In Afghanistan the Taliban have been driven from power, and Osama bin Laden's apparatus is being rooted out. Iraq is coming up as the next major piece of unfinished business. There are reports of strongly held views within the administration that the United States should strike while we have the opportunity.
Those who hold this view are right in believing that neither the region nor the United States will be safe until both Saddam Hussein and the Baath political regime are gone. This is a man who was coming perilously close to having nuclear weapons capability before he made his disastrous misstep in Kuwait. He's believed to have developed chemical and possibly biological weapons, and he used chemical weapons against the Kurds in 1988.
It's possible that he has concealed Scud ballistic missiles and launchers. No one was certain about the status of weapons of this type even when U.N. inspectors were ensconced in Baghdad, and the inspectors have been gone for three years.
Meanwhile, Saddam's been trying to loosen the economic sanctions that bind him and has managed to use the sufferings he imposes on his own people to build sympathy for Iraq's plight. Illegal oil sales have given him access to hundreds of millions of dollars. Time isn't weakening Saddam. Rather, his potential for rising again to threaten the interests of the United States is growing. But the tremendous risk involved in turning on him must be thought through.
It's likely that immediately targeting Iraq would be more than the anti-terror coalition could sustain, not just because of the effect on the Arab "street'' but because France and Russia have invested deeply in efforts to preserve Saddam as a man worth doing (oil) business with. The first Bush administration might have destroyed him in 1990 but held back because it thought Iraq under Saddam was necessary as a counterweight to Iran. The Clinton administration couldn't generate international support for anything much more forceful than limited airstrikes. The current administration may also find that it cannot destroy Saddam without causing grievous damage to other, more urgent priorities.
If persuasive evidence links Iraq to the use of anthrax as a biological weapon, that would create an open-and-shut case for finishing him. But without such a fresh, major provocation, it would be difficult to build our case.
We would have to avoid notions of breaking up Iraq. Our goal should be to establish a democratic state with a weak central government and strong local governments in the Kurdish, Sunni and Shia regions.
There are more urgent priorities than Iraq: Carrying the campaign against terror to other parts of the world by whatever means are be best suited in each location -- but above all, maintaining the initiative so that the ability of terrorists to network is dismantled, and they're reduced to isolated cells to be finished off by local authorities.
But when the moment comes, the United States must avoid half-measures. Given the changed climate produced by Sept. 11, we should aim from the beginning to destroy the Iraqi regime, root and branch.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: Leon Fuerth was national security adviser to former Vice President Al Gore. Distributed by The Washington Post.)
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