October 16, 1994
Alan W. Dowd

During the week of October 3, 1994, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein began deploying elements of his 600,000-man army halfway between the southern Iraqi town of Basra and the Kuwaiti border. Three of Saddam’s best equipped, best trained, and most loyal divisions--the Republican Guard--comprised the backbone of this force. By the end of the week, Saddam had deployed 80,000 troops and hundreds of armored vehicles to his southern border. The lead elements of the invasion force were within howitzer-range of the tiny emirate of Kuwait, and within a few hours of its capital. Saddam could no longer be ignored.

The Clinton Administration’s verbal and tangible response was as surprising as it was appropriate. Mr. Clinton and his advisors countered Baghdad quickly and resolutely, warning Saddam not to repeat the mistakes of 1990, and dispatching the USS George Washington Carrier Battle Group to the Persian Gulf, where it would join an armada of 15 American and British ships. Airborne, mechanized and infantry divisions would be deployed from the States, as would a Marine Expeditionary Force of 18,000 men. At the president’s direction, the Pentagon also sent hundreds of warplanes to what was again being called the Kuwaiti Theater of Operations (KTO). By mid-month, perhaps as many as 80,000 American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines would be in place to confront the Iraqi menace. By the end of October, nearly 200,000 Americans could be deployed in the region.

Beyond Saddam’s megalomania and bloodlust, this latest Gulf crisis has its roots in two failed American foreign policies, the first of which was President Bush’s. Mr. Bush and his foreign policy team often spoke of "naked aggression" and its adverse effect on stability and the "new world order." If aggression were checked and then punished, preferably by a coalition of states, stability would return. This was a rough sketch of an achievable, if ambitious post-Cold War foreign policy--a new order in international relations. However, the Bush Administration’s mishandling of the conclusion the second Gulf War (the first was fought between Iran and Iraq; the third will be fought in the years ahead) doomed this ambitious policy.

While Mr. Bush was able to check and reverse Iraq’s aggression in Kuwait, he stopped short of punishing the man who launched the war in Kuwait--a war that claimed thousands of lives and untold billions of dollars in property. This is not historical revisionism. Even as Mr. Bush declared a premature end to the war, some observers (including myself) warned that Saddam Hussein--whose missiles rocked non-combatants in Israel, whose occupation army charred half of Kuwait and poisoned the Gulf--had emerged from Desert Storm unpunished. The Iraqi people and army paid the price for his crimes. Postwar UN sanctions did not directly affect him or his hold on power, though they systematically starved his people.

Mr. Bush’s policy of unpunished aggression was implemented in Bosnia as well, where the Bush Administration sought only to prevent the spread of war. Serbian aggression was contained but unpunished, and the war still rages. Baghdad’s aggression was challenged but unpunished, and Saddam still menaces his neighbors.

Mr. Clinton’s foreign policy can also be cited as a reason Saddam is again rattling the sabres of war. Baghdad has perceived America’s efforts in North Korea, Somalia, and Bosnia as an indication of Mr. Clinton’s willingness to compromise rather than stand firm. Saddam watched as the US negotiated with North Korea after it launched a massive military buildup along the demilitarized zone. He watched as America hastily retreated from Somalia, surrendering it to a thug that had flouted US intervention and UN resolutions. Images from the Balkans showed the Iraqi leader how effective Mr. Clinton was at dislodging the Serbs from Bosnia.

Perhaps Saddam calculated that a military buildup along the demilitarized zone between Kuwait and Iraq would earn him a seat at the negotiating table with Washington, as it did for the North Koreans. Perhaps he thought that flagrant ignorance of US-UN warnings would end in America’s departure from the region he once dominated; similar behavior was rewarded in a similar manner in Somalia. Perhaps he thought the American military had become anemic in the years since the second Gulf War; pictures from Sarajevo and Gorazde could lead him to believe exactly this.

What Saddam is thinking is clearly not as important as what made him think it. Mr. Clinton’s irresolution in other world crises gave Saddam reason to doubt American determination in any future Gulf crisis.

Similarly, what has happened is not nearly as important as what will happen. By massing five divisions on the Kuwaiti border, Saddam has given Mr. Clinton an opportunity to finish the second Gulf War, and perhaps prevent a third.

Even if Saddam’s forces continue to pull back from Kuwait, the US should continue the steady and substantial buildup currently underway in the KTO and Persian Gulf. Mr. Clinton should express the allies’ collective demand that Iraqi divisions be withdrawn to positions at least one-hundred miles north and northwest of Basra. Of course, if Baghdad delays its withdrawal, American air, ground and sea assets should obliterate the remnants of the Iraqi army and Saddam’s police state.

Short of this, Mr. Clinton should wage a different kind of war against Saddam. The president should call for the creation of an exclusion zone in Iraq, stretching from the Kuwaiti border north to the 32nd parallel, and from the Saudi border east to the Iranian border (this area would match the existing southern no-fly zone). Iraqi armor and troop concentrations larger than 500 men would be prohibited from entering this zone. The exclusion zone could be enforced in much the same manner as the no-fly zones: American reconnaissance planes monitor these areas, and US interceptors destroy the Iraqi jets that violate them. US-protected observers would be deployed throughout the exclusion zone to monitor Iraq’s compliance; American satellites, aircraft, and sea-based cruise missiles could enforce the president’s directive with immediate and punishing consequences for those forces that stray into the area. However, not only would those Iraqi assets within the exclusion zone be destroyed, so too would key facilities in Baghdad.

To the north, the US should officially recognize Iraqi Kurdistan as an independent state (its people have already elected a government), and accordingly forge full diplomatic, economic, and military ties with the Kurds. The Kurds would welcome an American military base on their soil, representing America’s commitment to free government and human rights in the former Iraq. Further, the emerging opposition movement within Iraq proper should be offered a place to develop a new government. Large swaths of territory adjacent to the free Kurdish state could be used as a proving-ground for Iraq’s post-Saddam government. This area would fall well within the American zone of protection. Another possible site for this proving-ground would be the oil-rich exclusion zone below the 32nd parallel. Opposition movements in this region could be granted oil selling rights to spur economic development as well as a massive exodus from metropolitan and suburban Baghdad, Karbala, and central Iraq.

This cold war against Saddam’s dictatorship would bind America to what we know as Iraq for many years, perhaps many decades. Dividing Saddam’s prison-state into thirds would foment sweeping and perhaps violent revolution. But with this revolution, the current Iraqi regime would succumb, and a healthier one would emerge.

Saddam’s misadventure on the Kuwaiti border has given Mr. Clinton an opportunity to dismantle that old Iraq--the one that invaded Iran and Kuwait, the one that gassed half of Kurdistan, the one that brutalized the Shi’ites in the marshlands, the one that scorched the Saudi-Kuwaiti frontier, the one that scarred Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The new Iraq awaits just beyond these painful memories, and just beyond Saddam’s regime.