Critics of President Bush increasingly claim that the American victory in Operation Desert Storm is tarnished each day that Saddam Hussein remains in power. His continued rule, they say, makes America appear weak and allows Saddam to continue building his unconventional arsenal. More: he threatens further atrocities against the Kurds and is forcing millions of Iraqis to suffer from hunger and disease by way of undermining the U.N. sanctions.
That some of these critics are prominent Democrats gives a special political twist to the argument. Had the president listened to the Democrats last year, Iraq would still be occupying Kuwait; notwithstanding this irony, the administration appears to have panicked. The Washington Post recently reported that the administration is considering active steps to eliminate the Iraqi tyrant. But this is a dangerous idea.
A fragile but benign balance has emerged in the Persian Gulf since March, one surprisingly favorable from both humanitarian concerns and American interest. The balance is simple: the Iraqi military is too weak to project force but strong enough to stave off invasion. The benefits of Iraqi weakness are clear-Saddam cannot invade another country. Even better is that United Nations personnel are now systematically destroying Saddam's missiles, his chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, and his capacity to replace this arsenal. Day by day, Iraq is getting weaker, not stronger. Further: because Saddam himself will permanently be subject to special scrutiny, his presence guarantees that Iraq will remain defanged.
More subtly, too, we benefit from Iraq not being too weak. Had Saddam been toppled back in March, Tehran would have sought to get Iraqi Shi'ites into power. Iranian hardliners might well have won a new lease on life and the West would probably have experienced renewed bouts of hostage-taking, terrorism, and other unpleasantries. Damascus would have joined the fray too, hoping to exert control over part or all of Iraq.
Saddam's fall would have given Kurdish nationalist leaders in Iraq the opportunity to fulfill their dream of a pan-Kurdish state comprising large chunks of Turkey and Iran, smaller ones of Syria and the former Soviet Union. Had they won independence within Iraq, it would have been only a matter of time before five states would have suffered serious turmoil. Kurds have in recent years been the subject of American romanticism; in fact, they resemble Palestinians in their irredentism, their factionalism, and their readiness to injure everyone else in pursuit of their own state. Kurds may yet spawn the Middle East's most violent movement of the 1990s.
Iraqi weakness would have had another consequence: as Tehran and Damascus fought over the carcass of the Iraqi state, and Kurds eyed a large piece of real estate in southeastern Turkey, the Turks would have been dragged into the fray. To defend Turkey, Ankara would have felt compelled to establish its own zone of influence in Iraq, and this would inexorably have sucked it into the battle for Iraq's future.
Most ironic is that Iraqi citizens might be worse off had Saddam fallen last winter. Of course, Iraq is in miserable shape these days, suffering grievous repression and economic privation. Still, the civil war that took place in the spring, when Kurds and Arabs massacred each other in northern Iraq, while Shi'ites and Sunnis battled in the south, was a sample of what might be. The absence of a central power might have caused many more Iraqis to have died from war, disease, and starvation.
And while many of the administration's critics imagine Saddam's overthrow as a giant step toward democracy, it was, and still is, far less likely to bring democrats to power than another thug in Saddam's own mold.
Iraqis, their neighbors, and the outside world have all been served reasonably well by the delicate balance of power of the past nine months which leaves Iraq neither too strong nor too weak. And we still are. Yet this balance is a one-time thing; when undone, it is permanently gone. Now, as then, getting rid of Saddam increases the prospects of Iraqi civil war, Iranian and Syrian expansionism, Kurdish irredentism, and Turkish instability. Do we really want to open these cans of worms?
The only way to get rid of Saddam and avoid such problems is to accept a very intrusive and protracted U.S. military presence in Iraq. And here we revert to last year's dilemma: after American forces directly unseat Saddam and occupy Iraq, what next? There were no good answers to this question in 1990, and there are none today. If the administration calculates costs, it will reach the same prudent conclusion it reached early in 1991: don't stimulate regional havoc, don't take direct responsibility for deciding the future of Iraq, and don't risk losing American lives-probably many more than were lost in Desert Storm-on behalf of vague and undefined aims.
We all want Saddam gone; but unless Americans are prepared for an unlimited occupation of Iraq, we'd do better letting the Iraqis get rid of him.