How Not to Overthrow Saddam

For the past few months, senior Bush administration and military officials have been debating whether and when to launch a military invasion of Iraq. Had they attended, and actually listened to, a late May conference at American University in Washington, however, they would have received a powerful reality check. It brought together the men (no women), mainly Iraqi exiles, who would rule Iraq after what President George W. Bush has taken to calling a "regime change" in Baghdad.

These men included General Najib al-Salhi, the leader of the "Free Officers' Movement" who expects to get the defense portfolio; religious leader Sheikh Mohammed Mohammed Ali, who talked about the rule of law in a free Iraq; Dr. Fouad Hussein, who discussed the future political system; and many more. Coming from Europe and North America, they had converged -- ostensibly -- to hammer out a vision of what Iraq could become. Instead, the conference accentuated their differences and made clear the chaos in which the United States would be caught up if it toppled Saddam Hussein.

All present at the conference dutifully professed their support for democracy and liberty. Kurdish speakers emphasized "a federal democratic Iraq." An Iraqi Shiite spokesman envisaged a democratic Iraq with equal rights "for the minorities including the Kurds." But two days of debates failed to reach consensus on the most basic questions: What role would dissident factions and their followers play in a future Iraq? What sort of a country should Iraq become? Who should be put on trial after Saddam Hussein's fall? Was Saddam alone responsible for all crimes committed in Iraq during his regime? What about regional commanders who led troops in the brutal campaign against the Kurds?

One moment succinctly summed up the divisions and mutual distrust that would follow these factions into a post-Saddam Iraq. A member of the audience suggested, quite reasonably, that they should form a government-in-exile. Here at last was something on which everyone could agree. They said, to a man: It's out of the question.

First of all, the Kurds, who occupy the north of Iraq and have been brutally repressed by Saddam, want some measure of independence. Second, other parts of the Iraqi opposition are fractured and weak. As well, the U.S.-funded Iraqi National Congress, an organization embracing Iraqi groups opposed to Saddam, is in complete disarray. One of the groups representing the Shiite population of southern Iraq recently quit the congress, saying that it is too dependent on American funds. The Shiites in general take a dim view of an American-led liberation of Iraq, suspecting that the United States would eventually be satisfied with another dictatorship of the Sunni military elite.

Before considering the problems it would face in a post-Saddam Iraq, the Bush administration must first surmount the problem of finding some governments in the region that would back its move to oust Saddam. As things currently stand, this is a tall order. The Arabs see the president as lacking both a legal mandate for intervention and compelling moral reasons to intervene (such as those sparked by the attacks of September 11). Which, in turn, makes the prospect of a new Gulf War-type invasion seem less credible. Where could the United States position the 200,000 troops required to overthrow Saddam, according to the plan General Tommy Franks presented to Bush in May?

Despite all these arguably insurmountable problems, the sense that war with Iraq is all but inevitable continues to permeate the Bush administration. George W. Bush and his hawks -- Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, et al. -- have good reason to press for the expansion of war to Iraq. For one, it fits their broad vision of how to stabilize an unsettled and turbulent post-September 11 world. How do you fight an underground network of terrorists so possessed by their cause that they would do absolutely anything in its name? What unforeseen horrors are being cooked up in the diabolical imagination of the hard men of al-Qaeda?

The toppling of Saddam would open a new front in that war and, they hope, renew the near-universal acclaim that Bush received for his forceful performance in Afghanistan. A credible case can be made that the removal of Saddam would be in the U.S. national interest; few doubt that the Middle East would be a safer place without him. The personal may impact the political as well, since Saddam did organize an attempt on the life of the first President Bush. Underpinning all these reasons is Bush's unilateralism, his trust in America's military predominance. The message of his administration is that the only way to defeat America's enemies is to hit them first before they manage to "attain catastrophic power" to strike at the United States. As Bush recently told West Point cadets: "The only path to safety is action. And this nation will act."

