlement is finally grasped."

The State Department's Near East Bureau and the Office of Policy Planning under the energetic "realist" Richard Haass do Secretary Powell a disservice when they generate analyses of the Middle East depicting the United States forever on the seesaw of the Arab street. The "moral collapse" of which Makiya speaks can only be made worse by U.S. officials so solicitous of "Arab opinion." The United States must not try to win a popularity contest in the Arab world -- the very act of doing so will make us appear weak. We will not grow stronger merely by reinvigorating sanctions; nor will Saddam grow weaker. If we are to protect ourselves and our friends in the Middle East, who are many, we have to rebuild the awe which we have lost through nearly a decade of retreat.

Sooner rather than later, we have to answer one question: Is Saddam Hussein a serious enough threat to the United States that he must be countered, if necessary with force of arms? If we believe that George Bush senior was right in 1990 -- that Saddam is a Middle Eastern Hitler destined to slaughter and wreak havoc in his region and beyond -- then the answer is "yes," and we must be prepared to give battle. If the new Republican administration answers "yes," but then stutters -- essentially the Clinton approach -- it may make an even bigger mess in the Middle East than its predecessor.

The Clintonites tied themselves in knots trying to spin away from the undeniable facts about Saddam Hussein: that he is on the threshold of acquiring nuclear weapons, that he is a catastrophe waiting to happen, and that they lacked the will to stop him. "Ignore it" was their small-power policy, though the Clintonites tried to camouflage their indifference and weakness in a loud internationalism characterized by half-hearted military action. Whenever an opposing force had even so much firepower as the Haitian army, the administration dodged the fight -- or bombed from 15,000 feet. Former Undersecretary of State Strobe Talbott, the most intellectually serious Clintonite, felicitously described his administration's ever-cautious reflex as learning to live "with reality."

Now, if President Bush tries to find a middle ground between Clintonism and a fight, "reality" will quickly get the better of him. If he is tempted by what might be called "the French approach" -- ease sanctions while publicly averring readiness to massively whack Saddam the first moment the brute misbehaves -- then the administration will truly put itself on a slippery slope. The Butcher of Baghdad will endlessly test our resolve, as he energetically advances his nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs. Such a policy will be read (correctly) throughout the Middle East as another American retreat.

But it is also possible that President Bush will make up his mind to fight. If he does, the tactical questions will become clearer. We will see first and foremost the indispensable and primary role of a U.S.-supported Iraqi opposition. We will also be thankful that Ahmad Chalabi, the chief voice of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), hasn't given up and retired to a life of ease in London.

We need to be frank, however, about one thing right from the beginning: A U.S.-armed Iraqi opposition cannot relieve the United States of the cost and responsibility once again of fielding its own troops in Iraq. Critics of the INC like to point out that supporting the Iraqi opposition is no free lunch. They are right to do so. Chalabi may be forgiven for suggesting that Iraq can be liberated at little cost to the American taxpayer, but it is unwise for his Western supporters to gloss over the unavoidable costs of deposing Saddam. Republicans who think that America can be tough, cheap, and out of harm's way delude themselves.

One of those costs would be the deployment of U.S. soldiers. To refuse to send large numbers of them would clearly signal that the United States still wasn't serious. For the opposition to have legitimacy and hayba in Iraqi eyes, U.S. ground forces would have to be deployed in the south to seize and protect zones under U.S.-opposition control. That alone would quickly transform Iraq's political landscape. We must shatter the bonds of fear that are the primary glue holding Saddam's totalitarian society together. U.S. ground troops are the key to instigating insurrection against the Ba'ath party.

And ground troops would also be a military necessity. Combined U.S.-opposition military operations would be inevitable. American helicopter gunships -- essential for neutralizing Baghdad's armor -- don't go anywhere without mechanized foot soldiers to back them up. American foot-soldiers don't go anywhere in significant numbers without tanks in front of them. At minimum, two divisions -- roughly 50,000 troops -- would probably be needed in the beginning. Given the U.S. military's doctrine of overwhelming force -- more Field Marshal Montgomery than General Patton -- the Army would likely press for far more, even though Saddam would be wary of concentrating an equivalent force given U.S. tactical airpower and the desert terrain.

Saddam Hussein would, however, go after any INC-U.S. forces in the south of the country immediately and tenaciously. Southern Iraq, unlike Kurdistan in the north, is the heartland, which is where the United States and the INC would have to strike. Saddam could not allow his enemies to shear off this part of the country, which is rich in oil. And we would want Saddam to throw heavily armed troops into the battle as quickly as possible. American soldiers would have to be there in sufficient numbers to ensure that the first and most important confrontation sent a shock wave through Baghdad. And when U.S. and INC forces found weakness, or strength, in the Iraqi lines, U.S. ground forces would have to move forward with the opposition. To do otherwise would immediately signal that American support was tentative and reversible. As Saddam brilliantly demonstrated in his squashing of the nationwide rebellion in 1991, he knows the psychology of his country. He would assiduously exploit any ebbing of our effort.

