If war is not the answer, what is?

August 23, 2002

It's not enough to oppose confrontation with Saddam - the world must come up with an alternative that does not abandon the Iraqi people to endless suffering, says Christoph Bluth

We don't know when and we don't know how but if we believe the pronouncements of President George W. Bush, the war to eliminate the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein is coming. A massive international confrontation is being played out in slow motion.

The US administration is driven by the conviction that Saddam poses a danger to international security, that Iraq supports international terrorism and that it is likely that at some time in the future it will have nuclear weapons at its disposal.

In line with the national security concept that has emerged since September 11, the US is committed to deal with threats before they have fully emerged. The US perceives itself as the dominant military and economic power in the world and likely to remain so for some time to come.

Moreover, under Bush it believes that the United Nations is not capable of dealing with conflicts and threats to international security, especially in the age of international terrorism, and that the laws of war are insufficient to address the new threat. Its astonishing success in Afghanistan has reinforced the perception of US superiority to the point that an impression is taking hold that America can do virtually anything. Hence the debate as to whether Saudi Arabia should be officially considered an enemy of the US for harbouring terrorists and be targeted with a view to seizing its oilfields.

The case against Saddam is that his is a murderous and criminal regime that oppresses its own population, poses a threat to its neighbours and is engaged in a sustained effort to develop weapons of mass destruction in violation of UN Security Council resolutions. Moreover, it supports international terrorism and is developing long-range missiles that could attack western countries in the future.

These arguments are not without merit. Given the record of the Iraqi regime, there seems little doubt that Iraq remains a threat to its neighbours. Saddam has been continuously at war since he attacked Iran in 1979. After the Iran-Iraq war, he went to war against the Kurds inside Iraq, using chemical and biological weapons. Then he invaded Kuwait, and since the Gulf war he has continued to launch attacks on the Kurds in northern Iraq, has fired on Allied planes patrolling the no-fly zone and engaged in major military operations against Shiites inside Iraq. Saddam's ambitions are not a secret. He wants to be the leading power in the region and to lead the effort to destroy Israel. And even though he has no proven links with Al Qaida, he has advocated terrorist attacks on the US in the past.

It has to be said that Iraq's armed forces are in a very bad state. Lack of equipment and the poor state of existing equipment are matched by poor morale. This is principally a consequence of sanctions since the end of the Gulf war. Thus containment has been effective in keeping the Iraqi threat at bay. It is difficult therefore to argue that Iraq represents an imminent threat.

What worries western policy-makers is that this is an unstable equilibrium. There is continuous pressure to weaken sanctions and ease the constraints applied to Iraq. Before the Gulf war, 70 per cent of Iraqi gross domestic product was spent on the armed forces, and if Iraq were to have more money from oil sales it would be able to rebuild its capabilities. More important, it could resume the production of long-range missiles and eventually develop missiles capable of reaching western Europe or even the US. Finally, even if containment continues successfully, all available evidence indicates that the completion of an Iraqi nuclear weapon is only a matter of time.

Attempts to enlist the Iraqi opposition in an effort to topple the regime from within have ended in dismal failure and are no longer considered viable. There is no doubt that a substantial deployment of military forces (involving at least 250,000 troops) could defeat Iraq's army and dislodge the regime. Given that it is likely to involve combat on the streets of Baghdad, the casualties could be substantial. More important still is the problem of how to rebuild the country and establish a legitimate and effective government in the aftermath of such a war. Given the internal divisions in the country, the problems of nation-building will be enormous and there is no indication that serious thought has been given to it. A post-Saddam Iraq is likely to be a chaotic and lawless place and would require the commitment of US forces for a considerable time.

The British government is the only one to express some support for a war on Iraq, but prime minister Tony Blair has been rather coy in making the case for what is an unpopular cause in the Labour Party. He has focused on the issue of weapons of mass destruction. But the aim of eliminating Saddam is irreconcilable with the obvious diplomatic solution of returning UN inspectors to Iraq, and the Iraqi leadership has been quick to expose this. As a result, British policy remains in confusion.

Critics of the war plan in the UK have asked the government to release evidence about Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction. It declined, presumably so as not to compromise intelligence sources. However, even though the government is failing to make its case, more than enough information is already in the public domain through the publications of former UN weapons inspectors as well as those of Iraqi defectors such as Khidihir Hamza, one of the architects of the Iraqi atomic bomb. They not only prove the case convincingly but also give a fair assessment of Iraqi programmes and capabilities. Iraq maintains the capability to produce and employ chemical weapons. Iraq has loaded VX agent into dozens of R-400 aerial bombs and seven warheads for al-Hussein missiles as well as hundreds of short-range rocket warheads and artillery shells. It is conceivable that these weapons will be used in any battle for Baghdad.

Iraq also has an active biological weapons programme and is known to have weaponised anthrax. Several al-Hussein warheads with biological agents are believed to exist. Iraq is believed to possess a mobile biological weapons production facility. The destruction of ballistic missiles with a range of more than 150km was a major objective of Unscom and was largely achieved, despite Iraqi efforts to defeat it. But Unscom believes that seven al-Hussein long-range missiles escaped destruction and that there is an operational al-Hussein brigade in existence. It is believed that 25 more missiles can be assembled quickly from stored components. It is also believed that it would take Iraq six months to reconfigure its manufacturing base to produce long-range missiles.

What about nuclear weapons? Iraq came very close to developing a nuclear weapon before 1991. According to Hamza, it produced a device capable of a nuclear explosion equivalent to a few kilotons of TNT. What it lacked was a complete nuclear core. Despite UN inspections, the effort to develop nuclear weapons has continued. The lack of fissile materials remains the biggest obstacle to its completion, but it is believed that Iraq has retained enough components to assemble about 25 weapons. A centrifuge-enrichment capability that has been maintained in operation since 1994 may in future enable Iraq to produce enough highly enriched uranium to produce nuclear weapons.

Even though there is substance to the threat assessment, there are serious arguments against a premeditated war against Iraq: n A deliberate war against a country that is not based on self-defence against an actual attack or an intervention against severe violations of human rights goes against all the prevailing conceptions of a just war

* There is no justification for such an action in international law without a UN Security Council resolution, and it is unlikely that the US would seek or obtain such a mandate

* Any such war is likely to result in considerable loss of civilian life

* A war against Iraq could destabilise the region and increase tension between Islamic countries and the West.

While these arguments have much salience, it is also important to consider the alternatives. Some of those who criticise the plans for war have also been prominent critics of sanctions. Nevertheless, to abandon containment poses uncertain risks. At the same time there are serious moral problems about containment. It abandons the Iraqi people to a murderous and barbaric dictatorship for an indefinite period. It means the international community remains in a cold war that results in great suffering for many innocent people. It prevents the economic revival of a potentially great and prosperous nation, the emergence of democracy and Iraq's reintegration into the international community. Moreover, it may not work in the long run.

There is no doubt that the course on which the US government is set is dangerous and to a certain degree reckless. At the same time, it is necessary to be realistic about the nature of the Iraqi regime. It is not good enough to oppose the war. The international community must develop a more creative approach towards relations with Iraq that will bring about real change.

Christoph Bluth is professor of international studies at the Institute for Politics and International Studies, University of Leeds.

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