Reflections on Iraq

Remarks Given at the “Revisiting Arab-U.S. Relations: September 11 – One Year Later and the Way Forward” Conference

Over the course of the day, I gather, various speakers have either discussed — or diplomatically sought to avoid discussion of — our present national obsession with precluding hypothetical threats of future carnage, even as we ignore and do nothing about ending the escalating mayhem in the Holy Land.

On Thursday, the President promises to explain our stand on these issues. I hope that his address to the United Nations will help us understand:

• How we should respond to the view of friends in the region that it is nothing short of obscene to be planning to add an American war against Arabs in the northern Gulf to existing U.S. backing for steadily escalating Israeli war with the Arabs in Palestine; and

• How we should respond to the judgment of allies and friends in Europe and Asia that the notion of preemptive attack at will by the United States amounts both to a return to the pre-modern notion of “might makes right” and to the abandonment of a century of largely successful American effort to create a rules-based international society.

The President’s willingness to join a debate, as five members of his Cabinet suddenly did yesterday, is welcome indeed. It may help to replace oppressive group think by a handful of pundits and politicians within the Beltway with a wider and more reasoned discussion.

Over much of this year, in relation to regime change in Iraq, Washington has resembled nothing so much as a dog determinedly chasing a car – caught up in the joy of the chase and apparently unable or unwilling to consider what risks it runs by yapping at speeding vehicles or what it might do if it actually caught up with them and could sink its teeth in their tires. Perhaps it’s time to put the dog on a leash. Or set it to chasing something else.

There are a few specific and not inconsequential questions we might usefully ponder before launching an unprovoked but preemptive attack on Iraq. In my brief time with you today, I will try to do just.

I agree, of course, there’s no reason to doubt that Iraq, like North Korea and Iran, is actively seeking nuclear weapons. But why would changing the Iraqi regime end this effort?

• Why does Iraq want chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons? Is this a strategy that springs from the evil mind of Saddam Hussein alone? Or is this a more broadly grounded strategy based on an Iraqi national interest in deterring a resumption of past assaults by Iran, Israel, Turkey and the United States?

• What in fact is Iraq’s defense against Israeli and Iranian weapons of mass destruction (WMD) other than its own WMD? The U.N. Charter? Is the U.N. Charter now an effective constraint on U.S., Israeli or Iranian action against Iraq?

• Would regime change as such alter the geostrategic challenges facing Baghdad or in any way redefine Iraqi national interests?

• Might not a democratically elected Iraqi government be just as interested in WMD as a deterrent as the democratically elected government of Israel has been?

• If regime change is the answer, what was the question?


But mightn’t Saddam attack the United States?

• If the proposed doctrine of preemptive attack is endorsed by the international community, Saddam might be justified in preemptively attacking the United States, given all the threats the United States has made against him and his regime. Why hasn’t he?

• Is there any reason to doubt that Saddam does not understand the strength of the United States and our capacity to retaliate a thousand-fold for any attack on us?

• Is there any evidence that Saddam or his regime are suicidal?

• Stupid as Saddam is, why — given all our bluster — would he not by now have prepared and possibly even prepositioned retaliation against the U.S. homeland?

• Isn’t the most likely, indeed almost the only conceivable circumstance leading to an Iraqi attack on the United States a U.S. attack on Iraq that leaves Saddam nothing to lose by retaliating against us? (It is, perhaps, noteworthy in this regard that in 1991 Saddam did not attack Saudi oil refineries or wells but, when he felt he had nothing to lose, set Kuwait’s wells on fire.

Given his behavior, why should we accept the assertion that Saddam Hussein cannot be deterred?

• He did not use WMD in 1991.

• He is an aggressor, but a cowardly one, who attacks only the weak and unprepared (internationally isolated Iran, to U.S. applause, and regionally isolated Kuwait, to anticipated U.S. indifference).

• He has not rebuilt a capacity for military offense against his neighbors.

• With the exception of a despicable assassination attempt on former President Bush in Kuwait nearly ten years ago after Bush had left office — for which Iraq was duly punished with heavy bombing — Saddam has answered U.S. and British military attacks on him with political rather than military moves of his own. In other words, looking at the pattern of U.S.-Iraqi interaction over the past decade, the use of force has invariably been instigated by the stronger party, the United States, rather than by Iraq, which has clearly understood its own relative weakness. Some people might argue that Saddam’s behavior is a textbook example of deterrence in action.

• Saddam’s neighbors, with the possible exception of Kuwait, apparently do not consider him an active or unmanageable military threat at present. Surely they both know him better and have more reason to worry than we do?


But might Saddam not transfer WMD to other enemies of the United States, including al-Qaida?

• It is true that we have the capacity to unite our enemies against us rather than dividing them as classic strategic thinking suggests we should, if we choose to do so.

• Is there, however, any evidence that this is actually happening?

• If the worry is about nuclear weapons, how likely is it that Saddam would turn over control to someone else of most or all of the tiny nuclear arsenal he may eventually acquire? (Such generosity is rare indeed in the annals of statecraft.)

• Why is this not an instance in which deterrence is possible and in which making it clear where U.S. redlines are is the best policy?


But, isn’t it better to be safe than sorry? How much do we have to lose? Iraq is weak and more vulnerable than North Korea or Iran – wouldn’t invasion be a “cakewalk?”

