All Commentary
Friday, June 1, 2001

Bombing Without End

It's Time to Transform U.S. Policy toward Iraq

Doug Bandow, a nationally syndicated columnist, is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author and editor of several books, including The Politics of Plunder.

We bomb, therefore we bomb,” seems to be Washington’s policy towards Iraq. Ten years of sanctions and military strikes have failed to tame or oust Saddam Hussein. Yet the Bush administration thinks only of doing more of the same.

U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf has long been a pernicious muddle. A half-century ago Washington helped install the Shah of Iran, whose thuggery eventually spawned an Islamic revolution that treated America as the “Great Satan.”

After the humiliating seizure of the U.S. embassy, Washington was happy to aid Iraq’s Saddam Hussein when he struck at his seemingly disorganized neighbor. Iran and Iraq essentially fought to a draw after years of horrific combat. Then Iraq did what Washington was afraid Iran was going to do—move on its Gulf neighbors. Saddam swallowed Kuwait and eyed Saudi Arabia.

The Gulf monarchies are ugly bastions of privilege in which antiquated royal families leech off their poor subjects. Saudi Arabia doesn’t enjoy even the hint of liberalism evident in Kuwait: Riyadh is essentially a totalitarian dictatorship that enforces Islam in order to pre-empt political change.

But the various sheikdoms and emirates have oil, so the U.S. intervened to make the region safe for monarchy. Washington, aided by allied states, “liberated” Kuwait, in the sense of restoring the emir’s regime, and wrecked the Iraqi military.

Yet an enfeebled Iraq raised the worrisome prospect of a resurgent Iran—which is why Washington previously had backed Iraq. So President George H.W. Bush and many of the officials who now people his son’s administration left Iraq unconquered.

Washington established economic sanctions, created an inspections regime to forestall development of weapons of mass destruction, and imposed a “no-fly” zone throughout much of Iraq to inhibit military action against Shiite and Kurdish rebels. The United States also backed a motley assemblage of Iraqi dissidents while hoping for a coup.

A decade later, American policy has failed. Completely.

Sanctions have killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians but proved to be only a minor inconvenience to Saddam. Iraq has ended U.N. inspections.

The United States (backed by Great Britain) continues to bomb Iraq regularly, yet America’s attempt to protect Iraqi Kurds contrasts with America’s support for brutal Turkish suppression of Kurds in that country. And factional infighting has doomed Kurdish resistance, irrespective of the no-fly zone.

The lack of results has sapped support from allied states. France and Russia have tired of the ineffectual containment game and hope to profit from renewed commerce. Even some Mideast states, including Egypt and Turkey, have begun a wary dance with Iraq. They rained criticism down on the United States even as Secretary of State Colin Powell was preparing to visit the region in February.

“Part of a Strategy”

So now what? Explained President George W. Bush: “We will continue to enforce the no-fly zones. The no-fly zones are enforced on a daily basis. It is a part of a strategy, and until that strategy is changed, if it is changed at all, we will continue to enforce the no-fly zone.”

That’s really helpful. The administration has a strategy. The strategy has manifestly failed. But the administration will continue to pursue that strategy unless it changes that strategy.

Doing more of the same doesn’t deserve to be called a strategy. Even many of those serving Saddam would probably like to see him overthrown. But congressional resolutions and presidential proclamations won’t make it happen.

Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies was reduced to endorsing the attacks because “America cannot afford to show any weakness in dealing with Mr. Hussein.” Iraq must be contained militarily, and that, apparently, means haphazardly bombing forces and installations that in no way threaten Iraq’s neighbors.

After all, he said, “If Mr. Hussein created a successful military sanctuary in the no-fly zones, this would be seen as a symbol of his growing strength. If he then succeeded in shooting down an American or British plane, it would be seen as an Iraqi triumph.”

Yet lifting the no-fly zone would not create any sort of “sanctuary”: the Iraqi military is far weaker today than it was a decade ago, and a continuing arms embargo would keep it that way. If a U.S. or British plane is downed, it will be because it is buzzing Iraqi territory, not because Iraq is invading another nation. So much for the Pentagon’s claim that the strike was in “self-defense.”

Were Washington policymakers not wedded to failure, they would try something different. First, drop the no-fly zone. No purpose is served in preventing Iraq’s air force from flying throughout Iraq.

Second, recognize the limits of U.S. power. Washington can’t force a change in Baghdad. It certainly won’t do so by funding groups like the Iraqi National Congress. The INC has spent $3 million so far to set up offices, hold a conference, and generate publicity. Reports Betsy Pisik of the Washington Times: “As resistance groups go, the INC leadership is noticeably upscale, with many of its visible members operating successful businesses in London.”

Just a guess, but Saddam, one of the nastiest brutes to control a country, probably isn’t scared. Instead of tossing more good money after bad, the West should plan to outwait a much-weakened Iraq, just as the West ultimately outlasted a variety of communist states.

Drop the Sanctions

Third, negotiate to drop sanctions in exchange for an inspections and import-control regime that limits Baghdad’s access to the tools necessary to make weapons of mass destruction. The effectiveness of such a system would be limited, but with sanctions fraying daily and inspectors barred by Iraq since 1998, almost anything would be an improvement.

Fourth, expect friendly nations to develop militaries—and build popular support—to contain Iraq. The United States, with security dependents strewn about the globe, shouldn’t pick up another set of permanent wards. Yet Patrick Cronin of the U.S. Institute of Peace lauds the latest attack for sending a message that other Arab regimes “are not left alone at the time of the tenth anniversary of the Gulf victory.”

But only the prospect of being alone will move them to cooperate against Saddam and to adopt the sort of political reforms that would make them less vulnerable. The obvious illegitimacy of regimes like that in Saudi Arabia poses as great a danger to stable oil supplies as does anything being concocted by Saddam.

Washington has tried and failed in its attempt to transform Iraq. It’s time to instead transform U.S. policy toward Iraq.

  • Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of a number of books on economics and politics. He writes regularly on military non-interventionism.