Act Now

Wednesday, October 30, 2002

Tensions with Iraq

Are we to be the Hamlet of nations, debating endlessly over when and how to act? Saddam Hussein’s performance as ruler of Iraq is a matter of grave concern not just for the United States but for the international community as a whole. The major debate going on in the media, in Congress, and with our friends and allies is necessary. But it is also necessary to move beyond debate and create the clarity that is the basis for action.

The world has now entered the third decade of crises and dangers to international peace and security created by Saddam Hussein. In 1980 he launched an eight-year war against Iran. Chemical weapons were used, and at least 1.5 million people were killed or severely wounded. In 1990 he invaded Kuwait in a war aimed at eradicating another state’s legitimate sovereign existence. As he was forced out, he deliberately created environmental degradation of gigantic proportions. He has used chemical weapons against the Kurdish people in an attack on a genocidal scale, and he has sent his forces into Kurdistan to conduct widespread slaughter. He has relentlessly amassed weapons of mass destruction and continues their development. He has turned Iraq into a state that foments, supports, and conducts terrorism. No other dictator today matches his record of war, oppression, use of weapons of mass destruction, and continuing contemptuous violation of international law, as set out by unanimous actions of the U.N. Security Council.

Against this background, much of the current debate ignores the facts of the United Nations’ long series of steps to rein in Saddam Hussein and authorize action against his regime. A strong foundation exists for immediate military action against Hussein and for a multilateral effort to rebuild Iraq after he is gone.

A remarkable series of U.N. Security Council resolutions in 1990 and 1991 authorized war to oust Hussein’s forces from Kuwait. This was the basis for the Desert Storm campaign that won the Gulf War in 1991. With that military victory, a Security Council resolution declared the “suspension” of offensive operations, deliberately leaving intact the original authorization to use force. Then Security Council Resolution 687 imposed a series of demands on Iraq with the objective of restoring peace and security in the area. This carried the case against Hussein beyond the matter of liberating Kuwait to focus on the elimination, under international inspection, of his weapons of mass destruction. In other words, the threat to the region and the world of a decisively armed Iraq was fully recognized and declared unacceptable.

In the first years after Desert Storm, U.N. inspectors uncovered Iraqi facilities used to manufacture weapons of mass destruction. They dismantled uranium-enrichment and other nuclear weapons installations and destroyed a chemical weapons plant and hundreds of missile warheads armed with poison gas. Threats of Iraq’s noncooperation were countered by U.S. airstrikes. But even limited Iraqi compliance decreased sharply over time.

The U.N. inspectors did what they could. They found a lot, but they missed even more. In 1995 Lieutenant General Hussein Kamel Hassan Majeed, a son-in-law of Saddam Hussein, defected and revealed that Hussein was making biological weapons at a center where inspectors had found nothing. The center, which had produced 30,000 liters of biological agents, including anthrax and botulinum toxins, was destroyed, but the inadequacy of inspections in Iraq was demonstrated.

In 1997 Saddam Hussein escalated his campaign of harassment, obstruction, and threats against the inspection effort. He activated ground-to-air missile systems to deter inspection flights. He expelled all American members of the inspection teams. In early 1998 Hussein refused access to “presidential sites”—the numerous palaces he had built for himself around Iraq. The United States responded with a military buildup, including ground troops deployed to Kuwait. In a speech at the Pentagon in February 1998, President Clinton gave details of Iraq’s violations and declared that Hussein must grant “full, free and unfettered” access to inspectors or the United States would launch attacks to compel his compliance.

In an attempt to defuse the crisis, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan negotiated that same month a Memorandum of Understanding between Iraq and the United Nations, which pledged “immediate, unconditional and unrestricted access” for inspections. A Security Council resolution endorsed the Memorandum of Understanding and warned Iraq of the “severest consequences” if the memorandum was violated.

