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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Limiting Aims in Iraq




At first glance, the situation in the Persian Gulf appears familiar. Once again, Saddam Hussein and Iraq have defied the norms and will of the international community, and once again, a U.S.-led coalition is being readied to use military force. Meanwhile, diplomats from Russia, France and the Arab world are scurrying about in an effort to find a last minute compromise that both Washington and Baghdad can live with.


But appearances are deceiving: 1998 is not 1991, and this crisis is all but certain to prove vastly different from -- and more difficult than -- Desert Storm for the United States.


The context is less clear-cut. Iraq's invasion and attempted absorption of Kuwait was a stark act of aggression that shocked the world. The current standoff over Iraq's refusal to allow unlimited inspection of sites where it is suspected of producing or concealing biological agents is to many less compelling, especially because we cannot show that Iraq has these weapons, only that we cannot be confident it does not.


Seven years of confrontation with Iraq have taken their toll. France and Russia, owed billions of dollars from pre-Gulf War deals, are eager to enter into new commercial arrangements with Iraq. President Bill Clinton cannot expect anything like the same degree of diplomatic and military backing that President George Bush arranged. Meanwhile, sympathy is widespread for the Iraqi people -- and opposition to economic sanctions is growing, most notably in the Arab world.


A perceived double standard -- American determination to press Iraq contrasted with our reticence to press Israel -- has reinforced Arab reluctance to join with Washington.


This change in Arab sentiment has real consequences. Any use of military force is likely to provoke widespread rioting. Arab governments will be less forthcoming in providing access to their bases for U.S. aircraft -- and U.S. commanders won't have the luxury of conducting an air campaign that lasts six weeks.


Some observers are suggesting that the United States should not resort to military force, given these changed circumstances. It is argued that since we cannot solve the problem with bombs -- you cannot destroy what you cannot locate -- we shouldn't try.


But diplomacy alone is almost certain to fail to get us what we need -- the resumption of unconditional access to Iraq for UN weapons inspectors. Anything less is unacceptable. Even a small amount of biological agent could kill tens of thousands of people.


Others, including some in Congress, are arguing just the opposite, that the time has arrived to solve the Iraq problem once and for all, even if it takes a massive commitment of ground troops to do so.


No doubt the world would be better off without Saddam, although by how much would depend on who and what succeeded him. Iraqi politics are unlikely to produce someone committed to democracy, while a civil war that embroiled several of Iraq's neighbors would be as dangerous as it would be destructive.


The only way to ensure Saddam's ouster would be with ground forces. Such an invasion and occupation, however, would be enormously expensive in terms of American lives and dollars. It could easily turn into a nightmare: Every day that Saddam survived would be his victory, every day we persisted would increase our losses.


The best option for the United States is to attack Iraq militarily -- but for the limited purpose of coercing Saddam into allowing the inspectors back in without condition. Such attacks would probably require sustained bombardment of military units and their equipment in the hope that Saddam would relent, lest Iraq become too weak and he risk losing the support of those who keep him in power.


This is no sure thing. Any coercive use of military force leaves the initiative with the other side, and only Saddam can decide when he has had enough. The question is whether Saddam is likely to capitulate before the international support needed to mount a military campaign against Iraq dissolves. If we believe that he will, we should proceed. It is even possible that simply preparing such a massive attack will persuade Saddam to back down.


This approach -- "intense means, limited aims" -- mirrors the logic of Desert Storm. Then, the United States massed an enormous force for the purpose of liberating Kuwait and weakening Iraq's war machine. While it was hoped that a decisive victory would lead to Saddam's overthrow, we did not expand our war aims and march on Baghdad to bring this about. We feared, rightly, that doing so risked transforming what had been a quick and clear victory into a prolonged and costly quagmire.


True, the situations then and now are different. But it is hard to discern how we are better placed today to pursue more expansive aims. Americans need to control their frustration and put aside their penchant for solutions. Sometimes, managing problems is all -- and the best -- that we can do.


Richard Haass, a principal adviser to President George Bush during the Gulf War, directs foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution. He contributed this comment to the Los Angeles Times.