Don't Attack Saddam
by Brent Scowcroft, August 15, 2002
Originally Published in the Wall
Our nation is presently engaged in a debate about
whether to launch a war against Iraq. Leaks of various strategies
for an attack on Iraq appear with regularity. The Bush administration
vows regime change, but states that no decision has been made
whether, much less when, to launch an invasion.
It is beyond dispute that Saddam Hussein is a menace.
He terrorizes and brutalizes his own people. He has launched war
on two of his neighbors. He devotes enormous effort to rebuilding
his military forces and equipping them with weapons of mass destruction.
We will all be better off when he is gone.
That said, we need to think through this issue
very carefully. We need to analyze the relationship between Iraq
and our other pressing priorities -- notably the war on terrorism
-- as well as the best strategy and tactics available were we
to move to change the regime in Baghdad.
Saddam's strategic objective appears to be to dominate
the Persian Gulf, to control oil from the region, or both.
That clearly poses a real threat to key U.S. interests.
But there is scant evidence to tie Saddam to terrorist organizations,
and even less to the Sept. 11 attacks. Indeed Saddam's goals have
little in common with the terrorists who threaten us, and there
is little incentive for him to make common cause with them.
He is unlikely to risk his investment in weapons
of mass destruction, much less his country, by handing such weapons
to terrorists who would use them for their own purposes and leave
Baghdad as the return address. Threatening to use these weapons
for blackmail -- much less their actual use -- would open him
and his entire regime to a devastating response by the U.S. While
Saddam is thoroughly evil, he is above all a power-hungry survivor.
Saddam is a familiar dictatorial aggressor, with
traditional goals for his aggression. There is little evidence
to indicate that the United States itself is an object of his
aggression. Rather, Saddam's problem with the U.S. appears to
be that we stand in the way of his ambitions. He seeks weapons
of mass destruction not to arm terrorists, but to deter us from
intervening to block his aggressive designs.
Given Saddam's aggressive regional ambitions, as
well as his ruthlessness and unpredictability, it may at some
point be wise to remove him from power. Whether and when that
point should come ought to depend on overall U.S. national security
priorities. Our pre-eminent security priority -- underscored repeatedly
by the president -- is the war on terrorism. An attack on Iraq
at this time would seriously jeopardize, if not destroy, the global
counter-terrorist campaign we have undertaken.
The United States could certainly defeat the Iraqi
military and destroy Saddam's regime. But it would not be a cakewalk.
On the contrary, it undoubtedly would be very expensive -- with
serious consequences for the U.S. and global economy -- and could
as well be bloody. In fact, Saddam would be likely to conclude
he had nothing left to lose, leading him to unleash whatever weapons
of mass destruction he possesses.
Israel would have to expect to be the first casualty,
as in 1991 when Saddam sought to bring Israel into the Gulf conflict.
This time, using weapons of mass destruction, he might succeed,
provoking Israel to respond, perhaps with nuclear weapons, unleashing
an Armageddon in the Middle East. Finally, if we are to achieve
our strategic objectives in Iraq, a military campaign very likely
would have to be followed by a large-scale, long-term military
But the central point is that any campaign against
Iraq, whatever the strategy, cost and risks, is certain to divert
us for some indefinite period from our war on terrorism. Worse,
there is a virtual consensus in the world against an attack on
Iraq at this time. So long as that sentiment persists, it would
require the U.S. to pursue a virtual go-it-alone strategy against
Iraq, making any military operations correspondingly more difficult
and expensive. The most serious cost, however, would be to the
war on terrorism. Ignoring that clear sentiment would result in
a serious degradation in international cooperation with us against
terrorism. And make no mistake, we simply cannot win that war
without enthusiastic international cooperation, especially on
Possibly the most dire consequences would be the
effect in the region. The shared view in the region is that Iraq
is principally an obsession of the U.S. The obsession of the region,
however, is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If we were seen
to be turning our backs on that bitter conflict -- which the region,
rightly or wrongly, perceives to be clearly within our power to
resolve -- in order to go after Iraq, there would be an explosion
of outrage against us. We would be seen as ignoring a key interest
of the Muslim world in order to satisfy what is seen to be a narrow
Even without Israeli involvement, the results could
well destabilize Arab regimes in the region, ironically facilitating
one of Saddam's strategic objectives. At a minimum, it would stifle
any cooperation on terrorism, and could even swell the ranks of
the terrorists. Conversely, the more progress we make in the war
on terrorism, and the more we are seen to be committed to resolving
the Israel-Palestinian issue, the greater will be the international
support for going after Saddam.
If we are truly serious about the war on terrorism,
it must remain our top priority. However, should Saddam Hussein
be found to be clearly implicated in the events of Sept. 11, that
could make him a key counter-terrorist target, rather than a competing
priority, and significantly shift world opinion toward support
for regime change.
In any event, we should be pressing the United
Nations Security Council to insist on an effective no-notice inspection
regime for Iraq -- any time, anywhere, no permission required.
On this point, senior administration officials have opined that
Saddam Hussein would never agree to such an inspection regime.
But if he did, inspections would serve to keep him off balance
and under close observation, even if all his weapons of mass destruction
capabilities were not uncovered. And if he refused, his rejection
could provide the persuasive casus belli which many claim we do
not now have. Compelling evidence that Saddam had acquired nuclear-weapons
capability could have a similar effect.
In sum, if we will act in full awareness of the
intimate interrelationship of the key issues in the region, keeping
counter-terrorism as our foremost priority, there is much potential
for success across the entire range of our security interests
-- including Iraq. If we reject a comprehensive perspective, however,
we put at risk our campaign against terrorism as well as stability
and security in a vital region of the world.
*Mr. Scowcroft, national security adviser under
Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, is founder and president
of the Forum for International Policy.
Dated: Wall Street Journal 15 Aug 2002 p.A12