The Iraq hawks' bad bet.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
March 25 2003 2:37 PM

The Hawks Were Wrong

The Iraqi opposition could never have toppled Saddam.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, practically everybody condemned the attack and agreed that the land grab should not be allowed to stand. But there was disagreement over how to get Saddam Hussein to disgorge his prize. During the run-up to the first Persian Gulf War in early 1991, many critics of the first Bush administration argued that military action was inappropriate and unnecessary and that economic sanctions should be given more time to work. In retrospect, when the war itself plus a dozen further years of sanctions failed to topple Saddam, eliminate his WMD programs, or moderate his intentions, the doves' original claims about the power of nonmilitary measures looked naive, and their judgment was correctly called into question.

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Before we conclude that only doves can be proved wrong, though, it's worth dwelling for a moment on some more recent misjudgments that nearly made their way into American foreign policy. During the last several years, many hawks decided that the containment of Iraq was an insufficient goal and pushed instead for a policy of "regime change." Now that the second Persian Gulf War has been launched to topple Saddam, they can take a substantial degree of satisfaction in having set out its rationale. Yet interestingly enough, only some of the Iraq hawks' views have made their way into policy—those about ends rather than means. And for this we should all be grateful.

With a few notable exceptions (such as Robert W. Kagan and, more recently, Kenneth Pollack), the Iraq hawks' favored strategy for toppling Saddam involved supporting the Iraqi opposition and, in particular, the Iraqi National Congress. Most of the dirty work of regime change, they argued, would not have to be done by the United States, but rather could and would be done by Iraqis themselves. The only things needed from America were financial and diplomatic support, training and equipment, and air cover. The actual fighting, if there was any, would be contracted out to local forces. First sold as a replay of the Reagan Doctrine's aid to the Nicaraguan Contras and the Afghan mujahideen, this concept was later touted—after the collapse of the Taliban in late 2001—as a version of the "Afghan model" of modern war, with the INC playing the role of the Northern Alliance.

Back in 1998, Richard Perle claimed that "It would be neither wise nor necessary for us to send ground forces into Iraq when patriotic Iraqis are willing to fight to liberate their own country." If the United States were "to give logistical support and military equipment to the opposition and to use airpower to defend it in the territory it controls," the result would be "a full-blown insurrection against Saddam."

Douglas Feith argued then that "It is by no means certain that the various elements of Iraq's army would fight well, or, in some cases, at all if the US showed determination to delegitimate Saddam and to create exclusion areas to be placed under Iraqi opposition control, defended with US-supplied anti-tank weapons, and protected by the US Air Force and, only if necessary, by US ground forces."

And Paul Wolfowitz sounded a somewhat more cautious note but still scoffed at the idea that the United States would have to overthrow Saddam by itself: "I don't believe that it's as hard as it is made to sound. Maybe it's not as simple as it sometimes sounds, but it's certainly not as hard as [Clinton administration National Security Adviser] Sandy Berger makes it sound when he talks about a major land invasion of Iraq. I know there are differences between Iraq and [Soviet-era] Afghanistan, but I think it is relevant to point out that we overthrew the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan without a single American ground troop; as a matter of fact, without a single American pilot."

A good sense of what the hawks thought would happen can be found in an exchange that Perle had with Sen. Charles Robb at a Senate hearing in May 1998. When Perle claimed that "once Basra changed hands" the situation on the ground and in the region would "change dramatically," Robb pressed him on how things would get to that point: "Is someone going to have to physically stand on the Basra territory before this change in dynamic occurs? And if so, who is—which troops are going to accomplish that objective?" Perle replied, "I think Iraqi opposition elements, with relatively light armament could accomplish that, provided they were backed up by air power."

Critics of these ideas—many of them in the U.S. armed forces—argued that Saddam Hussein's regime retained a significant degree of fighting power, that the Iraqi opposition and the INC in particular had very little military capability, and that trying to topple Saddam by using the opposition to spark a "rolling insurrection" could be a disaster and would probably lead to a replay of the 1962 Cuban exile fiasco at the Bay of Pigs. In the end, sometime last year George W. Bush wisely sided with the critics. So when he took the country into war against Iraq, he did so relying not on the Iraqi opposition, but rather on the U.S. military, deployed in one of the most massive campaigns in history.

One week into that war, with hundreds of thousands of American and British troops in the region, with thousands of cruise missiles and air sorties having struck Iraq and powerful armored columns nearing Baghdad, Saddam Hussein's regime remains in command, and its forces have been able to inflict some casualties on the invaders. Basra, meanwhile, has been surrounded but has not yet fallen. Because of the devastating military approach the administration has chosen, the outcome of the war is not in doubt, and victory may even (one hopes) come quite soon. But the war's progress to date is enough to put paid to the idea that Iraq was a paper tiger and that Saddam might have fallen quickly and easily to the less-than-daunting military prowess of the INC.

Just as it took war rather than sanctions to evict Saddam from Kuwait a dozen years ago, so it will take the direct application of overwhelming U.S. power rather than support for a few opposition guerrillas to topple him today. In both cases, those who argued otherwise were mistaken—something that will bear remembering during the coming debates over when, where, and how America's unprecedented might should be deployed next.

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