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Iraq: Should U.S. Use This Time To Unseat Saddam?

There is a growing debate in America over whether President George W. Bush should take advantage of the wide support he enjoys for his campaign against terrorism and make an effort -- now -- to use military force to drive Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from power. But analysts tell RFE/RL such a move should be taken with caution and could prove diplomatically dangerous.

Washington, 20 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Some American observers say now is the time for U.S. forces to make a move on Iraq.

They argue that U.S. President George W. Bush now has the approval of most nations in the war against terror, as allied forces drive the Taliban out of power in Afghanistan and begin closing in on Osama bin Laden, who is blamed for the 11 September terrorist attacks.

These observers say Bush could finish the job his father, former President George Bush, left undone: unseating Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who is widely believed to have been pursuing an arsenal of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons in the three years since he began keeping United Nations weapons inspectors from his country.

Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, has said several times that the events of 11 September have done nothing to change Saddam's status. She says the Iraqi leader remains a grave threat to his people, his region, and the entire world, just as he was before the attacks in the United States.

Most recently, the U.S. yesterday said it believes six countries are developing these weapons -- and it singled out Iraq as the most likely. John Bolton, the undersecretary of state for arms control, said at the UN offices in Geneva that Iraq's program to develop such a capacity is "beyond dispute," as he put it.

This and similar recent statements by senior U.S. officials raise the question of whether Washington is prepared to take military action against Iraq and is building an evidentiary case to support such a move.

But analysts interviewed by RFE/RL say this is not the time to attack Iraq. Yet they agree that it would take little further provocation to justify a military response.

Michael O'Hanlon is an international affairs analyst with the Brookings Institution, a Washington policy center. He says there is now no need to do anything more than contain Iraq: "I think that he [Saddam] tends to be deterrable. If you look at his behavior ever since the Persian Gulf War, he has typically not pushed us to the point where large-scale American military action was a natural consequence of whatever he did."

According to O'Hanlon, it would be politically dangerous to make war on Iraq now, because Bush would lose the international support he has so painstakingly assembled for his war against terrorism in Afghanistan: "If you were to try to do this now with no further evidence, apart from what we already have against Saddam, you would probably have no support in the entire world, with the possible exception of Kuwait and Israel -- literally, only those two countries."

O'Hanlon said it would take a miracle of diplomacy to persuade even staunch allies like Britain not to oppose a U.S. war on Iraq, much less to come to the aid of America.

But he says Bush is making sure that America and its allies are as well-armed with evidence as they are with bombs and missiles if Saddam eventually gives them reason to make war on his country: "I think the Bush administration is not yet sure if it wants to mobilize international support for a war against Saddam. And therefore, since there's a possibility that it will want to do so, it has decided to emphasize and reemphasize all of Iraq's past misbehavior and past dangers, many of which continue now into the present era."

Jack Spencer is a military affairs analyst at the Heritage Foundation, another policy institute in Washington. He agrees that the U.S. should not attack Iraq under the current circumstances, but he says it should be ready to do so.

Spencer says Washington and its allies should take diplomatic steps first. If those steps fail, he says, the U.S. should not hesitate to make war: "I think the first step is trying to get weapons inspectors back in there [in Iraq]. It's my feeling that probably Saddam Hussein's not going to be very cooperative, and therefore military action may very well be required."

According to Spencer, the U.S. has a rare opportunity to offset the threat of terrorism that is likely to define diplomacy in the 21st century, just as it held the key to deterring nuclear war with the Soviet Union during part of the previous century: "If we show adequate commitment in Afghanistan, and then we also find that we do need to use military action in Iraq, and if in Iraq we also show adequate commitment, I think what you'll begin to see...established is a deterrence for the modern era, where we're not worried about necessarily deterring nuclear war any more, but we're trying to deter rogue nations, or any nation for that matter, from being involved in this international terrorism."

Spencer says he is not concerned that going to war against Saddam would cost the U.S. the support of nations who back the war in Afghanistan. He says any military action against Saddam would require a new coalition that is built independently of the existing alliance.

But like O'Hanlon, Spencer believes Bush has not decided yet whether to attack Iraq. He says the president prefers to focus his efforts on his campaign against terrorism. Both men say there is time for him to consider how to deal with Iraq once bin Laden is brought to justice.