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Forcibly removing Saddam Hussein from power was arguably the most momentous act of the Bush administration, its effects profound and far-reaching. For much of the previous decade, the low-level conflict with Iraq had demonstrated how difficult it is for the United States to synchronize force and diplomacy and to apply force in precise, measured doses. It raised questions about whether and when it was necessary or effective to use overwhelming military force-and how to convince the American public and Congress of the need to do this. And it demonstrated the persisting strengths and weaknesses of the American method for strategic decisionmaking, particularly the interplay between crisis and normal decisionmaking, and the role of the uniformed military in the process.

The complex and conflictive U.S. relationship with Iraq emerged from the 1979 revolution in Iran, which threatened to destabilize the vital oil-producing Southwest Asia region. In 1980 Saddam Hussein, the brutal dictator of Iraq, decided to invade Iran, his traditional enemy, which was badly weakened by its revolution. After some initial gains, the war turned against Iraq. By 1980, the country teetered on the verge of military defeat, and the Reagan administration offered some assistance.1 However repugnant, Hussein seemed less threatening than the radical Iranian regime. U.S.-Iraqi relations flipped dramatically after Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Following Iraq's defeat by an
American-led coalition, the United States and Hussein became locked in constant conflict involving low-level military encounters and the potential for escalation.

The Iraqi leader kept his region in turmoil by refusing to comply with the conditions he had accepted in 1991 (particularly concerning his ballistic missile and weapons of mass destruction [WMD] programs), constantly testing the resolve of the United States and the world community by challenging the sanctions imposed by the United Nations (UN), and threatening renewed military action against Kuwait.

Both George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton wanted Hussein removed from power, but neither felt this warranted full-scale invasion. Historical analogies always play a powerful role in shaping strategy, and that certainly held in this case. During the Cold War, the United States had become accustomed to containing hostile states. The senior Bush and Clinton applied this logic to the Iraq problem, hoping Saddam Hussein could be contained and perhaps overthrown without major U.S. involvement (as had happened to the Soviet regime). Both feared that aggressive military action against Iraq could benefit Iran and erode American support in the Arab world. This, the two Presidents thought, was a greater risk than allowing a contained Hussein to cling to power. Strategy making often entails selecting the lesser evil from a range of bad options. That was exactly what the senior Bush and Clinton did.

As Hussein clung to power and continued to challenge the United States, frustration grew. By the mid-1990s, mid-level Clinton administration officials and Republicans outside the administration began pushing for more vigorous U.S. action. A January 1998 letter to Clinton from the Project for the New American Century (which would later provide many senior officials to the George W. Bush administration) stated that American strategy "should aim, above all, at the removal of Saddam Hussein's regime from power.

A few weeks later, 40 prominent former officials including Richard Allen, Frank Carlucci, Robert McFarlane, Donald Rumsfeld, and Caspar Weinberger, sent an open letter to President Clinton, stating,

"Only a determined program to change the regime in Baghdad will bring the Iraqi crisis to a satisfactory conclusion." In October, Congress passed H.R. 4655, the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, which made support for Hussein's opponents official U.S. policy. It called for assistance to Iraqi opposition organizations, and for the United States to push the UN to create a war crimes tribunal to prosecute Saddam Hussein and other senior Iraqi officials. But the bill also stated, "Nothing in this Act shall be construed to authorize or otherwise speak to the use of the United States Armed Forces . . . in carrying out this Act" other than providing equipment, education, and training to opposition groups.

The Clinton administration's support for the removal of Hussein proved mostly rhetorical. In December 1998, for instance, National Security Adviser Samuel Berger stated that the Clinton administration was committed to a "new government" in Baghdad but a few weeks later added that it was "neither the purpose nor the effect" of military strikes against Iraq "to dislodge Saddam from power." Apparently rejecting regime change through military intervention, Berger said:

"The only sure way for us to effect [Saddam Hussein's] departure now would be to commit hundreds of thousands of American troops to fight on the ground inside Iraq. I do not believe that the costs of such a campaign would be sustainable at home or abroad. And the reward of success would be an American military occupation of Iraq that could last years. The strategy we can and will pursue is to contain Saddam in the short and medium term, by force if necessary, and to work toward a new government over the long term."

Such vacillation added to criticism of the Clinton policy. In December 1998, a group of influential Republican senators expressed their frustration in a public letter to President Clinton: "Your decision to sign and fully implement the Iraq Liberation Act (P.L.105-338) appeared to be the change of course many of us had urged. . . . Unfortunately, it appears that your commitment to support the political opposition to Saddam Hussein has not trickled down through the Administration."

Clinton's challenge was finding a way to get rid of Hussein without a major invasion. The Iraqi dictator had, through the expansion of his security apparatus and brutal repression, virtually "coup proofed" his regime by the mid-1990s.8 While supporting Iraqi resistance movements had emotional appeal-one analyst likened it to the Reagan Doctrine of the 1980s which helped expel the Soviets from Afghanistan- most Iraq experts were skeptical that it would work.

The resistance was weak and divided; Hussein simply was too entrenched to be removed without massive and direct U.S. involvement. This demonstrated a long- standing component of U.S. national security strategy: The United States was willing to undertake major war in response to major aggression, but resisted doing so when facing ambiguous threats below the level of an outright invasion of a neighboring state.

Devoid of other options, the Clinton administration enforced UN sanctions and launched limited air strikes. The thinking behind this seemed to be that continued pressure would either compel Hussein to change his behavior or inspire the Iraqi military to overthrow him. But as the 1990s wore on, neither seemed likely. Unfortunately, Hussein proved to be a wily opponent. He provoked and challenged the United States but did so in ways that did not justify direct, large-scale military intervention. His sense of the limits of American tolerance was, at the time, accurate. Hussein allowed UN weapons inspectors into Iraq, but kept them from being able to confirm either compliance or noncompliance with UN Security Council resolutions.

And he was able to create the impression that the Iraqi people were victimized by the U.S.-enforced sanctions while insulating himself, his family, and his core supporters from the effects. While there is no doubt that the sanctions did hurt lower class Iraqis, Hussein found ways to exacerbate the damage and use this in his anti-sanctions psychological and political campaign. Some Americans bought into this (as did many Europeans and Arabs). Ultimately, though, the Clinton strategy of containment plus regime change which was based on the idea that the costs and risks of direct intervention outweighed the expected benefits, and that limited military force in small doses could have major strategic effects-did not resolve the conflict. A strategy of containment always requires patience. During the Cold War, American presidents were able to convince the public and Congress that this was necessary. Because Iraq was so much weaker than the Soviet Union, major portions of the public and Congress-particularly Republicans-saw no need for patience. Only Clinton's lack of resolve, they felt, prevented a satisfactory outcome.

The election of George W. Bush in 2000 and the September 11, 2001 (9/11) attacks led to a dramatic shift in American strategy toward Iraq. The Bush administration reassessed the feasibility, costs, and risks of regime change and of leaving Hussein in power. President Bush concluded that Hussein would never comply with the 1991 settlement, that the threat Iraq posed was growing, and that containment and limited force would neither compel compliance nor inspire the Iraqi military to overthrow the dictator. Thus, American security required his removal from power by the only method which assured definitive success: direct military action. In the broadest sense, the Bush strategy altered the calculus of strategic risk and benefit that had been the basis of U.S. policy toward Iraq in the 1990s. The result was Operation IRAQI FREEDOM...

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Page last updated Thu March 25th, 2010 at 09:36