In September 1998, the chief U.N. inspector informed the Security Council that Iraq was again barring inspections, and the council, in yet another resolution, condemned Iraq for suspending its cooperation. A further U.N. effort to regain Iraq’s cooperation failed as Iraq declared that it was suspending all cooperation with U.N. inspections. In an emergency session, the Security Council passed Resolution 1205 on November 5, 1998, condemning Iraq’s action as “a flagrant violation” of the original resolutions of 1990–91. Since then, nothing consequential has been done. The failure to take military action against Hussein after his flagrant violation in 1998 has given him nearly four years to continue unencumbered in his development and accumulation of weapons of mass destruction.

Iraq by its own actions has, in effect, terminated the cease-fire established in 1991 at the end of the Gulf War and reactivated the “suspended” authorization to use military force against Iraq. No longer can anyone plausibly claim that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction can be eliminated by an inspection program. The Security Council’s judgment still stands: A Saddam Hussein armed with weapons of mass destruction is not acceptable. Military force against Hussein is both necessary and authorized to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction.

The full range of reasonable legal, diplomatic, and other alternatives has been exhausted. All conceivable forms of leverage have been employed: sanctions; embargoes; massive military buildups to threaten him into compliance; limited military operations in the form of air and cruise missile strikes; the encouragement of internal opposition; positive inducement through the “oil for peace” program; and diplomacy in all forms—unilateral, multilateral, private, public, direct, and through intermediaries. Nothing has worked. Any further steps will only provide him with more time and heighten the danger.

Self-defense is a valid basis for preemptive action. The evidence is clear that Hussein continues to amass weapons of mass destruction. He has also demonstrated a willingness to use them against internal as well as external targets. By now, the risks of inaction clearly outweigh the risks of action. If there is a rattlesnake in the yard, you don’t wait for it to strike.

The danger is immediate. The making of weapons of mass destruction grows increasingly difficult to counter with each passing day. When the risk is not hundreds of people killed in a conventional attack but tens or hundreds of thousands killed by chemical, biological, or nuclear attack, the time factor is even more compelling.

The moment is racing toward us when Hussein’s possession of nuclear weaponry could transform the regional and international situation into what, in the Cold War, we called the balance of terror. Some argue that to act now might trigger Hussein’s use of his worst weapons. Such self-imposed blackmail presumes easier judgments when he is even better equipped than now. Time is his ally, not ours.

Concern over the future of Iraq is legitimate. Following the end of the current Iraqi regime, a new Iraq can emerge as a territorially integral sovereign state with a federal-style form that respects the Kurdish, Sunni, and Shia communities. A set of phased transitional steps, including referendums and elections, can be carried out and involve the range of Iraqi political parties, factions, and groups in exile and internally opposed to the Hussein regime over the years.

For the Middle East, a major source of and support for terror and instability will have ended. Those who argue that the Iraq crisis should be deferred until progress is achieved between Israelis and Palestinians are proposing an impossible task. For the Arab world as a whole, a new Iraq offers the opportunity to start a reversal of the stagnation detailed in the Arab Human Development Report 2002, recently released by the United Nations. The report describes how Arab societies are being crippled by a lack of political freedom, repression of women, and isolation from the world of ideas that stifles creativity.

The history of Iraq, the achievements of its peoples, its high civilization of the past, and its extensive natural resources all point to the possibility of a positive transformation once Hussein’s yoke is lifted. In the process, a model can emerge that other Arab societies may look to and emulate for their own transformation and that of the entire region. The challenge of Iraq offers an opportunity for a historic turning point that can lead us in the direction of a more peaceful, free, and prosperous future.

This is a defining moment in international affairs. Authorization for action is clear. We have made endless efforts to bring Saddam Hussein into line with the duly considered judgments of a unanimous U.N. Security Council. Let us go to the Security Council and assert this case with the care of a country determined to take decisive action. And this powerful case for acting now must be made promptly to Congress. Its members will have to stand up and be counted. Then let’s get on with the job.