Iraq: AreSanctions Collapsing?
Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Energy and Natural Resources Committee
May 21, 1998
Prepared Testimony of Dr. Kenneth M. Pollack,
Research Fellow, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
Delivered to the Committee on Foreign Relations and
the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, U.S. Senate
Subject: U.S. Policy Options Toward Iraq
May 21, 1998
It is an honor to appear before this committee to discuss the future of
sanctions and U.S. policy toward Iraq.
Mr. Chairman, the greatest problem that the United States faces today
with regard to Iraq is that we have no perfect option. There are
policies we could adopt that would solve the problem of Saddam Husayn
forever, but they come at a price we are loathe to pay. There are
polices that we could adopt that would come at an acceptable price, but
they offer no permanent solution—at least not in the short term.
Unfortunately, there are no policies that would allow us to solve the
problem of Saddam Husayn in the foreseeable future and do so at a
reasonable cost in lives and treasure.
Indeed, it is this conundrum that drove us to containment of Iraq after
the Gulf War, just as similar conundrums drove us to accept containment
of the Soviet Union, Communist China, North Korea, and Cuba, in their
time. Containment is a difficult policy for Americans to stomach. Not
only because the United States is the most powerful nation the world has
ever seen and it is enraging to believe that we cannot rid ourselves of
this loathesome dictator with the flick of a finger, but because we as
Americans like to solve our problems. We are an impatient people and a
capable people: when we have a problem we solve it and we move on.
Containment is an admission that we cannot find a quick solution to a
I too share popular frustrations with containment. I too would like to
find a way to get rid of Saddam Husayn. But I am forced to accept the
logic that containment is our best course of action toward Iraq.
Containment is our only reasonable course of action toward Iraq.
Indeed, even a more aggressive policy toward Iraq would have to build
off the base of containment: unless we choose to give up on Iraq or
invade the country, any policy toward Iraq will simply be a variant of
THE EXTREME OPTIONS ARE TOO EXTREME
There are essentially two alternatives to some form of containment.
On the one hand, we could adopt the policy urged on us by our French
allies and accommodate Saddam—or as they put it, "learn to live with
Saddam". We could agree to a lifting of the sanctions, dismantle
UNSCOM, attempt to use carrots to lure Iraq back into the family of
nations, and rely on pure deterrence to prevent him from employing his
conventional and non-conventional military power to threaten U.S. allies
in the region.
Mr. Chairman, we tried this approach in the 1980s and it failed.
Miserably. I would like to believe that we learn from our mistakes,
rather than repeat them. Saddam Husayn has demonstrated that his
aspirations and idiosyncracies make him uniquely threatening to the
region. What is more, since the Gulf War, Saddam has concluded—in a way
he had not before—that the United States is his implacable adversary and
the greatest obstacle to his ambitions. No matter how accommodating the
United States may be, if Saddam is freed from his bondage, he will work
tirelessly against the U.S. in the Gulf, in the Middle East, and
wherever he can throughout the world. As long as Saddam Husayn is in
power in Iraq, we cannot forgive or forget.
On the other hand, there are those who have argued for an outright
American invasion of Iraq. Mr. Chairman, I do not dismiss the notion
of an American invasion, because this is the only policy option that
would be guaranteed to rid us of the problem of Saddam. However, I
recognize that there are very serious costs which I do not believe the
United States is yet willing to pay, and very serious risks for which I
do not believe the United States yet has answers.
There is no question that the United States military could conquer Iraq,
destroy the Republican Guard, extirpate Iraq’s weapons of mass
destruction, and hunt down Saddam Husayn. But doing so will cost tens
of billions of dollars, hundreds (perhaps thousands) of American lives,
and tens of of thousands of Iraqi lives. What’s more there are several
very important wild cards in the deck: if the Republican Guard decided
to fight it out with us in Iraq’s cities, casualties—both in terms of
American servicemen and Iraqi civilians—could increase exponentially.
