Don't make Hussein the focus of Phase 2

November 26, 2001|By Derek Chollet

WASHINGTON - The war in Afghanistan may be winding down, but another war is ramping up in Washington.

Although the new conflict will be confined to the bureaucratic trenches, it promises to be brutal, because the issue is whether the next phase in the terrorism campaign should be to bring the war to Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein.

It will present the biggest test of President Bush's ability to forge a common policy, because his powerful advisers are so bitterly divided.

How this battle ends will be as important to long-term U.S. foreign policy interests as the endgame in Afghanistan.

Until now, the argument over widening the war to Iraq has been far more intense outside the administration than in. Indeed, administration officials say that in the days after Sept. 11, the issue never was considered seriously at the highest levels. Absent Iraqi involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks, even those in the overthrow faction agreed that the United States should take care of first things first - eliminating the Taliban and Osama bin Laden.

Overthrow's proponents have been careful to refer to Afghanistan as the "first phase" of the war on terrorism. Now they are ready for Phase 2.

Tremendous pressure will be brought on Mr. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell, the administration's leading skeptic of the overthrow plans, to go after Hussein full-throttle. Possibly they'll be pushed to bomb Baghdad and Republican Guard concentrations, capture Iraqi territory to serve as an attack platform, send in U.S. Special Forces to advise Iraqi rebel groups, or all of the above simultaneously.

But pursuing unilateral military actions against Hussein would be seriously misguided. For starters, there are many problems with the idea that by arming, training and funding an Iraqi opposition, the United States could overthrow him anytime soon.

Historically, there are few examples of such a strategy ever going well, chiefly when one's clients are as disorganized as the chosen opposition umbrella group, the Iraqi National Congress (INC).

The INC makes Afghanistan's Northern Alliance look like a modern army, and relying on it to stage a coup would likely prove as disastrous as President John F. Kennedy's Bay of Pigs operation against Fidel Castro.

Indeed, retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni - Mr. Powell's new Middle East envoy - has publicly derided ideas to overthrow the Iraqi leader as a "Bay of Goats."

Further, bombing Iraq would fracture the international coalition that Mr. Bush has worked hard to build. No matter, overthrow proponents argue, the United States does not need allies to fight Mr. Hussein. But Washington does need allies to rebuild Afghanistan and shut down terrorist networks worldwide. Going after Mr. Hussein would undermine such support.

Our closest friends are steadfast against taking the war to Iraq. Even the British, traditionally our only reliable partner against Hussein, are not on our side on this one. Prime Minister Tony Blair has made it clear to Mr. Bush that he will not give his support.

A unilateral U.S. military campaign against Hussein would also squander all the benefits of the coalition, such as the remarkable improvement in U.S.-Russian relations. It would further complicate America's problems with the Arab world, which would be counterproductive at a moment when the Bush administration is trying to resuscitate the Middle East peace process.

This doesn't mean the status quo on Iraq is acceptable. Hussein is a sworn enemy, and the United States and its allies have every reason to act against him. The better question, therefore, is not whether Washington should confront him, but how. If the war on terrorism proves anything, it is that unilateralism does not work.

So rather than go solo with military force or some half-baked scheme to foment an Iraqi coup, the United States should play to its strength and use its leverage to forge a new international consensus against Hussein.

This new coalition must include states like Russia. It should work through the United Nations to design economic sanctions that are tighter and more focused. It should get weapons inspectors back into Iraq.

It should support a broad spectrum of Hussein's opponents - not just the INC - and focus propaganda efforts on undermining his backing, not just in Iraq but throughout the Arab world.

Washington's overthrow faction is right to argue that the war on terrorism provides new momentum to weaken Hussein; where they're wrong is how to do it.

Derek Chollet, a visiting scholar at George Washington University's Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, served in the State Department during the Clinton administration.

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