• Iraq is in fact far weaker than it was at the end of 8 years of war with Iran but it is stronger than after the U.S. bombing campaign of January 17 – February 23, 1991 when we launched our ground attack on it.

• In 1991, Iraqi troops, mainly conscripts, were seeking to hold Kuwait, not defend Iraq. They knew their cause was unjust. They had been bombed at the rate of 1 bomb per minute for 37 days and were politically and emotionally isolated within the Arab world. Is their behavior in February 1991 a good predictor of the behavior of a more professional army defending its motherland nearly a dozen years later against foreign invasion and egged on by Arab opinion?


But, wouldn’t Iraqis, like Afghans, welcome liberation by the United States?

• By all accounts, 10 years of sanctions and bombing have not endeared Americans to the Iraqi people, whatever they may think of Saddam. The United States, apparently, has many Iraqi admirers outside Iraq but few, if any, left inside it.

• Sanctions have concentrated patronage in Saddam’s hands and helped him consolidate his rule of Iraq.

• Why do we accept the speculative statements of Iraqi exiles about Saddam’s illegitimacy as more persuasive than the undeniable fact of his undisturbed control of Iraq? The Russian people, after all, fought for Stalin against foreign invaders, much as they had reason to loathe the Soviet dictator.

• Finally, of course, with the exception of Kurdish ethnic separatism — which is unacceptable to Iraq’s neighbors — there is no civil war in Iraq, so we cannot gain a quick and relatively easy victory there by facilitating a win by one faction over another as we did in Afghanistan.


Despite what they say, wouldn’t Arab states and European allies welcome Saddam’s overthrow if we succeeded in bringing it about?

• Perhaps so, after the fact, for few indeed would lament Saddam’s passing. But how is this helpful in persuading them to help us up front in mounting a military campaign against Iraq?

• Why should we assume that Arabs, in particular, do not mean what they say about a U.S. attack on Iraq making further cooperation with the United States impossible?

• If, as some argue, the U.S.-led democratization of Iraq would catalyze democratic revolutions that would overthrow regimes elsewhere in the Arab world, why should such regimes support this course of action by the United States and thus help us to contrive their own demise?

• How much support, if any, can we expect from NATO allies and Japan? How much acquiescence will they give? Can we take the sustained use of bases in Europe and Japan, granted for purposes of common defense unrelated to unilateral U.S. actions in places far away from them to which they object, for granted? What are the implications for our alliances of U.S. actions that depend on the infrastructure of those alliances while ignoring the objections of allies to those actions?


But doesn’t the Afghan operation show we don’t need allies and partners to project enough power to take down the regime in Baghdad?

• Our ability to project power to Afghanistan has rested on use of bases in friendly countries in the Persian Gulf and facilities as well as overflight rights in Afghanistan’s immediate neighbors. It has entailed the conclusion of logistical support agreements with some 85 nations. The ability to refuel aircraft en route to the region and within it has been crucial to our military success.

• In the Gulf War, we based 550,000 troops in theater and stuffed 23 airbases there to the bursting point. If Iraq’s neighbors deny us use of their airspace, ports and bases how do we even get there from here, still less sustain large scale combat operations in Iraq?

• Why do we assume that an attack on Iraq that is opposed by most of the nations currently supporting or facilitating our Afghan campaign would not lead to their withdrawal of support for our increasingly unpopular operations in Afghanistan?

• If we succeed in overthrowing the regime in Baghdad, who will join us in occupying and doing the nation-building necessary to reform it, assuming that is possible at all?


How much might war with Iraq cost? Who will pay for it?

• In the Gulf War, U.S. expenditures came to $60 billion, every cent of it paid for by the Saudis, Emiratis, Kuwaitis, Japanese, Germans, Qataris and others. Saudi Arabia alone paid $17 billion to the United States and spent an additional $50 billion on fuel, food, equipment, facilities modification and a host of other expenses. In addition to cash transfers to the United States, much support in kind was provided by host nations and allies paid their own way. Kuwait paid for its own reconstruction. The total cost of the war was probably something like $200 billion.

• Is the United States ready on our own to fund a war with Iraq and the subsequent nation-building effort there?

• Do we have commitments in place from Saudi Arabia and other oil producers to do what they did in 1990-91 — to forego the opportunity for windfall profits from sharp increases in oil prices that could devastate the U.S. and the global economies?


Why are we so confident we can transform a thugdom into a democracy?

• What evidence is there of Iraqi traditions of democracy similar to those in the Weimar Republic or Japan in the 1920s on which to build a new and stable democracy?

• Who is the equivalent of the Japanese emperor in terms of assuring Iraqi cooperation rather than resistance to a U.S. occupation? Are Iraqis by nature as docile as Japanese or as disciplined as Germans?

• If by democracy we mean a regime in Iraq that endorses U.S. policies and supports U.S. interests in the Middle East, including those based on U.S. solidarity with Israel, why do we assume such a regime could have any legitimacy in Iraq or regionally?

• If an Iraqi democracy decided to build weapons of mass destruction for avowedly deterrent purposes, would we respect its people’s support for such a policy?


I could raise additional questions but it’s late in the day and these should be enough to help get the debate started. I hope that my brief remarks today have contributed to that process.

Thank you.

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr., USFS (Ret.)

Washington, DC

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