The Blog

A PROPER COURSE IN IRAQ

12:00 AM, Sep 16, 1996 • By AARON FRIEDBERG
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Others complain that the administration's decision to strike sites in southern Iraq will do nothing to influence the situation in the north. This claim has merit, but is still beside the point. While the United States response may actually have impelled the Iraqis to withdraw their ground forces from Irbil, the city is now controlled by a faction beholden to Baghdad and apparently supported by Saddam's secret police. Short of striking directly at Iraqi forces in the vicinity -- a task that would require manned aircraft instead of pilotless cruise missiles, and would therefore entail greater risks of American and Iraqi civilian casualties -- the United States has no obvious way of influencing the situation on the ground.


Nor does it have any compelling need to do so. By hitting Iraqi air defenses in the south and expanding the no-fly zone, the United States has punished Saddam, while at the same time improving its ability to defend the vital oil fields of the southern Gulf and clearing the way for additional punitive actions, if and when they are required.


The two American strikes last week were measured, but they were substantial. Launching 44 cruise missiles, each packed with one or two thousand pounds of high explosives, was neither a "pinprick" attack nor a sustained, full- fledged strategic air campaign. The purpose of these strikes was to make Saddam and, even more, his military pay a price for their recent actions. With Iraq largely cut off from its prewar sources of military supply, lost hardware and flattened facilities will be difficult and expensive to replace. U.S. actions imposed real costs and constraints on Iraq. A bigger, wider attack, perhaps including ground force targets and key infrastructure and industrial installations in and around Baghdad, might have hammered the message home even more plainly, but it would also have risked civilian casualties and greater international discomfort. Given the nature of the provocation, the American response was probably about right.


What of those who worry that there was no legal justification for the American attacks? True, no specific, internationally approved sanction prohibited what Saddam has done or explicitly authorized a forceful American response. But the United States need not, and should not, seek approval for its every action from the United Nations. If justification is needed, U.N. Resolution 688 should be sufficient. Though Saddam may now cast himself as a friend to the Kurds, his record and intentions are clear enough. Reports that Iraqi soldiers rounded up and summarily executed opposition Kurdish leaders in Irbil serve as a reminder of Saddam's brutality. If the Iraqis are now engaged in piecemeal murder of Kurds rather than wholesale slaughter, the difference is merely one of degree.


By far the most important criticism is that by acting alone, the United States has alienated its allies and weakened the coalition that won the Gulf War. This claim, which is likely to be at the heart of most criticism of the administration's actions, must be taken with a substantial grain of salt. The vaunted coalition of 1990-91 was an odd lot of countries held together by the circumstances of the moment, by U.S. pressure, and by a shared fear and hatred of an expansionist Iraq. We should not be especially surprised or concerned if Syria, a minor partner in the Gulf War, or Russia, a passive observer, is a critic of the latest U.S. action. Neither country has anything to gain by supporting the United States. It is probably also safe to assume that, in keeping with past practice, the leaders of other key countries in the Middle East (especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia) privately applaud strong American action against aggression even if they are afraid to do so in public for fear of roiling domestic and Arab-world opinion against them.


Turkey's apparent standoffishness may indeed reflect a worrisome recent trend in its foreign policy more generally, as well as longstanding concerns over its own Kurdish problem. Of the other major allies, Britain, Germany, and Japan have all voiced support. Only the French, who have their own economic fish to fry in Iraq, have expressed reservations.


But the coalition does appear somewhat tenuous, and that is a cause for concern. The United States should not have to, and probably cannot, contain Iraq on its own. At the very least, the United States will need bases and other facilities in the region from which to operate its armed forces. If it wants to hold the core coalition together, the United States will have to seek consensus where it can and avoid actions that unnecessarily alienate or embarrass its partners. Still, as the events leading up to the Gulf War suggest, a coalition leader must also be willing at times to demonstrate its own commitment and resolve.