The Blog


12:00 AM, Sep 16, 1996 • By AARON FRIEDBERG
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THOUGH IT CHANGES LITTLE and solves nothing, the Clinton administration's decision to use force against Iraq last week was clearly the right one.

Since the Gulf War ground to a ragged halt in February 1991, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein has been trying ceaselessly to wriggle free of the constraints imposed on him by the United States and its allies. Through a combination of patience, guile, and the occasional act of brutal self-assertion, Saddam has sought to wear down and divide his opponents, to evade and subvert inspection of his massive arms-production program, shake off international economic sanctions, reestablish dominion over all Iraqi territory and, ultimately, to renew his drive to become the preponderant power in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East. Saddam's defeat at the hands of the allied coalition set him back and slowed him down, but it did not deflect him from his course; nor is anything short of his eventual departure from the scene likely to do so.

Saddam's recent incursion in the Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq was opportunistic. It may even have been, in some measure, defensive. Since 1994 two Kurdish factions have been fighting each other for control of the region. This summer, the Iranians (who are at war with their own Kurdish rebels and have a long-standing grudge against Iraq) crossed into Iraqi territory and gave support to one of the Kurdish factions there. The other faction then turned to Saddam for help. Saddam seized the opportunity to limit Iran's influence inside Iraq and increase his own. By gaining access to the Kurdish town of Irbil he also stood to improve his ability to smuggle goods and supplies overland through Turkey, thereby circumventing the West's economic blockade.

Whatever their proximate cause and tactical significance, however, the Iraqi dictator's moves were also clearly intended to challenge the West and, in particular, the United States. In his choice of objective, and in his selection of the means for attaining it, Saddam aimed straight for the seams in the coalition position. Although Baghdad's ability to exert itself in the north and south has been constrained by Western military power and U.N. resolutions, those regions are still part of a single sovereign nation. And while the United States and its allies assert U.N. Resolution 688 calling on Iraq to desist from abusing the Kurds permits them to keep Iraqi aircraft from flying north of the 36th parallel, there has never been any matching ban on the use of ground forces there. When he sent over 30,000 Republican Guards north to attack Irbil and to put it back in the hands of his newfound Kurdish friends, Saddam may have hoped, both literally and figuratively, to slip in under the West's radar screen. Like Hitler reoccupying the Rhineland in 1936, Saddam apparently calculated that his enemies (or at least some of them) would be willing to shrug off his latest move as an "internal matter" in which outside interference could not be justified.

Faced with these tactics, and with a direct Iraqi refusal to heed its warnings, the United States had no choice but to respond. Not to have done so would have meant acquiescing in a violent change of the status quo.

A failure to act could only have served to bolster Saddam's standing with his people and his military, and to embolden him to undertake his next move. Hesitation or inaction on the part of the United States would also have sent a signal that our resolve was weakening and our willingness to stay the course in containing Saddam and confronting other regional aggressors was waning. Especially in light of the recent terrorist attacks on U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia, such a display of irresolution could have had serious consequences.

In responding to Saddam's latest act of aggression, the Clinton administration chose to launch cruise missiles against air-defense installations in southern Iraq and to extend northward the "no-fly zone" that has been in effect there since 1991. The objections to this course of action are unpersuasive.

First, some warn that the United States should not involve itself in the complexities of Kurdish politics. This is correct, but irrelevant. The United States has been trying to get the various Kurdish factions to patch up their differences and make common cause against Saddam. The United States does not seek to take sides with one group against the others, but rather to punish Saddam for his exploitation of their rivalry in pursuit of his own larger strategic goals. As one Pentagon official put it: "This has nothing to do with the Kurds and everything to do with Saddam."