RICHARD W. BAKER: Why Bush Is Determined To Get Rid Of Saddam Hussein

Date: 12-31-2002

HONOLULU -- Despite the Hollywood imagery, Americans are not naturally bloodthirsty. Very few are enthusiastic about the idea of a pre-emptive invasion of Iraq. Why then, would the Bush administration risk its standing at home and internationally by persisting with such a bellicose policy?

The core mindset of President Bush and his advisers on Iraq and Saddam seems to boil down to a few fundamental points.

1. The paradigm for the second Gulf War is not Vietnam, or even the first Gulf War. It is Sept. 11. If lower Manhattan were to be vaporized tomorrow by a nuclear device (or gassed or plagued by chemical or biological weapons), by the end of the day the nation and the world would be asking how and why the administration let this happen. The Bush team has to be acutely aware of this fact of life, and understandably is determined to do everything possible to prevent such an event. Homeland defense has become the dominant theme of the Bush presidency, and a dramatic failure in this area would be politically as well as physically catastrophic.

Of course, Saddam Hussein was on the Bush enemies list well before Sept. 11. But after that day, Saddam moved rapidly to the top of the list, at least equal to Osama bin Laden. This seems to have been based principally on the assessment that Saddam is both willing and able to play the same kind of satanic role.

For their part, Bush's security advisers are a tough-minded group, and this general pre-disposition can only have been bolstered by their success in the bold - and risky - post 9/11 Afghanistan operation. So their gut inclination is to be pro-active in meeting the perceived threat from Iraq.

2. The Bush administration clearly sees Saddam as determined to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Even if (as the administration evidently has concluded) he does not yet possess a deliverable nuclear weapon - or effective means to deliver chemical and biological weapons -- the Bush team is convinced that it is only a matter of time before he acquires this capability.

Further, once Saddam has deliverable weapons, arguably the strategic equation would be reversed: Due to the extreme difficulty of finding and taking out his weapons before he has a chance to use them, under these circumstances Saddam could actually deter us. A military strike - which (this time) would mean taking Baghdad and removing Saddam -- would virtually ensure that Saddam would use whatever he has against whatever targets he could hit. Any American administration would want to avoid that risk if possible, and the Bush administration clearly believes it is possible and that pre-emption is a viable option.

3. Finally, the administration also presumably calculates that deterring Saddam is not just a matter of dissuading him from using weapons of mass destruction against the United States (or providing a haven and weapons to terrorist groups to mount such attacks). Saddam is also seen as a standing force for disruption in the Middle-East region and possibly beyond. This has been his repeated pattern of behavior over some 20 years (e.g., the wars on Iran and Kuwait).

This is what fundamentally distinguishes Saddam from North Korea's Kim Jong Il. Kim is using nuclear blackmail to get fuel and food and other essential aid and keep his country and regime from collapse. Saddam, on the other hand, doesn't need weapons of mass destruction to feed his people. With its oil wealth, Iraq would be doing just fine if it were not an international pariah.

In the administration's view, Saddam has to be expected to throw his weight around again when he is in a position to do so. With credible weapons of mass destruction at his disposal, Saddam would feel secure that he holds a trump card, thus increasing the likelihood of his taking reckless actions that would trigger another military confrontation.

Together, these three considerations lead to the conviction that the only sure course to deal with the threat posed by Saddam is to depose him, by any means necessary, and as soon as possible.

Set against this conviction, the argument that Saddam does not really pose a serious danger simply carries no weight. The governments that most strongly resisted the U.S. approach (e.g., France and Russia) had no new alternatives to offer, and economic interests alone would induce many of them to join in the post-Saddam phase anyway. The Bush team accepts that there will be little public support around the world for a strike against Iraq at the outset, but it is confident that other countries (especially in Iraq's neighborhood) will actually be relieved once Saddam is gone, and that public opposition will quickly evaporate in the face of dancing in the streets of a "liberated" Baghdad.