Yet unlike Ayatollah Khomeini and other great chiliastic leaders in Islamic history, Saddam Hussein doesn't inspire death-wish believers. Fear is the principal undergirding of his tyranny. When it vanishes, as it did so explosively throughout the country when Saddam retreated from Kuwait, the Ba'ath police-state overnight becomes a house of cards. Far fewer Iraqis and Americans would die in a U.S.-opposition campaign if the United States engaged as forcefully and as quickly as possible. We wouldn't want to allow Saddam a chance to regain his balance once his regime started to totter. Unlike in 1991, Washington would need to aid vigorously Iraqis who chose to rebel, anywhere in the country.

Contrary to many critics' claims, the opposition's forces would likely have significant military and intelligence value; indeed, they would probably demonstrate quite quickly that they could rout superior forces when backed up by U.S. airpower and an evident American determination to annihilate Saddam. Thousands of Iraqi soldiers would likely answer the opposition's call to change sides and fight. Yet it is impossible now to design realistic battle plans for opposition forces since Washington hasn't decided on the nature of its own involvement. After the debacle of August 1996, when the Clinton administration failed to provide air support to the INC, Iraqis will be loath to put the cart before the horse. For the opposition, manpower and tactics are inextricably tied to America's willingness to commit.

Whatever the military role of the opposition, however, its most critical function would be spiritually to gut Iraq's totalitarian system by creating a pool of men, an organization, and a cooperative ethic to fill the void as the regime fell. Like the forces of the Free French and the Resistance in World War II, the Iraqi opposition would carry the burden of the country's honor. The people of Iraq have been woefully compromised by decades of totalitarian rule. The blood of the Iraqi opposition could give the whole country a much-needed moral reference point.

Even so, Iraq's fissiparous inclinations might well come to the fore. Apart from Israel, and maybe Egypt and Iran, the Middle East has no real nation-state. Once freed of Saddam, Iraq will need an institution, untouched by the Ba'ath, through which its diverse people can begin to restore communal ties and reconstruct a national identity. Given the savage police-state they have endured, reestablishing even minimal trust among communities will be extraordinarily difficult. Yet Saddam's and the Ba'ath's indescribable brutality has given all Iraqis a common denominator. We may hope that their experience with barbarism has sharpened their desire to find compromises short of killing.

In January 1999, Foreign Affairs published a high-profile attack on the INC, "Can Saddam Be Toppled?" by Daniel Byman, Kenneth Pollack, and Gideon Rose. It left the impression that Ahmad Chalabi is definitely not the man to lead the opposition, let alone the nation, out of the totalitarian abyss, portraying him as an ineffectual leader, devoid of the eminence necessary to draw disparate Iraqis together. Yet Chalabi may be ideal for the task, for the very reasons that often cause critics to trash him. He is rich, upper class (in the old-world sense), well educated, highly Westernized, an expatriate, and, last but not least, a Shi'ite Arab.

Sunni Arabs are very much an Iraqi minority. They represent no more than 30 percent of the population, probably closer to 20 percent. Shi'ite Arabs are at least 60 percent of the people, perhaps even 70 percent. (Sunni Kurds are the majority of what is left.) The Iraqi army, too, is majority Shi'ite. The officer corps probably isn't; the elite units certainly are not.

Yet this perspective is relevant only if one is trying to instigate a coup within Saddam's inner circle. But a coup against Saddam is an addle-headed idea, as the men involved in the CIA-engineered Iraqi National Accord coup attempt could testify, if they were still alive. Coups against totalitarian regimes can't work. Even if Saddam were to fall to an assassin's bullet or a praetorian insurrection, he would only be succeeded by a Ba'athi Himmler or Goring.

If Iraq is ever to escape its vicious past, its politics must start to reflect the mosaic of its people. Continued Sunni Arab dominance of government is a recipe for Lebanese-style disaster. The Sunni Arab community needs to know that the Shi'ites are not going to massacre them for their privileges within the Ba'athi system -- this is an article of faith with Chalabi, who has a profound understanding of Iraq's messy history -- but they must also know that the Sunni Arab power structure, as it exists under Saddam Hussein, will end.

This might not be as convulsive as it sounds. Sunni Arabs have suffered horribly under Saddam's reign of terror. For years, their women too have been raped. Chalabi, because he is an outsider and a member of an old, prominent family that reaches back before Iraq descended into its Ba'athi nightmare, can appeal to the nostalgia one senses throughout the Arab world for a time when civilized men did not slaughter each other.

Sunni-Shi'ite problems are no doubt in Iraq's future, but the possibility of Iraqi democracy must not be jettisoned for the illusion that there is any cheap, quick, Sunni-officer-delivered escape from the need to extirpate the Ba'ath. We must not deny the democratic chance for fear of an Iraqi-Iranian Shi'ite collusion upsetting the balance of power in the Middle East. This kind of fraternity between Iraqi and Iranian Shi'ites simply does not exist -- except in the minds of Republican "realists" who tragically used this argument a decade ago.

We don't know for sure how good a national leader Chalabi would be. An observant Muslim, he has the old patrician Arab ability to speak across perhaps the most important socio-religious dividing line -- between traditionalists and moderns. But we can't finally assess Chalabi's gravitas until the White House backs him on the battlefield, in Congress, and before Washington's foreign-affairs, defense, and intelligence bureaucracies.