Likewise, we would have to expect that with his back to the wall, Saddam
would have little incentive to refrain from using his remaining arsenal
of weapons of mass destruction either against U.S. forces or regional
allies. Finally, perhaps the greatest problem we would face would be
what to do with Iraq once we had conquered it. All of Iraq’s neighbors
have very different ideas about what a future Iraqi state should look
like. Most of these ideas are in conflict with one another, few would
accord with American desires to establish a representative democracy in
Iraq, and all of Iraq’s neighbors have demonstrated a capability and a
willingness to meddle in Iraqi affairs and undermine U.S. efforts there.
In short, we would undoubtedly win the war but we could easily lose the
peace if we were to invade.
At least for the moment, these are both bad options. Everything we are
left with is a variant of containment in some way or another. But this
does not mean that we are already doing the best we can. There are
different versions of containment and important ways to reform the
SUPPORTING THE IRAQI OPPOSITION
First, let me say a few words about supporting the Iraqi opposition.
Many of the Iraq experts around town simply dismiss this idea
altogether. I do not. I think there could be real benefits from such
an approach. I firmly believe that a real opposition with real support
from the United States would put real pressure on Saddam’s regime.
However, I also think we have to be realistic about the current
limitations of the Iraqi opposition and the limits these failings place
upon our policy. The Iraqi opposition is currently moribund. Whether
you blame the Bush Administration, the Clinton administration, or the
opposition leaders themselves for this state of affairs, the fact
remains that the Iraqi opposition today is impotent. Its leadership is
divided, it has no support inside Iraq—especially in the Sunni
heartland, it has not displayed any ability to organize resistance to
Saddam, and during its four years in northern Iraq it demonstrated
neither military skill nor an ability to cajole meaningful numbers of
Iraqi military personnel to defect to their cause. It would take a
tremendous effort on the part of the United States, including hundreds
of millions of dollars and several years, to reform, reorganize, rearm
and retrain the Iraqi opposition to the point where it could return to
Iraq as a credible opposition.
This would hold true even with a massive commitment of U.S. airpower to
support the Iraqi opposition. There is simply no way around the
necessary time and effort to get the Iraqi opposition to the point where
it could be effective enough even to walk in and occupy charred fields
cleared by American air power. To do otherwise would be to invite
another Bay of Pigs.
Consequently, even supporting the Iraqi opposition can only be seen,
ultimately, as an adjunct to containment and not an alternative to it.
During the years it would require to recruit, train and equip an Iraqi
opposition capable of effective operations inside Iraq the United States
will still have to keep Saddam weak and isolated through continued
containment. Morever, we must recognize that even after a viable
opposition is up and running, the probability that Saddam will actually
fall as a result of such an effort is low. Thus, the United States will
still have to ensure an effective containment regime to guard against
the very real risk, indeed the likelihood, that even a well-supported
opposition will fail to remove him from power.
Thus, Mr. Chairman, we return inevitably to the policy of containment.
Not because it is the best policy, but because it is the "least-worst"
option available to us given what we hope to achieve and what we are
willing to pay. Nevertheless, while it is clear that the United States
will have to rely on some form of containment for the forseeable future,
it is equally clear that we cannot continue with business as usual.
Containment is under attack from a variety of directions. What’s more,
these attacks are doing real damage. Over the last three years, the
United States has been forced to give ground on a number of issues in
the face of such pressure. The United States supported Resolutions 986,
and 1153 simply because we recognized that it was impossible to do
otherwise. Although, one must give credit to the Administration for the
ingenious approach embodied in the resolutions which make concessions on
Iraqi exports while retaining control over Iraqi imports, we must still
recognize that both resolutions entailed sacrificing part of the
sanctions regime in the face of pressure from the international
community. Similarly, our limited response to Saddam’s attack on Irbil
in 1996 and our willingness to accept Kofi Annan’s compromise deal with
Saddam in 1998 both speak to the great difficulty we now have finding
states willing to support us on those occasions when it is necessary to
use force to prevent or punish Iraqi defiance.