An issue that has had more impact on the administration is concern over American unilateralism. Largely through the skillful diplomacy of Colin Powell, this critique has been parried - at least for the moment -- by the negotiation of the unanimous Security Council resolution and the return of international inspectors to Iraq.

Other criticisms of invading Iraq are impossible to refute in principle but also impossible to prove in advance. One of these is the "another Vietnam" argument - that the campaign will turn into a long war against popular guerrilla opposition, etc. The administration believes that it is possible to win a rapid, conclusive victory, and that once the Saddam regime is decapitated its infrastructure and public support will simply melt away.

A more problematic issue is the so-called "third day." On the assumption that the Saddam regime can be overcome quickly, there remains the need to establish a viable alternative leadership and system for Iraq. This is a major conundrum. However, in the administration's view, while post-Saddam Iraq may well be very messy, it will not pose a dire threat to the United States or its neighbors. Thus even a messy Iraq would be an improvement over the current situation.

This leaves two primary considerations that the administration must set against its interest in replacing Saddam: human and economic costs. Clearly no responsible leader would lightly commit troops to battle or treasure to funding a war. But the Bush administration equally clearly is prepared to take these risks and to pay the real and political price, and it is also confident that overwhelming superiority can keep U.S. military casualties down.

But there may well be yet another, ultimately more troubling cost of an attack on Iraq. This is the question of "collateral damage" - not just in terms of innocent civilian casualties in the war zone, but also casualties among Americans and other Westerners throughout the Muslim world. Given the state of opinion in Muslim communities virtually everywhere - even in areas with a history of religious tolerance such as Indonesia - an attack on Iraq would trigger a violent reaction in many of these communities (and not just by the extremists). In the absence of extensive live coverage of the conflict in Iraq in the first days, graphic pictures of rampaging mobs and their victims are likely to dominate international media coverage.

These reactions could have incalculable longer-term consequences, for U.S. relationships with many nations as well as specific issues such as the Arab-Israeli problem. This only reinforces the gravity of the decision facing Bush as the clock ticks down in the confrontation with Saddam, and again raises the question of alternatives.

Most of the international community has invested its hopes in the ongoing declaration/inspections process under the Security Council resolution. Administration spokesmen correspondingly now talk of "disarming" Saddam rather than "regime change," and more bellicose rhetoric may be simply for effect. If the inspectors can confirm - or somehow cause -- Iraq's weapons of mass destruction to be destroyed, and with an open-ended inspection regime in place, the balance of thinking within the Bush administration could conceivably tilt in favor of a strategy of sustained vigilance rather than unilateral vigilantism.

However, the administration obviously remains profoundly skeptical of Iraqi candor and reliability, as illustrated in the repeated statements that Iraq's Dec. 8 declaration would be - and has been -- found wanting. It would take a truly dramatic change on the ground in Iraq to revise the Bush team's ultimate objective of removing Saddam.

The most obvious alternative remains deterrence rather than pre-emption. However, successfully deterring Saddam would require a whole series of arrangements with virtually every country in Iraq's vicinity, designed to deal with a broad range of possible disruptive actions by Iraq - political, diplomatic, and economic as well as military.

Is such a comprehensive deterrence strategy conceivable? Yes. Could it work? Presumably. But would it be feasible in practice? The relatively open and adversarial U.S policymaking process makes the design and pursuit of such a sophisticated and complex strategy very difficult indeed. And even if the basic structure could be put in place, it is questionable that the U.S. government could devote the necessary attention and resources to this problem, in the face of myriad other foreign policy and security problems and distractions, until natural selection brings about the necessary changes in Iraq's leadership and regime.

The bottom line: Those who believe that the Bush administration's approach to the problem of Saddam is fundamentally flawed or doomed to fail will have to come up with clearly viable alternatives and very persuasive arguments if they are to convince the administration that restraint does not entail the greater danger.

Richard W. Baker, an adjunct senior fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu and a former U.S. diplomat, can be reached at 808-944-7371 or
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