Anyone who has met him knows that Chalabi has presence, but the critical factor for his leadership would be America's support. Once Chalabi was chosen by us, everyone else -- the Kurds, the Sunni and Shi'ite Arabs, the Turks, Iranians, Kuwaitis, and Saudis -- would view him in an entirely new light. It is astonishing that Byman, Pollack, and Rose, and those who echo their views in the U.S. government, favor trolling for new leadership among the many factions of the Iraqi opposition -- in effect, turning the principle of divide and conquer against us. Their assertion that Chalabi has been a feckless leader of the opposition is bizarre given the Clinton administration's unflagging efforts to undermine him. Ever since August 1996, when national security adviser Anthony Lake surreally declared Saddam Hussein's rout of the U.S.-supported INC to be irrelevant to America's position in the Middle East, besmirching Chalabi, who refused to go quietly, has been a logical necessity.

Chalabi's perseverance in the face of so much executive-branch flak ought to incline us strongly in his favor. And he has already shown that he can be an adequate leader. Under very adverse circumstances, and with considerable resistance from Washington, Chalabi organized successful military operations in northern Iraq in 1995 and 1996. These weren't major battles against Republican Guard shock troops, but that Chalabi was able to move the INC into combat at all, with only haphazard assistance from the Central Intelligence Agency, is impressive.

Chalabi also established his own intelligence service, which dwarfed the reach and understanding of the CIA's clandestine service. One of the principal reasons the clandestine service's Near East Division loathes Chalabi is that he tried to warn Langley that its coup d'etat plans with the Iraqi National Accord -- an opposition group that supposedly had cells within elite units of the Iraqi Army -- had been thoroughly penetrated by Saddam. The INC, which wasn't supposed to be privy to the existence of the coup attempt, detailed quite accurately the trap Saddam was springing. The notorious "Bob," an intrepid, talented CIA case officer stationed in northern Iraq, believed the INC's information and tried to warn headquarters to begin immediately testing its INA assets for doubles. Langley refused. When Saddam tore the INA scheme apart, Chalabi became one of Langley's least favorite people.

Chalabi's acute grasp of the American scene -- he went to MIT and the University of Chicago and has many influential friends in the worlds of finance, politics, and the press -- also has not endeared him to bureaucratic Washington, which naturally prefers dependent foreigners ignorant of the real corridors of power. When the going gets tough in Iraq, as it surely will if there is war, we will be thankful that Chalabi can discuss in nuanced English the complexities of the situation on the ground. If we had to depend on the CIA's intelligence resources, our understanding would be thinner, our approach much more likely to be wrong.

And Chalabi is unquestionably pro-American, in a deep, philosophical sense, which is rare among Middle Easterners, particularly expatriates. There appears to be little rancor in the man, which there certainly could be given the number of his people who died in the summer of 1996 owing to American tergiversation.

Anonymous U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers have repeatedly labeled Chalabi via the press as corrupt, suggesting that he cares more about personal profit than anything else. A banker in Jordan in the 1970s, Chalabi is rumored to have stolen millions from his Petra bank. The rumors are probably unfounded, the product of Chalabi's being on the losing side in Hashemite-Jordanian-Palestinian financial squabbles. He made enemies among influential Jordanians closely tied to Palestinian banking circles, which have a near monopoly over Jordan's commerce.

But even if the rumors are true, so what? Chalabi hasn't been trying for the last eight years to become the CEO of KPMG. He hasn't watched friends die because money is the center of his life. If Chalabi weren't rich, he couldn't devote so much time and money to the fight against Saddam Hussein. One would think that George Tenet's CIA, which has probably been at the root of most of the attacks on Chalabi, would know well that good, even noble, men can take money. In the Middle East, there are much deadlier sins than greed.

The pettiness of so much of the Washington discussion about the INC is not really a reflection of the personal dynamics between Chalabi and this State Department aide or that intelligence official; it's just the trickle-down effect of the Clinton administration's decision not to fight in Iraq. The constancy of bureaucracy has now produced careless bad-mouthing from the Bush administration.

President Bush will soon have to answer for himself the primary question about Saddam Hussein. If he answers that Saddam must go, a firestorm of criticism surely awaits him. The pummeling that Ronald Reagan took for fielding the contras may well seem like a walk through a spring rain compared with the barrage that will come at Bush from the timid Left and the "realist" Right. The State Department, CIA, and Pentagon will likely resist, as they resisted in 1990, doing anything that might upset the status quo, which is to say they will favor doing nothing. Most of our allies overseas will surely scream that the hyper-puissance has run amok.

And if President Bush doesn't answer with an unqualified "Saddam must go," then it would be a good time for the Republicans to apologize to the Clintonites. They won't, of course.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former case officer in the CIA's clandestine service, is the director of the Middle East Initiative at the Project for The New American Century. He is the author, under the pseudonym Edward Shirley, of Know thine Enemy: A Spy's Journey into Revolutionary Iran.