Between Iraq and a hard place.

There are three good reasons why the United States should worry about Iraq: oil, weapons of mass destruction, and Saddam Hussein. Iraq has the second-largest oil reserves in the Mideast, and what its government does with them vitally affects the world economy. As for weapons, Iraq already possesses chemical and biological weapons and could soon acquire nuclear ones. And Saddam, besides brutalizing his own people, has been willing to pursue reckless foreign-policy adventures -- in Iran (1980) and Kuwait (1990) -- that put the region at risk. Armed with nuclear weapons, he could wreak havoc.

What should the United States do about Saddam and his regime? This question has been debated for a decade, but within the Bush administration one answer is increasingly gaining ascendancy. Defense Department officials Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz have argued that the only way to prevent Iraq from acquiring, using, or getting others to use weapons of mass destruction is to overthrow Saddam Hussein through military force and install a regime congenial to the United States. The clearest sign that they are winning the debate is that Secretary of State Colin Powell, who has opposed this strategy, is now giving it lip service in his congressional testimony.

But there is a superior alternative that has been advocated by Powell, former UN arms inspector Scott Ritter, and some Democrats and policy experts. They want to contain Saddam by forcing him to agree to rigorous arms inspections. Saddam might remain in office, but he would be, in words Powell borrowed from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, "in a box." This strategy, dubbed "containment plus," is now being given short shrift in the administration. But it could prove to be a far less dangerous and costly way to deter Iraq. Here's how it would work.

At this May's meeting of the UN Security Council, the United States will demand that Iraq admit arms inspectors. Invasion proponents expect Iraq to refuse, and want to use its refusal to justify armed intervention; advocates of containment-plus want to raise the standards for inspection but also give Iraq an incentive to accept them. The original Security Council resolution, adopted after the Gulf War, declared that the council would remove economic sanctions on Iraq only when Saddam's regime had demonstrated that it had eliminated all weapons and weapon-making facilities. Under this rule, the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) tried to dismantle Saddam's arsenal. In 1998, when Saddam blocked UNSCOM, the Clinton administration bombed Iraq, but Saddam defied the United States and the United Nations by expelling UNSCOM. Seeking to mollify Saddam, the United Nations, prodded by Russia, France, and China, passed a weaker arms-inspection resolution. According to this resolution, sanctions would be removed if Iraq were to admit inspectors and if the inspectors were merely to certify that Iraq is cooperating with them. A containment-plus strategy would reject this weaker resolution and insist that Iraq prove that it has eliminated its weapons of mass destruction.

Containment-plus would also entail a change in America's policy toward Iraq, which has been riven by ambiguity since the end of the Gulf War. While the United States has repeatedly voted for Security Council resolutions promising to remove sanctions if Iraq eliminates its weapons, American officials have repeatedly declared that they would not remove sanctions until, in the first George Bush's words, "Saddam Hussein is out of there." According to this view of sanctions, their purpose has not been to force Saddam to comply with arms inspections, but to weaken him and bring down his regime. Containment-plus would reject this ambiguity. It would promise that if Saddam destroyed his weapons, sanctions would be removed. And if he did not comply with inspections, the United States would undertake military action -- including, possibly, an invasion.

Patrick Clawson, the director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, sums up the underlying logic of this strategy:

Given that the United States is more concerned than ever before about disarming Iraq of WMD [weapons of mass destruction], the administration should consider giving Saddam more reason to cooperate. That means offering a bigger carrot if he accepts the package and threatening him with a bigger stick if he does not. The carrot would be a newly explicit offer to respond to Iraqi compliance with a move to a U.S. policy of deterrence and containment -- that is, living with Saddam's odious regime so long as he does not engage in external aggression. The stick would be to respond to Iraq's decision not to fulfill a key provision of the 1991 ceasefire with a U.S. decision that it is no longer bound by the ceasefire itself.

Containment-plus would not rule out an invasion. On the contrary, it would use the threat of an invasion, made credible by America's success in Afghanistan, to pressure the Security Council and Iraq to accept containment-plus.

Advocates of an invasion reject the containment-plus strategy of arms inspections as a substitute for armed intervention. Their arguments have been summarized in a February 25 New Republic article, "Weapons Inspections Won't Work," by invasion advocate Lawrence Kaplan. First, they contend that by seriously proposing arms inspections, the United States will invite months of obstruction on the Security Council from France and Russia. Even if the Security Council eventually agrees to a tougher resolution, Iraq will defy and frustrate the inspectors. All in all, the result of proposing sanctions will be to allow Iraq to buy time to develop weapons of mass destruction.

