The Choice on Iraq

The current crisis is often represented as being caused by Iraq’s refusal to comply with UN resolutions to give up its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programmes. Therefore, the argument goes, Iraq will only comply if major military threats are made, and anyway as Saddam Hussein has never complied so far, we have to be prepared to go to war to get rid of him. This crisis and indeed the failure to complete the disarmament of Iraq and thus bring about the lifting of the sanctions which have devastated Iraqi society are actually a product of the US agenda of seeking the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Despite the assertions about Iraqi non-compliance, in December 1998 the UN weapons inspectors reported that

– Iraq’s nuclear weapon programme had been eliminated ‘efficiently and effectively’
– the elimination of Iraq’s chemical weapon and missile capabilities was almost complete
– disarmament work remained in the biological weapon area
– Iraq had still to provide further information in all areas
– Iraq had agreed in principle to long-term monitoring but not to a specific system.

On the other elements of UN Security Council Resolution 687, Iraq has recognised Kuwait, has returned some but not all Kuwaiti property, has returned some but not all missing persons, is paying compensation though it has denied liability in principle, has not sponsored international terrorism for 10 years according to the CIA but has denied  ever sponsoring it and is not yet allowed to export oil for the purpose of servicing its external debt.

In other words, far from simply not complying, Iraq had complied with most of what had been asked of it (however grudgingly). It is a fantasy that, as is so often said, Iraq will never comply as long as Saddam is in charge. Furthermore, the UN resolutions allow for partial relaxation of sanctions in reward for partial compliance but this was never offered.
It is a myth, frequently and conveniently repeated by those in favour of war, that Iraq ‘expelled’ or ‘threw out’ the weapons inspectors. Nor is it true that Iraqi non-cooperation forced the inspectors to leave. What happened was that just before the weapon inspectors were due to report very extensive if incomplete Iraqi compliance in 1998 (as indicated above), US President Bill Clinton, lauded at the recent Labour Party conference for his great wisdom on Iraq decided to bomb Iraq with Blair’s backing, and told the chief weapons inspector Richard Butler he should get the weapon inspectors out so as not to be present during the bombing. Butler made a personal decision not authorised by the Security Council to order them out. The US and Britain then launched their Operation Desert Fox bombing of Iraq without Security Council approval. Iraq refused from that point until September 2002 to allow inspectors related to resolution 687 back into the country.

If US policy really has been driven by a perceived need to disarm Iraq then it has been irrational. Its response to incomplete but extensive compliance has been to label it non-compliance, force the withdrawal of those doing the disarming, bomb Iraq and call for the overthrow of Iraq’s leader. This hardly creates any incentive to comply any further. There has always been a significant thread of US and British opinion who have feared that Iraq will comply because sanctions might then be lifted.

