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conducted within Iraq? Some say no, noting his aggressiveness in attacking Iran and Kuwait as well as his own civilian populations. But even aggressive, evil rulers such as Joseph Stalin and Kim Il-Sung, the former North Korean leader, can often be deterred when faced with a credible threat that any aggression they attempt will meet a firm response. Moreover, those who argue that Saddam is not deterrable should remember Ambassador April Glaspie's famous statement to him before the invasion of Kuwaitthat the United States did not take a position on his border disputes with neighboring countries. The United States did not exactly give him a green light to invade Kuwait, but it gave him little more than a yellow light. Its failure to oppose that aggression before the fact ranks with Acheson's famous 1949 statement that Korea was outside the zone of U.S. security interests as among the worst examples of deterrence failure in American history. And once Saddam had already taken Kuwait, it was no great surprise that he refused to vacate it in the face of American threats. Political scientists have recognized for decades that compellence, or getting a country to undo an action already taken, is much harder than deterrence, or persuading it not to do something it may be contemplating.
Today, there is no such ambiguity in American willingness to respond to any aggression by Saddam. The only small uncertainty relates to what we would do if he again attacked his own populations, notably the Kurds in the north and Shia in the south. But even there, Saddam now knows he would be taking huge risks.
As threatening and dangerous as Saddam Hussein may be, the recent track record suggests that he can be dissuaded from undertaking actions that he believes would likely lead to his overthrow. During the Gulf War, he desisted from using the weapons of mass destruction we now know he had, realizing (following explicit threats from U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney) that to do so would almost surely lead to his downfall. He moved brigades southward towards Kuwait again in 1994, only to pull back once the Clinton administration mounted Operation "Vigilant Warrior," a deployment of tens of thousands of troops). He interfered with the work of foreign weapons inspectors frequently, and ultimately expelled them, but never killed or harmed them. He brutally attacked Shia resistance forces in southern Iraq in 1991, after it became clear that the first Bush administration would not interfere to stop such operations, but generally avoided brutality against Kurds in the north once the United States made clear its commitment to their security. In 1996, he did direct an incursion into Kurdish parts of Iraq-but only after internecine warfare among Kurds, and an explicit invitation to him to intervene by one of the Kurdish factions, made it unlikely that the United States would be in a position to oppose him.
There is counterevidence. Saddam tried to kill former President George Bush in 1993, an action that, if successful, might very well have led to a U.S. operation to assassinate him. Saddam might also think he could assist al Qaeda or a similar organization, providing it with biological agents or other material support, and not be caught doing so. But he also knows that we have a proven ability to track meetings between his agents and potential terrorists and that we can often trace the origins of chemical or biological agents based on their genetic content, particle size, chemical coating, or other
attributes. Thus while there is a chance his cooperation with terrorists could succeed in escaping detection, there is a better chance that we would figure out what he was up to. For a person like Saddam who cherishes his hold on power, the odds would probably not seem favorable. And as for the attempted assassination, now that Saddam recognizes our intelligence capabilities, he appears to have thought better of his vendetta against the former American president, and has not again tried to have him or any other American heroes from the 1991 Gulf War killed.
Deterrence could fail in the future nonetheless, at least in a limited way. In particular, if Saddam had a nuclear weapon, he would still almost surely be deterred from directly attacking the United States or its NATO allies. But he might take greater risks in the Middle East and Persian Gulf in the belief that his new weapon effectively guaranteed his regime's survival, making U.S.-led intervention to thwart his regional ambitions less likely except in the most extreme of circumstances.
What might Saddam do under such circumstances? Perhaps he would seize the oil field on his border with Kuwait that was the purported original cause of the 1990 Iraq-Kuwait crisis. Or he might violate the safe haven in his country's Kurd region and seek to reestablish brutal Ba'ath party rule over that minority population. He might escalate his support for anti-Israeli terrorism, stoking radicals and suicide bombers and trying to provoke Israel into an overreaction. Given his propensity for miscalculation, he might think he could get away with actions that we would in fact find unacceptable, causing a failure of deterrence and a much greater risk of war. In a worst case, on his deathbed he might decide to attack Israel with nuclear weapons for purposes of simple vengeance, and to ensure his mark upon Arab history books.
This situation would be at least somewhat risky, even if not mortally perilous to the United States, so the case for preventing Saddam from getting nuclear weapons is strong. But the argument that he can be deterred, and has been deterred, from taking most types of dangerous actions is also strong. That situation could clearly change in the event of a war targeting his regime, however.
As noted, this section as well as several others draw in part on my recent article with Philip H. Gordon and Martin
See International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 2001/2002 (Oxford: Oxford University
For methods of estimating how large invading and occupying combat forces must be, see Michael O'Hanlon, Saving Lives with Force (Brookings, 1997). See Christopher J. Bowie, The Anti-Access Threat and Theater Air Bases (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2002), p. 17. See Central Intelligence Agency, CIA World Fact Book 2001 [http://www.odci.gov/cia publications/factbook/index.html].
