Posted on February 09, 1998 in Washington Watch

For several weeks now, the drums of war have been beating in the United States. It appeared inevitable that if the Iraqi government continued to refuse unconditional and unrestricted UNSCOM inspections, that country would be subjected to “massive and sustained” bombardment.

This view was fed not only by repeated ultimatums and pronouncements by various Administration leaders and spokespersons, but also in opinion columns appearing in the daily U.S. press.

As late as two weeks ago, the only debate apparent in the U.S. media was between those who argued that air power was sufficient to “do the job” and those who argued that such strikes must be followed by an invasion of ground forces. This was the logical outcome of a discourse that had been largely limited to either right-wing ideologues or military analysts.

In some instances, the public discussion had become not only dangerous but also dangerously ridiculous.

A group of 18 conservatives, for example, have been arguing for the President to send in divisions of ground forces to invade, and presumably, to occupy Iraq. And Republican Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, last week stated that if the Iraqi leader refused to agree with unlimited UN inspections “we will have to replace him with a regime that will.”

It is ironic that while many of these same so-called analysts reject the notion of assassinating Saddam Hussein on the grounds that such an act would be illegal (there is a U.S. law that forbids the assassination of foreign leaders) and immoral (“not in keeping with our ethical standards”) they, nevertheless, support the “massive and sustained” use of aerial bombardments of the country and the possibility of invasion by ground forces.

It is precisely this once-sided discussion of military options without any consideration of political – or civilian – consequences that has caused more thoughtful analysts to react in the past few weeks.

Some, both on the right and the left, have begun to challenge the narrow a-political views that have dominated the debate up until now. Questions have been posed of those who encourage the military option:

· What will be the outcome of a military strike? Will it change the political situation within Iraq? Will it make the regime more compliant of UN inspections – or will it harden the regime’s resolve?

· If a ground invasion occurs, what next? How will a unilateral U.S. invasion of Iraq be viewed in Iraq or in the broader region? How long would the United States sustain an occupation force; what could it accomplish; and for how long would U.S. public opinion support such a move?

· What would be the political consequences of either a bombardment or occupation? How would Arab and Muslim public opinion, not to speak of world opinion, react to the civilian casualties resulting from such actions? What would the impact be on U.S. allies and interests in the broader Middle East? On stability and security? On the already fatally wounded Middle East peace process?

In addition to these new questions being asked, somewhat belatedly, traditional and not so traditional opponents of war have begun to mobilize. Peace Action, the nation’s largest mainstream coalition of religious and peace organizations, has called for demonstrations. Some members of Congress and the Senate support them. And, a number of influential Republicans, former officials in the Nixon and Reagan Administrations have also begun to speak out urging caution and calling for a new policy toward Iraq. John McLaughlin, for example, a former Republican White House official and now host of two popular and influential public affairs television programs, has, for a number of weeks now, been challenging the tenets of the current debate as “immoral and “dangerous”.

Last week, in an effort to further broaden this developing debate, I led a delegation of Arab American leaders to a White House meeting with National Security Advisor Samuel Berger. We presented to the White House a consensus Arab American view that “the negative consequences of a military confrontation at this time would be to inflict greater suffering on the Iraqi people and to damage U.S. allies and interests in the Middle East…. In addition, bombing Iraq will create tension and instability in the region and may prove fatal to the Middle East peace process. For those reasons and because there is no certainty that the military option would generate compliance with UN resolutions or produce political change in Iraq, we feel the military option is totally unacceptable.” We made it clear that, “as Arab Americans, we support the elimination of weapons of mass destruction throughout the entire Middle East, and we also support the enforcement of all UN resolutions that apply to the Middle East. We are concerned U.S. credibility is at risk in the region and that the United States is viewed as applying a double standard in the Middle East.” Our position, we continued, was that “UN inspectors must be allowed to do their job. Instead of sustained bombing or an invasion of Iraq,”, we called for “diplomatic alternatives that put pressure on the Iraqi government to comply with inspections but do not negatively affect the civilian population of that country.” We noted that “we support UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s proposal to dramatically increase the UN oil for food program. Economic sanctions have not had an impact on the Iraqi regime, they have only hurt the people of that country.”

Our efforts received extensive national press exposure and generated a number of other national media appearances in the following days.

Helping to change the public debate is of critical importance, since it provides a more reasoned consideration of policy options. The danger of the one-sided debate is that it boxes the Administration into a more limited set of options.

It is clear that the Administration, while firm in its resolve to see that weapons inspections continues unrestricted, is somewhat uncomfortable with the narrower debate. Last week, Secretary of Defense William Cohen noted that there was no certainty that the military option would result in Iraqi compliance or be successful in ending the regime’s development of weapons of mass destruction. Possibly in reaction to recent hardline positions coming from Moscow, or as a result of the flurry of diplomatic activity being conducted by many U.S. allies, or even as a result of the less than conclusive results of Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s visits to European and Arab capitals, the U.S. position has more strongly than ever begun to affirm that it “prefers a diplomatic solution” to the standoff with Iraq’s leader.

The situation remains dangerous. To the same degree that Saddam Hussein remains, as I have previously argued, a “measure of the depth of alienation from the West” and, therefore, able to inflame extremist passions of those who are alienated and who feel betrayed, he also remains the “Willie Horton” of U.S. domestic politics. As such, any U.S. politician who appears to make concessions to the Iraqi leader will be buried under an avalanche of public criticism.

There is a frightening disconnect between the current debate in the United States and that in the Arab world, and most of the rest of the world.

It may yet be possible to avoid the devastating human and political consequences of a military confrontation. For that to occur, a diplomatic solution must be found that provides for the UN weapons inspectors to continue in a manner consistent with their mandate and for guidelines to be established, as described by one former Bush Administration official, that will be both “firm and yet fair.” At the same time, the U.S. policy debate must be opened up to allow for political acceptance of such for diplomatic resolution. Failure on either front could prove fatal to chances for a peaceful resolution.

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