Still, there is one unfortunate problem: the failure to establish any convincing link between Saddam and al-Qaeda. In fact, Saddam is anathema to the jihad-minded Islamic fundamentalists. This has not deterred the administration from trying to make a case. It unsuccessfully sought evidence to tie Saddam to the anthrax letters. More recently, Bush blamed Iraq for encouraging the bloody fighting between Israelis and Palestinians by providing money to the families of suicide bombers. Finally, new reasons were advanced by the president's hawkish counselors: Saddam must be removed because he might give weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups.

The interventionists may well be right. It is certainly frightening to imagine Saddam -- who has used chemical weapons against his own people -- in possession of nuclear weapons. Yet, questions arise: Why are Europeans questioning the wisdom of expanding the war into Iraq? More importantly, why did Bush's own Joint Chiefs of Staff leak the story that invading Iraq would be a risky affair -- and that victory would mean yet another round of nation building, this time in a large and inherently unstable country. Administration supporters have quick and easy replies. The Europeans are decadent wimps who should not be taken seriously. The Joint Chiefs are congenitally cautious, because their job is to worry.

Other prickly questions are not so easily dismissed. The uncertain outcome of the Afghan war, the failure to find Osama bin Laden, the repeated alerts from Homeland Security Chief Tom Ridge -- all underscore the reality that we are at war with a group of elusive transnational terrorists whose main weapon is the suicidal devotion of their adherents. Placing Iraq in the context of this war obfuscates the fact that the United States has no coherent plan for marshaling all its resources in the struggle against the invisible enemy. Iraq has the virtue of visibility, and a forceful military action there -- provided that few body bags have to be brought home -- would certainly rally support for the administration.

By relying so heavily on military option, however, the administration has had to magnify the danger it is trying to limit or eliminate. Iraq's neighbors aren't impressed. With the exception of Kuwait, for understandable reasons, other states in the region no longer see Saddam as a major security threat. The 11 years of siege and sanctions may have taken an appalling toll in Iraq, but many neighbors have profited. The Saudis, for example, were able to produce more oil without glutting the market. Jordan and Turkey got their oil at heavily discounted prices. Iraq's military prowess has declined. Saddam has practically no air force. His army is weaker. Even some U.S. officials say Iraq today is much weaker militarily than it was before Operation Desert Storm.

For his part, Saddam has mounted a charm offensive in the Arab world, suggesting he wished to bring Iraq back into the fold and restore Arab unity. He has more than that working in his favor, however. Persian Gulf states fear that "regime change" in Baghdad may beget a greater disorder in the region. Since its inception in 1921, Iraq has been a somewhat unnatural state, formed from three distinctly different provinces of the former Ottoman Empire (Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul). Saddam comes from the Sunni minority (30 percent of the population), which dominated modern Iraq's politics by suppressing Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority (60 percent of the population) in the south and the Iraqi Kurdish minority in the north. With the weakening of the Baghdad regime, Turkey and Saudi Arabia -- both of them Sunni Muslim -- have grown fearful of a Shiite fundamentalist play for power in alliance with Shiite-led Iran.

The Turks -- America's key local friend whose support is crucial for any Saddam-toppling scheme -- have another and even more overriding security concern. Having quashed its own Kurdish minority near its border with Iraq, Turkey is alarmed by the possibility of a Kurdish state across the border. Even establishing a small Kurdistan as part of a federal Iraq might provoke a Turkish military response. The Turks believe that political autonomy granted to Iraqi Kurds might rekindle Kurdish aspirations in Turkey and elsewhere.

Some U.S. strategists had planned to cast the Kurds in a role similar to the one played by the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. But the Kurds, who control an area almost the size of Arkansas and have about 50,000 lightly armed men, are wary of the project. Protected by American and British airpower, they are trying to build a modern country. They want a firm commitment from Washington before taking up arms against Saddam. (In 1991, Bush père urged them to rise up against Saddam but withheld military support.) They have said they would join no venture "that fails to guarantee their security and their rights as equal citizens in a federal democratic Iraq."

