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Will George Jr Go the Same Way As His Father? With New Talk of an Attack on Iraq, January 2002 is Looking More and More Like January 1991

18 January 2002

After Kabul, is Baghdad next? The United States-led offensive against Iraq began 11 years ago this week. Now there is talk among some Americans that the current President Bush should complete the task begun by the previous President Bush. But the current President Bush has basically the same problems to address as his father. An attack on Iraq would be a mistake.

Ironically, the US policy since 1991 has not been a complete failure. By Machiavellian standards, the US has made the best of a bad situation. The difficulty is that the reasoning has been so Machiavellian that US governments have had problems explaining their objective to the general population.

The objective has been to keep Saddam Hussein down but not out. This has been based on three themes. First, the problem in 1991 was that the US had maintained a very broadly based coalition (an achievement in itself) with the narrow objective of pushing Iraq out of Kuwait. The coalition would probably not have held together if the objective had been expanded to invade Iraq itself. Therefore, an attack on Iraq would have shattered that coalition.

Second, assuming that the US could have extended its objective to include an attack on Iraq, it was presented with a choice of two objectives, both of them unpleasant.

On the one hand, if it had had the limited objective of simply killing Saddam, there was no obvious replacement for him. He had already killed everyone he suspected of not being fully loyal to him.

If the US had installed its own leader, then that person would have been tainted as being the US's preference, not the Iraqi one. On the other hand, if the US had decided on the larger objective of destroying Iraq, then it would have created a power vacuum to be filled by either Iran or Syria - neither of which was pro-US.

Indeed, the US in the 1980s had been arming Iraq to fight Iran. Thus, the US decided to stay with Saddam.

Third, the US hoped that the objective of keeping Saddam down but not out would give time for his eventual rehabilitation. After all, he had been willing to accept US weapons in the 1980s in his war against Iran (which had become the US's enemy in 1979, with the overthrow of the Shah of Iran).

It is true that he treated the Kurds badly in northern Iraq but, then, so did Ankara (a NATO ally) in eastern Turkey. Also, he was not a fanatical Muslim. On the contrary, women enjoyed slightly more freedom in Iraq than in Kuwait. He was an Arab nationalist - not a Muslim fundamentalist.

It was possible, then, to see a time when he would be rehabilitated. Admittedly he had been demonised in US politics. But the public can have a short memory if the White House wants to put the spin in another way. After all, President Reagan designated the Soviet Union as the "Evil Empire" in 1983 but Mikhail Gorbachev was a superstar in the US in 1988. Opinions can change. So what went wrong? Saddam failed to give the US the excuse to lift the sanctions and rehabilitate him. No-one in 1991 predicted that there would still be a need for the sanctions 11 years later. Many of his people have suffered since 1991 but he has not. He has not seen the need to change his ways or become more conciliatory.

Thus, in January 2002 we are back to where we were in January 1991: debating whether to attack Iraq. But the obstacles remain the same. First, there is still no obvious replacement for Saddam. If the US went for the larger objective to smash Iraq, then Syria and Iran are still not much more friendly towards the US than they were in 1991. Also, if Iraq were to break up there could be the regional instability of the Kurds in northern Iraq helping the Kurds in eastern Turkey to also break away.

This is the era of postmodern warfare. There are no clear "ends" to wars. You can never be sure that you have "won" (or "lost"). The US-led forces in 1991 inflicted great damage on Iraq - but they could not guarantee a change of heart. The US has "won" the war in Afghanistan - but will it win the peace?

Keith Suter
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald © 2002 Sydney Morning Herald

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