Prepared for the IISS/CEPS European Security Forum Meeting, Brussels, 9 September 2002

United States Policy Toward Iraq

by Edward P. Djerejian, Director, Baker Institute For Public Policy at Rice University

The U.S. decision to refocus the world's attention on Iraq and the threat it poses to international peace and security under Saddam Hussein results from the ongoing adjustment of U.S. strategy as a consequence of the attacks of 11 September 2001. The U.S. is leading the campaign against global terrorism – a campaign that can only be won by successful international coalition building. For some time before 11 September, the nexus between weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and terrorist groups and states that support terrorism had been identified as the major strategic threat. This definition is at the core of the new U.S. strategy. Due to the nature of this threat, this definition has also given rise to the concept of pre-emptive strikes, and it has implications for the established policies of containment and deterrence. For building and sustaining effective coalitions, the U.S. will have to work with its allies and partners to build on these changes of its national security strategy for the needed elaboration of an international strategic framework and agreed policy for dealing with the threat.

The Bush Administration

As the formulation of the Administration's policy on Iraq was evolving, a range of positions on the approach to Iraq has been expressed up to the summer of 2002 among Bush Administration officials. President George W. Bush himself established the link between Iraq and terrorism by stressing the need to deny sanctuary to terrorists anywhere in the world [1] and pointing to the totalitarian threat posed by state sponsors of terrorism with potential access to weapons of mass destruction.[2] He also declared that it was the stated policy of his government to have regime change in Iraq,[3] as U.S. legislation indeed calls for since 1998, believing that unlawful aggression and the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction are the essence of Saddam Hussein's rule and would not end as long as he was in power. However, Bush put the issue of full compliance with UN decisions on the dismantlement of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs at the center of his international efforts vis-à-vis Iraq, insisting that the issue here is not inspections but disarmament.[4] On September 15, President Bush will be addressing the subject of Iraq in a major speech at the United Nations.

At the same time, Vice-President Richard Cheney advocated determined U.S. leadership to force Saddam Hussein from power in his remarks before a veterans group in Nashville in August 2002. Cheney said that old security doctrines did not apply in the new strategic environment. Containment was not possible when dictators obtained weapons of mass destruction and were prepared to share them with terrorists who intend to inflict catastrophic casualties on the United States. He also claimed that "many of us are convinced that Saddam Hussein will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon". A tentative U.S. approach to Iraq would mean that Saddam would simply be emboldened, and it would be even harder to assemble friends and allies to oppose him. In a post- Saddam world, however, moderates in the region would take heart and extremists would rethink their commitment to Jihad, and the broader cause of Middle East peace would be advanced. Cheney assured his audience that the Bush Administration would not simply look away, hope for the best and leave the matter for some future administration. He also promised that the U.S. would not turn its back on Iraq after Saddam's departure but would stay to help it rebuild with "territorial integrity" and to craft a democratic, pluralistic, ethnically representative government.

Secretary of State Colin Powell highlighted the need for the United States to lead the international community in its approach toward Iraq and build international support. He stressed the role of the UN Security Council and WMD inspectors as a first step toward enforcing compliance and disarmament on Saddam Hussein and his regime, with serious consequences if he does not comply.

The debate

These positions reflect a debate in the U.S. over the right strategy that continues in certain aspects and includes the following issues:

A number of respected Republicans such as James A. Baker III, Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft, Lawrence Eagleburger and Chuck Hagel have spoken out in recent months reminding the Administration of the need to reflect on these questions, as have leading Democrats such as Zbigniew Brzezinski, Joseph Biden, Richard Holbrooke amd Samuel Berger. European views pointed in the same direction, even if the positions expressed cover a wide spectrum from Blair and Straw, Chirac and Villepin to Schröder at the other end. Relevant contributions to the debate have also come from Arab and Israeli political leaders.

The Critical Issue: After Saddam, What?

The U.S. must be clear in its policy about its own strategic objectives. Is the major goal to have an Iraq without weapons of mass destruction? In this respect, the U.S. must determine whether it views WMD inspections and disarmament as end in itself or not. If so, will it agree that UN Security Council sanctions related to WMD are lifted in due course?

What would be the political nature of the Iraqi regime and its military force structure in terms of the stated U.S. goal that Iraq no longer be a threat to its neighbors? If the territorial integrity of Iraq is a major objective, how will this be assured in a post-Saddam scenario? In terms of a government in Iraq that is broadly representative of Iraq's diverse population, will such a government emerge as an "Iraqi political solution" not imposed from outside and, conceivably, including Iraqi insiders and outsiders?

The notion of regime change raises three controversial questions in this context:

In trying to answer these questions, it is helpful to consider what would be the likely outcome of regime change in Iraq. Would we be trading Saddam for another Saddam? A Musharraf? A Karzai? Or a broadly based and representative leadership?

This leads immediately to the key question: What would be the nature, extent and duration of the U.S. commitment to a post-Saddam Iraq in terms of military presence and provision of security, economic development and assistance, as well as policy coordination with allies and regional countries?

In both too little and too much commitment, there are potential issues of unintended consequences. In designing the proper strategy, the U.S. needs to consider likely consequences of available courses of action in a number of dimensions:

In my view, the essential evaluation must be to keep Iraq's territorial integrity intact after Saddam. The stakes are high because the dismemberment of Iraq would have serious geopolitical consequences in the Middle East. Kurdish separatism would have a direct impact on key states such as Turkey, Syria and Iran, which have important Kurdish minorities. The creation of an independent Kurdish entity in Iraq could lead to a quest to establish a greater Kurdistan. The ensuing political destabilization could lead to regional conflict. Differences between Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites could impel the Shiites to go their own way and thereby destabilize Iraq's southern borders with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and its eastern border with Iran.

Given these potential consequences, it is important that whatever group comes to power in Baghdad is able to maintain the unity and territorial integrity of Iraq. The best way to ensure that outcome is for a successor regime to provide the broadest political participation possible for the diverse ethnic and religious groups in Iraq so that they can share power and meet the political, economic and social needs of their constituencies.

There is reason to believe, for example, that the two major Kurdish factions in Iraq – the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdish Democratic Party – would opt to remain in a united Iraq if they were able to share national political and economic power effectively in a central government in Baghdad. This key requirement would apply also to the other groups in Iraq, especially the Shiites.

But in anticipation of political change and given the stakes involved, we should actively promote among the Iraqi civilian and military opposition the United States' strong commitment to the territorial integrity of Iraq and underscore and encourage the need for broadened political participation there after Saddam Hussein.

Concluding Comments

The combination of the urgent need to address an existential threat and the complicated nature of the international strategic environment in the Middle East and the Gulf lead to a recommendation to act along the line of "festina lente" ("make haste slowly") and deliberately to assure that there is sufficient domestic and international support for actions decided upon so that the outcome is successful and enhances Persian Gulf security and U.S. global interests for peace and security.


[1] "We have entered the second stage of the war on terror – a sustained campaign to deny sanctuary to terrorists who would threaten our citizens from anywhere in the world." (Remarks by President Bush at The White House, March 11, 2002).

[2] "The evil that has formed against us has been termed the new totalitarian threat. The authors of terror are seeking nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Regimes that sponsor terror are developing these weapons and the missiles to deliver them. If these regimes and their terrorist allies were to perfect these capabilities, no inner voice of reason, no hint of conscience would prevent their use." (Speech by President Bush at the German Bundestag, May 23, 2002.)

[3] Press conference by President Bush, July 8, 2002.

[4] President Bush speaking to congressional leaders on Iraq, September 4, 2002.