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Iraq Special Report

  What's Missing Is a Stronger Justification From the President

By Lee H. Hamilton

Sunday, February 22, 1998; Page C01

Nothing focuses the attention of the American public so much as the prospect of war. As the Albright-Berger-Cohen event at Ohio State shows, and as members of Congress learned firsthand this past week, the American people are overflowing with questions -- good, tough questions -- about U.S. policy toward Iraq: What are the risks of military action? What are the risks of not acting? Why does Iraq make a difference, and what is the U.S. national interest? What is it we are trying to accomplish, what is our long-term strategy and why aren't we getting more help from our friends in the region?

Polls notwithstanding, the Clinton administration still has a heavy burden of persuading the American public.

Many Americans remain deeply skeptical about the use of force. While the administration has begun to lay the groundwork for public support of its policy, the president must explain how his policy directly serves the U.S. national interest.

Every president I have known has talked about the Persian Gulf as vital to that interest. Vital means vital. Vital means you are prepared to go to war. The stability and prosperity of the Western world requires that we maintain access to the region's energy resources at tolerable prices. We need to prevent any hostile power from gaining control over those resources.

Iraq's weapons of mass destruction are the biggest threat to U.S. interests in the Gulf. Saddam Hussein has used those weapons many times: against Iran and against the people of his own country. He is still developing those weapons and the means to deliver them. There is little doubt that he will use those weapons again, unless the world stops him. We must send a clear message to tyrants and aggressors that they cannot flout the will of the international community.

How should we respond? We have three basic options in the current crisis: 1) Continue a diplomatic approach, without resorting to force; 2) try to eliminate Saddam Hussein; or 3) use force as part of a continuing policy to contain Iraq and its weapons programs.

Option one would ordinarily be the preferred choice. The problem is that, after months of effort, there is no indication that diplomacy alone can meet our fundamental requirements. A genuine diplomatic solution must include unfettered access for U.N. weapons inspectors to all suspect sites in Iraq, and full compliance with all U.N. resolutions. Weapons inspectors have dismantled more of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction than were destroyed in the entire Gulf War. They need to return and continue their work.

I favor the continuation of diplomatic efforts, including the involvement of Kofi Annan, the U.N. secretary general. But I also realize, after many months of shuttling, that this impasse simply may be beyond a diplomatic solution. Time is not now on the side of diplomacy. The longer the break in inspections, the greater the risks of Iraqi weapons to the region and to the world.

Option two (getting rid of Saddam Hussein) is very popular. He is a liar and tyrant, and he created this crisis. He has blocked U.N. inspectors and consistently concealed his weapons programs. Frustrations with him run high, and the world would be better off if he were gone. Yet those who want to go after him don't have a plan that would work.

Any plan to overthrow him would involve huge risks and enormous costs. Even if we invaded Iraq with several hundred thousand troops and occupied Baghdad, there is no guarantee we would find him. There would surely be heavy U.S. casualties, and we would have little support for such military action. Without support in the region, where would we put our troops to launch such an attack in the first place?

Option three is to use force as part of a continuing policy to contain Iraq and its weapons programs. Containing Iraq should be the clearly stated purpose of a heavy and sustained aerial assault. Our paramount strategic interest, as the president has stated, is to diminish the threat posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, and diminish Iraq's capacity to threaten its neighbors.

The American people want a clear and final resolution of the crisis Saddam Hussein has created. Such a resolution, however, is not feasible and not necessary to protect U.S. interests. Containment will take patience and persistence, but it reasonably serves the American national interest at a price we are willing to pay.

What should be our long-term strategy?

There must be no doubt that the U.S. military plans to remain in the Gulf, in order to deter aggression and preserve stability.

If we are to keep international support for sanctions against Iraq, we must strongly support food and medicine for the Iraqi people. We should advocate more humanitarian relief for Iraq -- with more monitors inside Iraq. Saddam Hussein should be the one who says no, not us.

The United States has to articulate clearly when sanctions will be lifted. We should support the lifting of sanctions when U.N. Security Council resolutions are fulfilled, period. To say or suggest that sanctions will never be lifted so long as Saddam Hussein is in power gives him no incentive to comply with U.N. resolutions. The more we tie the lifting of sanctions to Saddam's overthrow, the more we will lose international support for continuing sanctions.

Whether we agree with them or not, the Gulf states see a connection between progress in the Middle East peace process and support for our policy toward Iraq. We need to reinvigorate the peace process in order to protect and promote our interests in this volatile region. We can be -- and should be -- irritated about the attitudes of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states toward the use of force from their territory. Yet any U.S. military effort in the Gulf is less effective without their support.

Even as we need to contain Iraq, we need to scrap the policy of "dual containment." Our efforts to isolate and contain Iran have not only failed, they have weakened the international coalition against Iraq. Iran still poses many problems for the United States -- its record of terrorism, its own weapons of mass destruction programs, and its opposition to the Middle East peace process. But an elected president in Iran supports change in U.S.-Iranian relations, and the immediate threat is Iraq -- not Iran.

The United States should continue to explore ways of weakening Saddam Hussein. There is a long list of suggestions -- establishing Radio Free Iraq, indicting Saddam Hussein, extending the no-fly and no-drive zones in Iraq, lifting sanctions in areas outside the control of Iraqi authorities and supporting opposition groups. Some of these ideas have merit, and it is worthwhile to ratchet up the pressure on the regime. But the several dozen Iraqi opposition groups spend more time fighting with each other than fighting the stated enemy in Baghdad. We also should be realistic: if 500,000 ground troops did not unseat Saddam Hussein in 1991, it is unlikely that lesser steps can accomplish that goal.

What about Congress?

The administration has made a substantial effort to consult with the congressional leadership about Iraq. But what the country needs now is more direct involvement by the president. He is the commander-in-chief, and only he can persuade Congress and the American people of the need to use force.

Remarkably, Congress let its first three weeks of work in 1998 slip by without any debate on U.S. policy toward Iraq. The House and Senate leadership prepared a resolution in support of the use of force, but deep differences in both parties and both chambers -- as to whether the resolution constitutes a blank check, whether the United States has a long-term strategy to deal with Iraq -- stopped them from bringing it to the floor.

Congress has a responsibility to act. The debate before the Gulf War was long and heated, but it was one of Congress's finest moments -- when a serious issue was discussed fully and thoughtfully, and Congress voted to back the use of force. There is no doubt that the president's hand was strengthened by the Gulf War debate, because of the legitimacy and support that emerged from the vote in Congress.

Congress should debate and vote on the question of using force against Iraq before military action occurs.

Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana is the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on International Relations.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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