By William Kristol and Robert Kagan
Post, 26 February 1998
The devil is in the details. With this mantra, critics indicate their prudent reservations about
deal struck by Kofi Annan in Baghdad this week. And the Clinton administration, too, is
concerned about the details, fretting over the composition of the inspection teams, the chain of
command, the relationship between UNSCOM’s chief and the secretary general, and other
questions raised by Annan’s intentionally vague agreement.
But the details are not the problem. The real problem is the Clinton administration strategy
made this deal inevitable. The administration’s strategy was limited to “containment” — getting the
inspectors back in, not getting Saddam out. It was limited in the military means it was willing to
employ — air attacks only. That’s why the concessions Kofi Annan made to get Saddam to
approve the latest agreement should not be surprising. It is doubtful Madeleine Albright could
have done better. This deal merely ratifies the fact that as long as Saddam remains securely in
power, unthreatened by internal uprisings or American ground troops, he has the upper hand. This
is the truth of “containment.”
Make no mistake: The deal is, as Tariq Aziz claims, a “great victory” for Iraq. Even a return
the status quo ante would have been bad enough. But Saddam obtained concessions this week
that administration officials would have considered unthinkable five months ago. Saddam Hussein
is now able to sell more oil; he will enjoy a weakened inspections regime; he has a new advocate
in the person of the secretary general of the United Nations; and he has every prospect of greater
international support for a loosening of sanctions and the eventual collapse of the coalition that
was arrayed against him seven years ago.
The fact that UNSCOM will be allowed to continue its mission in some form, moreover, does
mean the inspectors will be any closer to finding Saddam’s biological and chemical weapons than
they were before. After all, as administration officials acknowledged just last week, after 6 1/2
years of inspections, the United States still has no idea where the weapons are hidden. Saddam
has now had four months to conceal his weapons. How many months, or years, will it take the
inspectors to get back on the scent?
In short, the situation today is precisely the opposite of the administration’s depiction of it.
Saddam has not “reversed” himself, as Albright insists. It is the Clinton administration that has
reversed itself and retreated in the face of Saddam’s determination. A year ago, Albright declared
that she could not imagine lifting sanctions against Iraq so long as Saddam was in power. Now,
buffeted by international pressures, the administration has declared a willingness to see sanctions
lifted with Saddam still in power — and this expectation is codified in the deal signed by Kofi
Annan. A couple of months ago, Albright’s spokesman was chastised for suggesting that Saddam
would be offered a “little carrot” in exchange for compliance. Now the United Nations has offered
Saddam lots of big carrots in exchange for a signature. Last fall, it would have been unthinkable
for the U.N. secretary general to interpose himself as a neutral arbiter between UNSCOM and the
outlaw regime in Baghdad — between the prison guards and the prisoner. Now Kofi Annan
chastises U.N. inspectors for trying to do their job and praises Saddam Hussein as someone you
can do business with.
Bad as this deal is, however, it is the logical conclusion of a policy of containment. Seven
such policies have proven that, in the end, “containment” of Saddam cannot be sustained,
diplomatically, financially or militarily. Over time, containment of Saddam becomes “detente,” and
eventually detente becomes appeasement. Why? Because Saddam is so determined to obtain
weapons of mass destruction, his route back to strategic dominance in the Middle East, that he is
willing to weather sanctions, threats and even airstrikes to pursue this goal. The only thing
Saddam fears is the one thing that containment does not threaten — his removal from power.
Events of recent weeks proved this once again. The administration likes to claim that the
deal is evidence of the efficacy of diplomacy backed by force. On the contrary, it was the failure
to adopt a convincing military option that produced the present disastrous outcome. Saddam did
not sign this deal because he was afraid of airstrikes. He signed it because it locked in the
extraordinary diplomatic and strategic gains he has made since last fall.
Containment of Saddam Hussein is an illusion. The notion that we can sustain a policy of
deterring Saddam for another 10 or 20 years is ludicrous. The administration couldn’t hold the
international coalition together; it couldn’t control the U.N. secretary general; it couldn’t get Arab
states to allow U.S. aircraft to launch attacks; it couldn’t survive an Ohio “town meeting”; and it
couldn’t bring itself to launch an airstrike. Whenever Saddam decides to violate the present deal —
whether next week or next month — the administration’s promise of a retaliatory airstrike will be
just as hard to fulfill as it was this time, and just as futile. Who honestly believes this
administration will be capable of sustaining a containment policy for another six months, much
less into the next century?
It is clearer now than ever that there are only two real choices: ever more Kofi Annan-style
concessions leading eventually to the full emancipation of Saddam, or a serious political-military
strategy to remove Saddam and his regime. And let’s not kid ourselves: In any such
political-military strategy, the military element is central. Unless we are willing to live in a world
where everyone has to “do business” with Saddam and his weapons of mass destruction, we need
to be willing to use U.S. air power and ground troops to get rid of him.
William Kristol is editor and publisher of the Weekly Standard. Robert Kagan, a senior
at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was a State Department official in the