Accessibility links

Breaking News

U.S.: Bush Urges Action Against Iraq -- But Why Iraq, And Why Now?

U.S. President George W. Bush today takes his case on Iraq to the United Nations General Assembly, where he hopes to persuade the world that urgent action is needed to confront Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. But what are the White House's motives for seeking to oust Saddam, and why now?

Washington, 12 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Foreign observers of U.S. President George W. Bush have been puzzled by his apparent determination to overthrow the government of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Many have asked: Why Iraq -- and why now?

Bush and his national-security team have repeatedly said that Saddam must go because he has, and continues to develop, weapons of mass destruction, and has shown a willingness to use them in the past against Iranians and Kurds. They also say Saddam supports terrorism, and for a decade has flouted United Nations resolutions that defined the cease-fire that concluded the 1991 Gulf War.

All of this was of grave concern to Washington well before 11 September. In 1998, after Saddam failed to comply with the terms of UN weapons inspections, the U.S. Congress, with the support of then-President Bill Clinton, passed a bill that made "regime change" in Baghdad official U.S. policy.

Still, it wasn't until terrorists killed nearly 3,000 people in the 11 September attacks last year that the U.S. government felt the stakes had been dramatically raised. Bush responded with a major policy shift, arguing that Iraq's arms development and Saddam's alleged terrorist support must be preempted, by unilateral U.S. military force, if necessary.

As early as his State of the Union speech last January, Bush spoke of the need to act before becoming the target of yet another deadly attack. But the message has grown more urgent in recent weeks. Last month, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney laid out the case against Saddam in a speech to American war veterans. "Deliverable weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a terror network or a murderous dictator -- or the two working together -- constitute as grave a threat as can be imagined. The risks of inaction are far greater than the risk of action," Cheney said.

Bush is expected to make a similar argument today when he calls for action against Iraq in an address to the UN General Assembly in New York.

Still, even in light of the 11 September attacks, America's allies around the world have so far appeared largely unmoved by the Bush administration's arguments for taking its war on terrorism to Baghdad. Some question whether Saddam in fact possesses weapons of mass destruction and what, if any, concrete threat he poses to the rest of the world.

But U.S. officials and analysts say some U.S. allies fail to appreciate the new double threat of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. They say some allies may even believe that it will be the U.S., and not they themselves, that will be the likely target of any future attack, and therefore have failed to respond with the urgency the U.S. says is necessary.

Judith Kipper is the co-director of the Middle East Program at Washington's Center for International and Strategic Studies. Although critical of the Bush administration's general Mideast policies, Kipper said she takes seriously its motives for action on Iraq. "I think it is the question of how close [Saddam] is to a nuclear weapon that is the absolute key. That's the first thing. I think secondly, for this administration, it is ideologically very much in their sights in terms of [seeing] the world through the prism of the war on terrorism. I think for the president himself, it's probably unfinished business from his father's administration. And fourth, I would say that they've convinced themselves that if they could get rid of Saddam that would rearrange the Middle East to make it easier to deal with," Kipper said.

Key members of the Bush administration have in fact indicated that they believe establishing democracy in Iraq could have a huge impact on the entire Middle East, putting pressure on autocrats throughout the region to change their ways. And at the very least, successful use of American power, so the thinking goes, would demonstrate resolve in a region that many analysts say understands only the language of force.

That's exactly the premise of a book called "Rogue Regimes: Terrorism and Proliferation" by Raymond Tanter, a professor emeritus at the University of Michigan and a member of former President Ronald Reagan's National Security Council. "If you change the regime forcefully in Baghdad, you cower the dictator in Syria [and] in Libya, and the other rogue states become less roguish in their conduct. And the Machiavelli dictum will kick in: America would rather be respected and feared than loved, and power casts a long political shadow," Tanter said.

Advocates of such thinking are believed to include Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz. All three are also staunch supporters of Israel, and here, too, the thinking is that democratic change in Iraq would not only relieve Tel Aviv of a hostile possible nuclear rival, but facilitate reform in the region that could lead to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.

Cheney, in his speech to U.S. veterans last month, made this observation: "Regime change in Iraq would bring about a number of benefits to the region. When the gravest of threats are eliminated, the freedom-loving peoples of the region will have a chance to promote the values that can bring lasting peace."

Kipper and others, however, believe the nuclear issue is the most urgent for the administration. This does not stop, Kipper said, at the threat of Saddam giving terrorists a nuclear bomb. A nuclear-capable Iraq could also strip the U.S. of much of its leverage over Saddam and in the entire Mideast region.

Again, Cheney himself made this point explicitly. "Armed with an arsenal of these weapons of terror and seated atop 10 percent of the world's oil reserves, Saddam Hussein could then be expected to seek domination of the entire Middle East, take control of a great portion of the world's energy supplies, directly threaten America's friends throughout the region and subject the United States or any other nation to nuclear blackmail," Cheney said.

Some observers accuse Washington of seeking to control Iraqi oil, and U.S. officials and analysts concede that energy issues do, to a certain degree, motivate the White House's thinking on Iraq. But they point out that while the world relies on Washington to safeguard the flow of oil from the turbulent Middle East, it is Europe and Japan, not the U.S., that are the main consumers of Persian Gulf petroleum. As such, they stand to lose the most if chaos and instability disrupts the strategic balance and flow of oil from the region.

Kenneth Allard, a retired U.S. Army colonel who is now an analyst on U.S. television, said he believes European leaders "have their heads in the sand" when it comes to their assessment of Saddam's threat and the risk he poses to their strategic energy interests. "This is a man who had invaded Kuwait [and] who had every possibility of going on to invade Saudi Arabia as well. So I would say it is the point to be made, and made explicitly, particularly to the people in the leadership positions in Europe and in Asia, whose economies are absolutely dependent on Persian Gulf oil, that the prospect of a nuclear-armed Saddam is simply not one that they can afford, either," Allard said.

It is still unclear whether Iraq has or is working on building nuclear arms. Former UN arms inspectors believe Saddam has biological and chemical arms, but doubt he has a nuclear capability. Some experts say that he could be between two or eight years away from developing nuclear weapons. But others say he could have a bomb in months if provided foreign enriched uranium. Much of this, however, is speculative at best.

Indeed, analysts say a key part of the Bush administration's argument must emphasize the impossibility of ever knowing fully what weapons Saddam has at his disposal, even if UN inspectors return. The administrations must make the case that given Saddam's history of unreliable behavior, and new threat assessments post-11 September, that not knowing is unacceptable, and that Saddam, therefore, must go.

A final point, mentioned by Kipper of the Center for International and Strategic Studies, is the Bush administration's war on terrorism -- the driving force of U.S. foreign policy. With the Afghan war winding down, the White House feels compelled and ready to move to a new front.

Speculation is that a military assault on Iraq could begin any time from November to January, leaving enough time for diplomatic and military preparations to be made, but not waiting until the hot Iraqi weather that comes with spring.

Apart from the security concerns the U.S. is using to argue its case for a war in Iraq, the White House clearly believes that 11 September provided an opportunity to fashion a freer and safer world. U.S. officials compare it to the situation after World War II, when Washington helped rebuild Europe and create an array of global institutions to confront the Soviet threat.

Such thinking was first expressed last fall by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. Bush repeated it again yesterday. In an opinion piece in "The New York Times," Bush wrote that the U.S. "has the best opportunity in generations to build a world where great powers cooperate in peace instead of continually prepare for war."

But before that better world can be built, as Bush says, more war may yet be required.