This could happen, and certainly has in the past, but the United States stands a much better chance of getting its way now than it did last June, when we tried unsuccessfully to modify the sanction rules. By invading Afghanistan and toppling the Taliban, and by openly discussing whether to invade Iraq, the United States can now credibly threaten that if it doesn't get its way on the Security Council and with Iraq, it will go to war. Iraq has the most to lose from a war, but countries like France and Russia that have sizable investments there also are vulnerable.

Second, advocates of invasion argue that even if UN inspectors are allowed back into Iraq, they will fail to ferret out and destroy Saddam's remaining arsenal. But Saddam expelled UNSCOM because it was effective. With the help of Saddam's brother-in-law, who defected in 1995, UNSCOM succeeded in destroying, among other things, 48 operational long-range missiles, 28 operational fixed launchpads (and another 32 under construction), 30 chemical warheads for missiles, 690 tons of chemical weapons, and the entire Al-Hakam biological-weapons facility. Even if Saddam saved some weapons from destruction, he was prevented from replacing those that were destroyed. A new UN inspections team, empowered by a tough resolution, could be equally effective in reducing the threat from Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

Third, invasion advocates say that Saddam is a "madman" for whom the strategy of containment and deterrence is inappropriate. "The problem with Saddam isn't his toys," Kaplan writes. "It's Saddam." But the evidence of Saddam's madness isn't convincing. He isn't the first dictator to attack his neighbors. And his brutal repression of his own people certainly doesn't distinguish him from other Mideastern rulers -- or even from the British, who used poison gas against Iraqi rebels after World War I. Saddam has taken risks, but they have occurred within a framework that by the standards of Adolf Hitler or Osama bin Laden are relatively modest. Brookings Institution foreign-policy experts Philip Gordon and Michael O'Hanlon write:

The real question, then, is whether Mr. Saddam can be deterred. At present, most evidence suggests he can. After Desert Storm, he never took steps that precipitated US military action capable of imperiling his hold on power. He again threatened Kuwait in 1994 but backed off when the Clinton administration responded militarily. He tolerated inspectors until he rightly recognised that impeding their work would be met with only limited US and British air strikes. He invaded Kuwait in 1990 only after the US suggested it would tolerate such an action. He is a monster, but also someone who clearly wants to stay in power and stay alive.

Finally, advocates of invasion maintain that only by invading and overthrowing Saddam can the United States be absolutely certain of eliminating any threat from Saddam and his weapons of mass destruction. That is probably true, but the certainty we would obtain from a successful invasion would also carry costs that a strategy of containment-plus would not. Even if an invasion proves to be a "cakewalk," as former Reagan administration official Ken Adelman has blithely contended, it could still cause thousands of deaths. Iraq's army, though weakened from the Gulf War, is 10 times larger and much better trained and equipped than that of the Taliban.

Overthrowing Saddam would remove a thorn from America's side, but it wouldn't necessarily bring stability to Iraq and to the region. The Iraqi National Congress is smaller and even less capable of wielding authority than the Northern Alliance, which is having trouble enough in Afghanistan. And the United States cannot afford to allow Iraq, with its oil reserves, to fall into tribal chaos among its Kurds in the North, the Sunnis in the Middle, and the Shiites in the South. It is very likely that the United States would have to follow up an invasion with an occupying force, which would become an inviting target for Islamic militants and a longstanding drain on America's resources. We might be forced to learn the same bitter lesson that Israelis learned when they sought security and stability by forcibly evicting Yasir Arafat and the Palestinian Liberation Organization from Lebanon in the early 1980s. The Israelis got rid of Arafat, but they gained Hezbollah and Hamas.

In short, there are no good reasons for the Bush administration to reject Powell's original strategy of containment-plus in favor of an invasion strategy. If containment-plus fails, the United States can still contemplate an invasion -- and do so with many European and Arab governments on its side rather than openly or silently in opposition. The Bush administration needs to halt the drift toward a purely military solution in Iraq; but flush from its victory in Afghanistan, it may be too blinded by hubris to turn back.

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