Disarmament of Iraq has not been the top priority for the United States: instead, its priority, stated all along has been to keep the pressure on for as long as it takes to get rid of Saddam Hussein (as Mil Rai puts it, leadership change, not regime change, which they are actually very frightened of, as indicated by their response to the 1991 uprising: they want rid of him, not the brutal system that runs Iraq). How serious the US has been about this objective has varied, but all along disarmament has been subordinated to the overthrow policy. If Iraq had complied fully despite the bombing, maybe the US would have been forced to accept the lifting of the sanctions. That is indeed my guess. But it is also possible that the US would have been able to ensure that Iraq was never declared to be fully in compliance. And it doesn’t change the point that US policy makes no sense if it is meant to be aimed at prioritising getting rid of Iraq’s prohibited weapon programmes. The official US policy objective of overthrowing Saddam represents non-compliance with the very UN resolutions with which Iraq is meant to comply. The leadership change agenda has fundamentally undermined the disarmament agenda.
Saddam Hussein is not crazy. He is rational, though he miscalculates. While certainty is impossible, his priorities and goals can be deduced from his actions. After he was forced out of Kuwait, his aim was to receive a clean bill of health from the UN weapons inspectors and get the sanctions lifted while still secretly maintaining most of his prohibited weapon programmes. Eventually it became clear that this was not going to work, and he accepted that he would have to give up all or virtually all of those programmes in order to get the sanctions lifted. The UN and various governments sought to reassure him that the US would be forced to go along with the lifting of the sanctions. However, with the US using the weapons inspectors to spy on Iraq (another fact almost totally absent from current news coverage) and the US proclaiming that the sanctions would never be lifted until Saddam Hussein was out of power, Iraqi incentives to disarm were being undermined. When the US forced the withdrawal of the inspectors and bombed Iraq, Saddam Hussein faced the prospect of indefinite sanctions and a US policy officially committed to his overthrow. It is hardly surprising that he may have made efforts to revive prohibited weapons programmes.
Only nuclear weapons are really weapons of mass destruction (meaning only one of which is necessary for vast and rapid destruction). With 19 years up to 1991, $18,000 million, lots of international assistance and little monitoring, Iraq failed to build a nuclear weapon. With little time, money or assistance, and lots of people watching, it is utterly implausible that Iraq has managed to make much headway after restarting virtually from scratch since December 1998. Making biological and chemical weapon agents is easy: turning those agents into a weapon is vastly more difficult. Finding a way of then delivering those weapons in a way which can inflict large numbers of casualties or doing so with any kind of reliability is very much harder still. Many such weapons have to be used in just the right conditions and require that no serious counter-measures betaken. Iraq lacks a capability to attack the US and Britain directly with such weapons, and has at most a highly limited and unreliable capability to use them even against forces invading Iraq. Saddam Hussein knows that using such weapons would prompt such a massive US and British response that it would be suicidal and pointless in anything other than the last gasp of trying to avoid total defeat during an invasion. Iraq is now a shattered society with a disintegrating infrastructure; a demoralised, impoverished population after the bombing (continuing on a weekly basis by US and British aircraft) and sanctions of the last 12 years. With a total debt of something in the region of $200 billion (including compensation awarded against it by the UN for the invasion of Kuwait), Iraq has a staggering debt to exports ratio that makes it the most indebted state in the world, alongside Rwanda and Sudan. To be piled on top of this is whatever portion is awarded of the $217 billion of further compensation claims against Iraq. The threat from Iraq is not imminent or grave. And if, despite all this, you still think the threat from Iraq is imminent or grave, all the more reason not to undermine the UN disarmament agenda.
Maybe, just maybe, a war would result in a quick Iraqi military collapse, the advent of democratic government in Iraq, the lifting of the sanctions and an economic revival necessary for the relief of at least some of the extreme and crushing poverty in Iraq. But the recent US-led wars in both Afghanistan and Kosovo show that prosperity and freedom did not follow even with quick military victory, and there is no reason to think that this case will be any different.

Whatever the outcome for ordinary Iraqis, the US wants its war, with rationales coming and going daily. The excuse that war would be necessary if Iraq did not readmit the weapons inspectors has now been dumped. The new excuse being worked on by the US is a new UN Security Council resolution designed to be impossible for Iraq to accept, including the stationing of US forces throughout Iraq in a replay of the US manoeuvre at Rambouillet designed to ensure that the US could bomb Yugoslavia.
The US can be stopped, mainly because the US elite and the Western elite more broadly is deeply divided by a war crisis brought about by the recent dominance of the Rumsfeld-Perle-Wolfowitz faction since the September 11 attacks on the United States. What is not helping is that the dominant and false framing in news coverage is that this is very much a crisis of Iraqi non-compliance with UN disarmament requirements. The reality is that the crisis is one of continuing US non-compliance gand unwillingness to respond to Iraqi compliance with most of what has been asked of it.  To put it bluntly, we are heading for war on the basis of lies (some of the people making the argument for war now know what the truth is) and self-deception (some of them believe their own propaganda). What is needed are efforts to force the United States to drop its  overthrow agenda and accept the UN disarmament agenda. In addition, the elements of the UN sanctions which are causing a continuing humanitarian disaster in Iraq must on principle be lifted immediately. And for the longer term, three things are needed. First, the weapon programmes of Israel and others must be addressed as it is unrealistic to expect Iraq to accept them indefinitely without response. Second, Iraq’s debt and compensation burdens must be reduced to take into account the share of the responsibility of Western and Arab governments and institutions for being willing to lend money to fund Saddam Hussein’s crimes and follies. And third we must work to ensure that our own governments are no longer able to build up such dictators only to knock them down when they step out of line.


Dr. Eric Herring is Senior Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Bristol. His research visit to Iraq in April 2002, on which this article draws, was funded by the Nuffield Foundation Grant Number SGS/00665/G. Some of his other writings on Iraq and other subjects can be viewed at

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