Mr. Chairman, we are reaching a point where we must act to restore
containment, to bolster it so that it can last over the long-term. We
are already being forced to make concessions in some areas of the
containment regime in order to hold the line on others. In the future,
to make containment last, we will have to make additional trade-offs.
The question that the United States must answer is what kind of a
containment regime do we want to have and what trade-offs are we willing
Essentially, there are two different sets of trade-offs we could make to
bolster containment. On the one hand, we could make trade-offs among
our various foreign policy agendas: we could make concessions on other
foreign policy issues in order to secure greater cooperation from our
allies on Iraq. On the other hand, we could make trade-offs within our
Iraq policy: we could make concessions on some aspects of the sanctions
and inspections regimes in order to lock-in other, more important,
mechanisms for the long-term.
Broad Containment. The former option I call "broad containment." The
goal of this approach would be to preserve the current sanctions against
Iraq intact and in toto. There is real reason to try to preserve
containment as it currently exists. Simply put, the containment of Iraq
we have held in place for the last seven years is the most far-reaching
and effective the modern world has seen. Bad mouth it though we may,
fret over Saddam’s non-compliance though we may, the sanctions and
inspections regimes established after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait have
been remarkably successful: Iraq’s military continues to whither, UNSCOM
has obliterated vast quantities of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction,
and ultimately, Bagdad remains diplomatically isolated. If we can find
a way to keep this regime intact and hold it together over the long
term, we should do so.
Unfortunately, it is the very strength and comprehensiveness of broad
containment that has created our problem. It is the effectiveness of
this containment regime that causes Baghdad to fight it so ferociously
and causes France, Russia, China, and so many other states to
increasingly oppose it. Consequently, if we are going to keep
containment this strong and this comprehensive, we will have to be
willing to make very significant sacrifices on other issues to hold it
Ultimately, Iraq is not a primary foreign policy concern for France.
Nor is it for Russia, nor for China, or Egypt or most other countries.
For most of the world, Iraq is less important to them than it is to the
United States. On the other hand, there are policy issues that matter
far more to these other countries than does Iraq. Consequently, if the
United States is going to hold on to broad containment of Iraq it will
have to be willing to make concessions to other states on foreign policy
issues more important to them than Iraq. This could mean making
concessions to Russia on NATO expansion, to China over trade issues, to
France over Iran, and so on.
Narrow Containment. If we are unwilling to make sacrifices on other
foreign policy issues to try to persuade other nations to be more
cooperative on Iraq, the alternative is to make concessions within the
containment regime itself. The option I will call "narrow containment"
would trade-off the more comprehensive aspects of the sanctions
currently in existence in return for a new set of international
agreements locking in the most important aspects of containment over the
There are four areas that are crucial to the continued containment of
Iraq over the long-term:
· Limiting Iraq's conventional military forces. Although Iraq's WMD
capability grabs the headlines, in the end, it has been Iraq's ability
to project conventional military power that has proven the greatest
destabilizing force in the Gulf region.
· Preventing Iraq from acquiring weapons of mass destruction. In
particular, Iraqi possession of a nuclear weapon could have catastrophic
· Maintaining Iraq's diplomatic isolation. It is crucial that even
under a narrow containment regime, there be no illusion that Saddam is
free to act as he wants. Iraq and its neighbors must always know that
Iraq will live under the constant scrutiny of the United States and the
international community as long as it is ruled by Saddam Husayn.
· Monitoring Iraqi spending. Ultimately, the only way to be sure that
Saddam cannot rebuild a large conventional or WMD arsenal is to continue
to oversee Iraqi spending.
