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Philip C. Bobbitt

  • Distinguished Senior Lecturer

Is Regime Change in Iraq Necessary?

Philip Bobbitt vs. Robert Skidelsky
The Prospect, February 2003

11th January 2003

Dear Robert:

You agree that Saddam will seek weapons of mass destruction to the degree he can get away with it. But you believe that it is scarcely necessary to eliminate the regime when we can reinsert the UN inspectors who were "withdrawn" in 1998.

But you ignore the regime's behaviour before the Gulf war and you treat its action since then as mere "breach of contract" which, you say, is hardly a sufficient reason to remove Saddam.

Your entire approach is to treat the presence of the inspectors as a given, and then to assume that their work will proceed unimpeded, indefinitely. Nothing in the history of the past 12 years supports this assumption.

The inspectors were not "withdrawn" – they were expelled. For more than three years there were no inspections. Saddam agreed to their return only at gunpoint and when he thinks he can get away with it, he will force them out again.

The importance of their expulsion does not lie in a mere breach of contract. It goes to the heart of what the contract was all about, namely war. The "contract," as you refer to the ceasefire agreement, stopped the advance of the coalition armies and saved the regime. To agree to this cessation, the coalition had to be assured that Saddam would not regroup and re-equip his armies, that he would not use these forces against communities with which the coalition was tacitly allied, and that he would disarm, including the dismantling of his WMD programmes. By violating every one of these undertakings he has attempted to restore the region to the state of insecurity that led us to take up arms in the first place. I have little doubt that, were he to get WMDs – accurate missiles and nuclear warheads – he would attempt again to seize the oil fields of Kuwait and the Emirates that he covets because, with such weapons, it is the west and not Iraq which would be deterred from action.

You do not take this fear seriously because of your faith in inspections and what you believe inspections to have achieved. But I should remind you that Iraq is wealthy. Whatever weapons he has destroyed he can buy again, and deploy quickly – far more quickly than we can assemble the political support, security council resolutions and forces on the ground to stop him. That is why your test – that we be sure that his disarmament "has not in fact been achieved and cannot be achieved" – is the wrong one. Before such an impossible test can ever be satisfied, he will be rearmed and dangerous to a degree that we will hesitate to stop.

When I wrote in The Shield of Achilles that we had to continue sanctions, it was because when I was writing – before 11th September – there was no political will on any state's part, including the US and Britain, to confront Saddam. The issue I was addressing was not whether we should continue sanctions in lieu of force, but rather whether, against the wishes of three permanent members of the UNSC, we should have any sanctions even after the inspectors had been expelled. And that recent history is one reason why your confidence in the indefinite extension of sanctions is so misplaced.

Nor do I recognise your portrait of a kinder, gentler Saddam. I do not want to wholly abandon the idea of redemption, but if ever there was a psychopathic tyrant with a love of violence and aggrandisement by its means, it is Saddam. Nor is this irrelevant to your argument: because continuing inspections indefinitely means continuing sanctions indefinitely, for without sanctions he will be richer even quicker and can replace whatever weapons we have seized, including buying nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles from North Korea. That means he will continue to force his people to suffer the effect of sanctions as he siphons off money for his armies and his family. Extending inspections means more agony for the Iraqi people.

If I could agree with you on the effectiveness and vigour of eternal vigilance I would then also agree with you that it is to be preferred to war. The outcomes of violence are unpredictable and we should be loath to take up the instruments of war. I too would prefer to see Saddam contained rather than inflaming anti-western feeling. Containment is, if one is willing to disregard the suffering of those who live under the regime, always to be preferred to rollback, which has its own deadly consequences for civilians.

But those quaint cold war terms – "containment," "rollback" – now sit within a new strategic context. Containment depends on deterrence and deterrence depends on the threat of retaliation. Once Saddam acquires WMDs we can no longer make a credible threat of retaliation when he goes on the march again (and refrains from attacking the US or Britain or Israel directly). The US will not extend deterrence to Kuwait, Iran or Saudi Arabia, or elsewhere in the Gulf as it did to Germany and Japan during the cold war. And one consequence of this, in addition to the failure of containment, is that there will be irresistible pressures for these states to acquire their own WMDs. That and not the fundamentalism we are largely powerless to affect is the real threat you are inviting when you opt for trying to "bottle up" Saddam.

These are difficult questions and I cannot be certain I am right; it gives me pause that so few of the many people whose views I respect in Britain support the Iraq policy of the president and the prime minister. I am certain, though, about your final point and am in full agreement with it: "US leadership," you write, "will be effective only to the extent that America carries its peers..." I believe this will only be possible within a generally agreed set of international rules that guide the society of states.

Yours

Philip

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Philip C. Bobbitt

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