Washington is unable to give such a pledge. If it did, its whole Iraqi project would be derailed, as Turkey would certainly deny the use of the U.S. bases on its soil for a venture threatening its integrity. And the Turks mean business. Over the past decade, Turkish troops made frequent incursions into Iraqi Kurdistan in pursuit of Turkey's Kurdish activists.

In Washington, such considerations have fueled the intra-administration debate. The most significant bureaucratic struggle is being waged inside the Pentagon, where the Joint Chiefs have publicly weighed in against an ill-prepared Iraqi venture that would repeat the mistakes of the Kosovo war. They dismissed an old plan for the conquest of Iraq, which had been revived by civilian interventionists and relied on a combination of air strikes and U.S. Special Forces attacks in coordination with local rebels, presumably the Kurds.

The hard-liners remain mesmerized by the notion that all manner of problems can be solved by casualty-free application of American airpower, hi-tech weapons, and minimum numbers of special forces. The uniformed soldiers are more cautious: Grave decisions affecting the lives of thousands must not be based on hunches. There is no doubt in anyone's mind -- Saddam included -- that the United States could force him out. But at what cost? What are the political objectives? What about alternatives?

The principal and most urgent challenge before the administration is to develop a coherent overall strategy to pursue in the war on terrorism. To extend the front to Iraq under the present condition may backfire badly. At the very least, it would inflame anti-Americanism and provide fresh batches of suicidal recruits for al-Qaeda.

Sadly, nobody is seriously considering the nonviolent means that could also be brought to bear on Iraq without risking the estrangement of much of the Muslim world. The United States, after all, does have some recent positive experience with regime change. For all his bumbling ineptitude in the Balkans, then-President Bill Clinton ultimately adopted a bold program of political and propaganda assistance to the opponents of Slobodan Milosevic. It worked. After spending billions of dollars on military action intended to bring down Milosevic, the Clinton administration finally succeeded through nonviolent means -- and at a cost of less than $40 million, which it funneled through nongovernmental organizations. The money was spent on schooling the Yugoslav opposition in such things as the techniques of nonviolent resistance, and how to monitor an election. It also went to support many kinds of nongovernmental media. (Arguably, most of the money was spent on cans of spray paint and adhesive stickers that helped opposition members spread their message.)

The actual heavy lifting to overthrow Milosevic was done by key elements in the society -- the students, the trade unions, the middle classes. The combination of student demonstrations and a miners' strike ignited a popular revolt. The United States also assembled an international coalition which, at the crucial movement, exerted political and diplomatic pressures that helped topple the dictator.

Perhaps something along these lines could be done in Iraq. The oil workers could play the role the miners played in Yugoslavia. Women, too, might become a key agent of change; there are stirrings throughout the Muslim worlds that reflect women's desire for greater freedom. But Bush's aggressive saber-rattling circumscribes all opposition activities inside Iraq. Even the exiles who recently debated "prospects for democratic change" in Iraq take it for granted that only American military intervention could bring a democratic government in Baghdad. It should not be the job of the U.S. government, however, to destroy or reshape regimes hostile to America, but not linked to the international terrorist network. For Iraq to become a democracy, former U.S. diplomat Mark Palmer told the assembled exiles, it just might be more useful to employ genuine democratic methods.

This is also good advice to the Bush administration. The tightening of sanctions and reintroduction of weapons inspectors are several steps in the right direction. But they should be accompanied by an opening toward Iraq, which could eventually enable outside nongovernmental organizations to interact with Iraqi groups. To be sure, Iraq is a much more tightly closed society than Yugoslavia. But for years the experts said this kind of policy couldn't work in Milosevic's Yugoslavia, either.

The political and propaganda approach does not exclude the use of force. Powell believes that in cases of serious danger, the international community can come together, recognize the challenge, and work together to avert the threat. By pursuing this course now, Washington would easily gain international support -- as it did in 1991 -- if and when Saddam proves to be a real, imminent threat.

There is talk that Powell's argument has made an impact on the president. But don't hold your breath. Iraq may have been placed on the back burner for now, but the hard-liners are still confident that Bush will stick to his pledge to topple Saddam. This all may be a question of when -- not whether.