Why Saddam Remains a Tough Target

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Iraqi President Saddam Hussein

Saddam Hussein understands few things as well as the calculus of power. Even before President George W. Bush all but announced his intention to go after the Iraqi regime in his State of the Union address Tuesday, Saddam was hard at work mending fences with neighbors and making gestures of appeasement to the international community. Only hours before Bush listed Iraq, Iran and North Korea as members of "an axis of evil" threatening world peace, Iraq invited a United Nations human rights commissioner to visit for the first time since ousting them in 1992. Three days earlier, Baghdad had allowed a limited inspection of a former nuclear laboratory by the International Atomic Energy Agency. And that visit coincided with a trip by Iraq's foreign minister to Tehran, for two days of talks aimed at resolving some of the issues remaining from the bloody eight-year war fought by the two countries during the 1980s. He may not be about to change his ways, but Saddam is plainly trying to sell his neighbors and the world an airbrushed image of himself as a good neighbor.

It's a timely charm offensive, of course, because the Bush administration has made no secret of the fact that it considers Saddam's overthrow an integral part of making the world safe for America. Washington may not have been able to prove any Iraq link to the September 11 terror attacks, but it has lately begun to use Saddam's delinquency over weapons of mass destruction to beat the drums of war. "The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons," the President warned. Following his warning two weeks ago that if Iraq failed to readmit U.N. weapons inspectors, the U.S. would "deal with him at the appropriate time," the message was plain.

Senior Bush administration officials have argued for some time that the Middle East and Gulf regions cannot be stabilized as long as the post-Gulf War stalemate remains in place. And despite a decade of sanctions, no-fly zones, and a pointless air campaign by the Clinton administration, Saddam's regime remains firmly entrenched. In Tuesday's address, President Bush appeared to be preparing his nation for the inevitability of a showdown.

A lonely quest

But overthrowing Saddam is not something the U.S. can do alone. Iraq is not the Taliban, in the sense that it has air defenses and a massive, well-equipped standing army, and is not dependent on military support from any of its neighbors. Also, there is no battle-hardened proxy force equivalent to the Northern Alliance to fight the ground war — the Pentagon remains skeptical of the strategic and tactical significance of the various opposition groups arrayed against Saddam's regime, and none of the European and Arab allies who fought alongside the U.S. during the Gulf War have shown any enthusiasm for a new military effort to oust the strongman. That would leave the U.S forced to commit a half million of its own troops to a decisive assault. It's not that the Arabs and Europeans don't want to see Saddam destroyed; it's simply that they can't see any urgent need to confront his regime, and risk the immediate destabilization of the region that could be spawned by its collapse. And overheated rhetoric about an "axis of evil" is unlikely to change that.

Indeed, the strategic calculations that restrained Washington from pursuing Saddam's ouster in 1991 have not changed significantly. Saddam's regime is based on a Sunni Muslim minority that constitutes some 15 percent of the population. Around 60 percent of Iraqis are Shiite Muslims, who share religious ties with Iran. And the remaining 25 percent are ethnic Kurds, whose inclination is to seek autonomy or even full independence from Baghdad. Simply put, the concern is that destroying Saddam's regime could presage the breakup of Iraq itself, dramatically expanding Iranian influence while a breakaway Kurdish region in the north proves unacceptable to Turkey as an encouragement to secessionist activity among its own Kurdish minority.

Anti-American climate

Moreover, not only does Saddam's demise pose potential threats to his neighbors; many of them actually benefit from the current impasse through the smuggling economy spawned by sanctions and Iraq's limited oil production. And the regional political climate is quite different from 1991, with anti-American feeling running at a fever pitch throughout the Arab world because of the deteriorating Israeli-Palestinian situation. The plight of the Iraqis and Palestinians are Osama bin Laden's favorite propaganda themes precisely because they are founts of hostility towards the U.S. throughout the Arab world. The last time Washington sought Arab support for taking on Saddam, it also leaned on the Israelis to make peace with the Palestinians. But having lately given Ariel Sharon carte blanche to deal with the Palestinians as he sees fit — despite the dire warnings from such allies as Saudi Arabia — the Bush administration is not going to find Arab regimes rushing to take political risks on its behalf. Indeed, consensus among the Arab governments right now leans towards rehabilitating Saddam rather than overthrowing him.

And among the Europeans, there's no appetite for any action against Iraq unless it is proved that Baghdad has been involved with al Qaeda. That has left Washington to talk up Iraq's weapons of mass destruction as a threat both to the West and its Arab neighbors, although President Bush will have a hard time convincing Europeans that Baghdad poses any imminent threat. And Saddam's current diplomatic offensive suggests that if he came to believe his regime's survival depended on it, he might even consider allowing the reconstituted U.N. inspection team back in. After all, that way he keeps the initiative. And studiously avoids making President George W. Bush's day.