While the presidential candidates jockey to define their agendas,
there is one issue on which both Al Gore and George W. Bush see eye to
eye: Saddam Hussein must go.
While neither candidate has offered a precise plan on how to achieve
this goal, it seems clear that regardless of who wins the White House,
the next four years will see a continuation of America's decade-long
fixation on the president of Iraq.
The problem of Iraq is complex and vexing. Over the past eight years,
the Clinton administration was trapped in a Saddam-centric policy of
regime removal, which dictated the containment of the Iraqi dictator
through economic sanctions regardless of the reality of Iraq's
disarmament obligation and the horrific humanitarian cost incurred by the
people of Iraq. This policy has been an abject failure, a fact that has
prompted much of the international community to start viewing Iraq and
its leader more sympathetically. Whoever wins the election in November
will face the daunting task of overcoming the Clinton legacy on Iraq: a
hopelessly divided Security Council, an impasse on weapons inspections, a
degenerating system of economic sanctions, the loss of American
credibility and a resurgent Saddam Hussein.
Soon, weapons inspectors from the United Nations Monitoring,
Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) will try to resume
inspections of Iraqi weapons facilities. Such inspections were stopped 20
months ago, in the aftermath of Operation Desert Fox and the resultant
collapse of UNMOVIC's predecessor organization, the United Nations
Special Commission (UNSCOM). Iraq has rejected any cooperation with
UNMOVIC as long as sanctions remain in place. The result is that, yet
again, the Security Council will be confronted with a crisis regarding
Three of the five permanent members of the Security Council--Russia,
France and China--have made no secret of their sympathies toward Iraq and
their opposition to America's Iraq policy. The rest of the world appears
more inclined to trade with Iraq than continue a pointless and morally
bankrupt policy of economic sanctions. The fact that both major
presidential candidates couch their justification for the continuation of
economic sanctions on the grounds that Saddam Hussein is still in power
and not on any sound assessment of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction
only further distances their respective positions from the rest of the
In fairness, the issue of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction is no
easy hurdle. Years of Iraqi obfuscation, lies and general lack of
cooperation have made any unbiased assessment of its disarmament
obligation virtually impossible. It is easy, given Iraq's uneven record,
to accept analysis based on speculation, rumor and hyperbole. This is the
course that many, including Richard Butler, the former executive chairman
of UNSCOM, have taken. The message of Iraq as "the greatest threat,"
however overblown, is widely accepted in those corners prone to
demonizing Iraq and Saddam Hussein.
The reality, however, is quite different. Rolf Ekeus, Butler's
predecessor as the head of UNSCOM, acknowledged that by 1995, Iraq had
been "fundamentally disarmed" and that "all that remained were
questions." All of the major confrontations between UNSCOM and Iraq that
took place between 1996 and 1998 concerned the search for documents and
weapons components, not weapons or weapons production capability.
Iraq no longer possesses meaningful quantities of weapons of mass
destruction or the means to produce such weapons. And yet Iraq continues
to be punished by economic sanctions that have directly or indirectly led
to the deaths of more than 1.2 million Iraqi civilians, primarily young
children and the elderly. The justification for this tragedy lies not in
Iraq's disarmament obligation, which has been largely fulfilled, but
rather in the policy of regime removal pursued by the United States. This
policy has failed, and yet it represents the cornerstone of the thinking
on Iraq for both Gore and Bush.
The Saddam Trap has foiled America's Iraq policy for eight years, and
unless both candidates are willing and able to break free of such
Saddam-centric thinking and focus on the larger issue of Iraq, it will
continue to ensnare America for the foreseeable future.
Scott Ritter Is a Former Weapons Inspector for Unscom and the Author of "Endgame: Solving the Iraqi Problem, Once and for All" (Simon & Schuster, 1999). E-mail: Wsritter@aol.com
Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times