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January 19, 2011
Give Diplomacy a Chance
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January/February 1998

By Spurgeon M. Keeny, Jr.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's last-minute resolution of the latest Iraqi crisis saved the United States from the potentially disastrous consequences of its planned bombing campaign against Iraq. The attack would almost certainly not have secured the rights of the UN inspectors or eliminated proscribed Iraqi weapons, but it would have seriously undercut major U.S. policy objectives.

Saddam Hussein was clearly in violation of UN Security Council resolutions when he declared eight large "presidential sites" off-limits to UNSCOM inspections. This was simply the latest maneuver in Iraq's seven-year effort to impede the mandated activities of UNSCOM and the IAEA to eliminate Iraqi nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs as well as its ballistic missiles with ranges over 150 kilometers. Despite these recurring Iraqi efforts, UNSCOM and the IAEA have been remarkably successful in dismantling Baghdad's prohibited weapons programs. In fact, UNSCOM has been responsible for the destruction of much more of Iraq's stockpiles of weapons and equipment to produce them than the bombing campaign during the Gulf War. Nevertheless, although the IAEA concluded that the nuclear weapons program had essentially been eliminated, questions remain on the disposition of chemical and biological stocks and indigenously produced ballistic missiles.

To resolve these uncertainties and determine whether clandestine efforts might be underway to reconstitute these capabilities, knowledgeable inspectors on the ground are far more valuable than smart bombs that do not know where to go. The initial U.S. objective should therefore have been to maintain the presence of UNSCOM rather than to punish Iraq for its unacceptable behavior. The successful negotiations with North Korea to eliminate its nuclear program should have been the administration's model rather than a mini-replay of the Gulf War air campaign. When the United States began the unilateral deployment of forces for air strikes against Iraq, the action had few supporters and many strong critics, including Russia, France and China, as well as most Arab countries.

It soon became clear that the proposed air strikes were unlikely to destroy remaining chemical and biological materials or production facilities whose location was not known or to topple Hussein, the ultimate cause of the problem. Such an attack would very likely have resulted in the expulsion of UNSCOM inspectors, the final collapse of the Gulf War coalition and the end of the remaining sanctions regime. Hussein might well have emerged in a stronger domestic position, perceived by many in the region as a heroic figure rather than an international scofflaw.

More serious, however, would have been the effects on broader U.S. international objectives. Rather than reinforcing U.S. leadership in maintaining the non-proliferation regime, an ineffective bombing campaign would have brought into question U.S. responsibility in the exercise of power. In particular, Russians across the political spectrum viewed the possibility of such an attack—occurring concurrently with Senate approval of NATO expansion and in total disregard of Moscow's efforts to broker a peaceful settlement—as proof of U.S. "hegemonic ambitions." Key members of the Duma vowed to postpone ratification of START II indefinitely, delaying further progress on strategic arms control for the rest of the Clinton administration. Moreover, a unilateral attack with its inevitable civilian casualties would also have undercut U.S. effectiveness as middleman in rescuing the Middle East peace process.

The United States was indeed fortunate that Kofi Annan was able to achieve a face-saving solution which commits Iraq to provide access to the controversial sites by UNSCOM inspectors accompanied by UN-selected diplomats. How much this favorable outcome depended on the U.S. military buildup in the Gulf will probably never be known, but the negative consequences of the actual use of that force are clear.

Only time can tell whether this diplomatic solution will succeed. Hussein now has to decide whether to cooperate with UNSCOM in resolving remaining questions or to exploit the reprieve to drag out the inspection process in hopes of outlasting the unity of the Security Council so that he can eventually reconstitute his prohibited weapons programs from concealed components. But, if he openly challenges the new procedures, he will build the international support for military action without the severe penalties associated with a unilateral U.S. bombing campaign.

President Clinton was wise to support Kofi Annan's initiative despite pressure from domestic supporters and adversaries to attack first and face the consequences later. The United States should not exploit the welcome respite to seek a casus belli but rather to give diplomacy a chance.