A policy of narrow containment would envision trading off other aspects
of the current containment regime in return for locking in regulations
that will allow containment of Iraq to proceed long into the future in
these four areas. It would envision new international agreements
re-affirming the prohibition on Iraqi possession of WMD, banning the
sale of offensive conventional weaponry to Iraq (offensive weaponry here
defined as tanks, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, long-range
artillery, and a number of other categories of weapons), and reaffirming
the inviolability of Iraq’s international borders. To see these
enforced, the United States would seek, among other measures, a clear
reaffirmation of: UNSCOM's charter—and particularly its long-term
monitoring mission; the UN escrow account for Iraqi revenues, as well as
UN supervision of Iraqi imports; and Baghdad's renunciation of any use
of force beyond Iraq’s borders under any circumstances.
Depending on what the international community would be willing to agree
to, under a policy of narrow containment the United States would be
prepared to make concessions on Iraqi imports and exports other than
arms and dual-use technology, frozen Iraqi assets, the no-fly zones, the
no-drive zone, the flight bans, Iraqi compensation to victims of its
aggression, and even on the return of Kuwaiti property stolen during the
Iraqi occupation of Kuwait.
One of the problems we have today is that it is very hard to convince
the average American, let alone the average Saudi or Egyptian, to
support military action over the composition of UN inspection teams. A
virtue of the narrow containment approach is that it would draw firm
"red lines" around those things which the entire international community
recognizes as dangerous. Thus there would be fewer restrictions on
Iraqi behavior, but those that remain would be much clearer and more
defensible. After all, even the French and Russians agree both publicly
and privately that Iraq cannot be allowed to rearm.
The strength of narrow containment is that it uses as leverage those
elements of the current containment regime which we are unlikely to be
able to hold on to forever in order to strengthen our ability to hold on
to that which really constrains Iraq. This last is a very important
point: narrow containment is not a fall-back position from broad
containment. If we allow broad containment to continue to deteriorate,
we will lose the leverage we still possess to lock-in the most important
restrictions on Iraq for the long-term. To be successful, narrow
containment must be implemented in the near term, while we still have
things to trade-off and still have time to secure international
cooperation to lock-in revamped restrictions on Iraq for the long term.
Mr. Chairman, although we do not have any perfect options toward Iraq,
we cannot afford not to choose among those we have. Because of the
pressures on the current containment regime, and because of the
compromises we have been forced to make in response to those pressures,
simply "muddling through" — of which I am often a proponent—will not do.
The United States has no choice but to employ some variant of
containment, either as a stand alone policy, or in conjunction with an
effort to pressure the regime by supporting the Iraqi opposition. But
we must decide which variant we will employ. We must develop a cohesive
strategy to implement it. And we must devote all necessary attention
and resources toward executing it.
If we choose to support the Iraqi opposition, we must move quickly to
halt the continued disintegration of its organization and the further
erosion of its meager support inside Iraq. We must also begin to work
with our allies to find ways to aid the opposition without undermining
the underlying containment policy.
If we choose to re-invigorate broad containment then we must decide
which other aspects of American foreign policy we will be willing to
sacrifice for the sake of cooperation on Iraq. We must also begin to
work with our allies to craft compromises, close loopholes in the
existing sanctions regime, and take decisive action—either diplomatic
or, if necessary, military—to compel Iraq to cease its provocations and
comply in full with the UN resolutions.
Finally, if we choose to move toward a narrow containment regime we must
formulate our position and begin negotiations with the other members of
the Security Council while we still have the leverage of comprehensive
Our Iraq policy faces considerable challenges, but it is hardly dead.
If we do not give it the attention and resources it requires,
containment will continue to erode and one day we could wake up with no
choice but to invade Iraq or accommodate Saddam. However, there is
every reason to believe that containment can be reformed and made to
last over the long term. Americans don't like containment but we happen
to be very good at it. We contained the Soviet Union for 45 years until
it collapsed. We continue to contain both Cuba and North Korea with
relatively little effort. All of these states were far more formidable
adversaries than Iraq will ever be. Mr. Chairman, there is no reason we
cannot continue to contain Iraq as we contained these other rogue
states, so long as we make the effort to do so.