Statement to the House Armed Services Committee
Eliot A. Cohen, Professor of Strategic Studies
October 3, 2002
Thank you for inviting me to testify today before you on the question of American policy towards Iraq. The argument that I can put to you is easily summarized: it is that the choice before the United States is a stark one, either to acquiesce in a situation which permits the regime of Saddam Hussein to restore his economy, acquire weapons of mass destruction, and pose a lethal threat to his neighbors and to us, or to take action to overthrow him. In my view, the latter course, with all of its risks, is the correct one. Indeed, the dangers of failing to act in the near future are unacceptable. To that end Congress should authorize the President to initiate large scale military action against Iraq, and give him the widest possible latitude in acting - even in the absence of additional UN authorization to do so. Let me describe the nature of our conflict with Iraq, outline the two strategic options open to us, and briefly consider the implications of that choice. A famous saying has it that war is a continuation of policy by other means. In the case of Saddam Hussein, however, “policy is a continuation of war by other means." Saddam Hussein has waged war against the United States and the community of civilized states since 1991. After the successful conduct of air and ground operations in January and February of that year, many Americans thought that the war had ended. We cleaned up the equipment, brought back most of the troops, held victory parades, and congratulated ourselves. The government believed, as did many observers, that Saddam would surely fall. At worst, UN inspections would finish the job bombing had begun: the United States would neuter the regime even if we did not destroy it. How wrong we were. Under the eyes of American soldiers, Saddam's soldiers massacred Iraqi citizens hoping for liberation. The UN inspections, backed as they were by American and foreign intelligence, and imposed upon an Iraq still reeling from a battlefield debacle, uncovered dismaying facts: that the Iraqi nuclear program, for example, was far more extensive and advanced than we had known - and that most of it had escaped destruction. We learned too that Iraqi research on and production of chemical and biological weapons were well in advance of anything suspected before the war. Unlike the case of nuclear weapons, moreover, even the brave and dedicated professionals working for the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) could not stay ahead of a cunning opponent who intended to retain these weapons at all costs. Indeed, by 1999 the Iraqi regime had outmaneuvered us, and negotiated the replacement of UNSCOM by the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) a far weaker organization working at arms' length from the United States and her allies. And UNMOVIC has, of course, been a dead letter for some time. To these undisputed facts add the Iraqi attempt on the life of the first President Bush, Iraq's sponsorship of suicide-bombing in Israel, its ceaseless torrent of hatred and incitement directed against Americans and the United States, its hosting of terrorists (to include the late, unlamented Abu Nidal), and its training relationship with al-Qaeda. Let us remember above all that on a daily basis, the Iraqi military does its best to kill
Testimony of Eliot A. Cohen
American and British pilots maintaining the southern and northern no-fly zones, put in place with UN support. If repeated and brazen attempts to shoot down American aircraft are not acts of war, I do not know what is. If we have escaped without loss it is a tribute to our skill, and his bad luck. The United States has been at war with Iraq since 1991. Only the level of violence has changed, not the substance of the relationship or the intentions of the Iraqi regime. Since the middle of the 1990's Iraq has been winning this phase of the war. It has done so despite the best efforts of American diplomats and soldiers, to include short campaigns such as operation DESERT FOX in 1998. Iraq has violated numerous Security Council resolutions and injunctions with impunity; it has successfully dismantled the UN inspections regime, which, unfortunately, was only partly effective in the best of times. It has slipped out from under sanctions as well. Today Iraq produces something on the order of 2.4 million barrels of oil a day, up from a postwar low of 300,000 barrels, and not far short of pre-1991 rates. The stark facts are that inspections are dead, and sanctions are dead. They cannot be resurrected. There are too many countries that will assist Saddam in preventing us from bringing them back to life. They have multiple motives: greed, desire to curry favor with Baghdad, anxiety about domestic opinion, a principled horror of war, a desire to take the United States down a peg or two, fear of the precedent set by the overthrow of this kind of regime or the consequences that could flow from it. The international argument about inspections is therefore a sham, a mask for other concerns and intentions. There can be no question of Iraqi good faith. It does not exist. Everything - everything - that a decade's worth of experience can teach us is that we have only two choices: deterrence of the regime or its overthrow. But is Saddam Hussein, in the long run, deterrable? He has twice launched ruinous, unprovoked wars of aggression against his neighbors; he has attempted to assassinate a former American president; he has evinced an unshakeable determination to acquire the most lethal weapons devised by man; he has shown a willingness to use them, on civilians first and foremost, beginning with his countrymen. He is a man who swam to power in a pool of blood, and who has exercised power not merely with brutality, but with a sadism notable even by the standards of the last century. His daily discourse is that of slaughter, and his deeds match his words. An argument from deterrence is a declaration of faith in the rationality of Saddam Hussein. It is an argument that he will not fulfill his repeated, specific, and bloody threats directed against us, his neighbors, and Israel. It is an assertion that he will refrain from the use of biological weapons that have no “return address.” It is a contention that he understands power, justice, prestige, and above all revenge more or less as we do. It is a belief that is contradicted by his career, which is one of ferocity, miscalculation, and destruction.
That leaves us the choice of war, as problematic as that may be. What are our prospects in such a case?
It is unwise to forecast costs and casualties: I recall the debate before the Gulf War of 1991, and how completely wrong such estimates turned out to be – even those made by
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