Time To Off Saddam?
It's a simple solution to the Iraq problem. But risks make it an unrealistic option for the U.S.
By Johanna McGeary/TIME
Think back to those first weeks of January 1991. For 16 days,
the U.S. and Iraq played diplomatic cat-and-mouse as Saddam
Hussein tested what he would have to concede to forestall
military attack. The American President exhausted every
diplomatic option before unleashing the allied assault. Saddam's
ultimate objective was to hold on to a prize he deemed essential
to his power. Then it was Kuwait. Now in the first weeks of
February 1998, the stakes are weapons of mass destruction, but
the game is distinctly the same. And the question is whether the
result will be the same: vast destruction in Iraq but the
continued reign of Saddam.
To alter that outcome, leading congressional Republicans have
been advising President Bill Clinton to get rid of Saddam once
and for all. Depose him, capture him, kill him if necessary.
That's the only sure way to terminate the seven-year-old
practice of "cheat and retreat" that has let Iraq squirrel away
warheads capable of carrying enough biological weapons to
threaten its neighbors. It is a simple solution--in theory.
Reality is different. The U.S. must make its choices from risky,
less conclusive options. As the diplomatic game is played out in
search of a nonviolent end to this standoff, Clinton and the
American public need to think hard about what, realistically,
can and cannot be done.
Few Americans dispute that there is a valid case for taking out
Saddam. The Iraqi leader even more than his suspected arsenal
menaces his neighborhood. He has, in a galling way, been able to
fashion a kind of victory out of defeat: the embargo blockading
his country has enabled Saddam to blame the U.S. for his
country's problems. He continues to frustrate U.N. resolutions
designed to neuter his military might.
The bombing campaign the Clinton Administration has in mind,
critics contend, would neither bring compliance with the U.N.
nor remove Saddam. The bombs would demolish all hope of more
inspections but would not stop Saddam from rebuilding his germ
factories, and that would just provoke another military
Even the most ardent Saddam hunters have to admit that taking
him out would entail a huge, high-risk military operation:
months of preparation to deploy thousands of ground troops to
fight their way to the Iraqi capital while courting substantial
casualties, then arrest or kill him. The U.S. would be pitched
into an open-ended occupation and saddled with rescuing a
And then what? Advocates suggest there is a palatable
alternative to Saddam just waiting to step in. In fact, all
efforts to organize an effective Iraqi opposition have failed.
There is a good chance Saddam would be replaced by Saddam II,
another Baathist general ready to continue the military
dictatorship. More likely still, a headless Iraq would go the
way of Lebanon, fractured among Kurds in the north, Shi'ites in
the south and Sunnis in the center egged on by meddling neighbor
states pursuing oil and ethnic interests.
Politics rather than practical policy is behind much of the war
fever. Congressional Republicans want a Democratic President to
wage a second war to topple Saddam because they fear being on
the wrong side of the issue if Clinton's bombing campaign
accomplishes nothing. "Incremental timidity that only punishes
Saddam and leaves him in place to build weapons is a defeat, not
a success," says Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Yet it is
hard to imagine this Congress--or the voters--actually
consenting to an expensive, dangerous ground war. "This is just
game playing," say Clinton aides--Republicans positioning
themselves so they can blame Clinton for being too weak.
It's not that Clinton disagrees with the basic premise. "Would
the Iraqi people be better off if there was a change in
leadership?" he said last week. "I certainly think they would
be." But he is stuck between strong opposite pressures: while
congressional hawks urge going in for the kill, all of the gulf
coalition save Britain resists any strikes against Iraq. Given
his lousy choices, the President affirmed last week that he is
not prepared to go after Saddam.
A short-term bombing campaign that simply punishes Saddam may be
the most the U.S. can do. The economic embargo is fraying; Saudi
Arabia and Egypt fear destabilizing political fallout in their
own countries; Russia and France are worried that American bombs
plus Iraqi casualties would only consolidate domestic support
for Saddam. "He wants bombing raids," says a French diplomat.
"The more he gets of it, the more united the Iraqis are around
him. As long as the source of misery is seen as coming from
abroad, he wins."
While the U.S. and Britain firmly repeated that they want a
diplomatic solution and while assorted envoys search for
compromise, the U.S.-British military operation is in effect
already under way. Defense Secretary William Cohen is now making
a Middle East tour to nail down what logistical support he can
muster. Three aircraft carriers, 450 combat aircraft, 30,000
troops, 250 cruise missiles, loads of smart bombs and bunker
busters are in the Persian Gulf.
No date has been selected for D-day, but it is only days or
weeks away; the Administration is unwilling to tolerate
diplomatic impasse much longer. A top-ranking Iraqi suggests an
eleventh-hour pitch directly from the U.S., like Secretary of
State James Baker's January 1991 meeting with Iraq's Tariq Aziz,
might yet forge a settlement. But the U.S. has made no such
overture, nor did Baker's effort avoid war.
If the attack comes, the U.S. will unleash an intense,
compressed air war--24 hours a day for nearly a week. First,
fighters would knock out Iraq's command centers, communications
facilities and air-defense network. Follow-on waves would target
the sites where Saddam is suspected of hiding missiles and
biochem material and equipment to manufacture them; planners
want to destroy as much of Iraq's weapons capability as they can
find. Other assault teams would batter Saddam's Republican Guard
and elite security forces.
Adiplomatic compromise would at best postpone such a reckoning.
Yet when the dust of an attack cleared, the outcome might feel
singularly unsatisfying. The U.S. would be lucky if it could
destroy some of Iraq's lethal weaponry while keeping the
international coalition signed on to continued sanctions. But
Saddam and all the problems Iraq raises would still be with us.
"We face a new cold war in the gulf," says Middle East expert
Anthony Cordesman. The U.S. can't end its confrontation with
Saddam by force, nor can it withdraw, nor can it ignore the
threat. As long as he endures, the U.S. is in the gulf to stay.
--Reported by William Dowell/U.N. and Mark Thompson and Douglas