Philip Bobbitt vs. Robert Skidelsky
The Prospect, February 2003
12th January 2003
The disagreements between us are matters of judgement rather than fact. I believe that UNSCR 1441 which brought the UN inspectors back to Iraq in November will keep Saddam "bottled up in Baghdad." You believe that the only security against his aggressive ambitions is to force him from power. Neither of us knows exactly what WMDs capacity Saddam now has. But we agree, provisionally, that it is small, and that it does not include nuclear weapons. You agree therefore that the system of inspections started in 1991 has worked up to a point.
Your argument for forcing regime change on Iraq rests, therefore, on your view of what Saddam may do in the future. You believe that, even under the new more intrusive inspection system, he will be able to obtain WMDs; and that if he has WMDs we can no longer make a credible threat of retaliation when he goes on the march again. You endorse, that is, Dick Cheney's view of August 2002 that, without pre-emptive action, Iraq would "fairly soon" acquire nuclear weapons, and "could then be expected to seek domination of the entire middle east and…a great portion of the world's energy supplies."
How do you think Saddam will acquire the capacity to be such a threat? You offer several answers. The trouble is that they are all given on the assumption that he has a free hand. But I have already agreed with you that Saddam would rearm if he could. The question is why you think he can. You keep talking about his intentions; I have tried to address the issue of his capabilities.
First you say that he only consented to the return of the inspectors "at gunpoint" and that "when he thinks he can get away with it, he will force their withdrawal again." But you forget that this time the gun is loaded. You have already explained why the situation today is different from that of 1998: the political will to keep the gun loaded has been reinforced by 11th September. Saddam knows that if he tries to expel the inspectors, or refuses to co-operate with them, he will be driven from power.
Your counter-argument amounts to saying that there is no political will to maintain coercive pressure on him "indefinitely." But who is suggesting that? Saddam is 65. How much longer can he live? Given the weight you place on his personal psychopathic propensities, the question of his longevity is surely highly relevant to any determination of the necessity for "regime change."
You argue that Saddam is rich enough to acquire and deploy new WMDs as fast as his existing stock is dismantled. Yes, if he is free to export all the oil he wants to. But the point of the oil embargo is to keep him short of hard currency. True enough, he can evade the sanctions and manipulate the "Oil for Food" programmes, but only to a limited extent. The proof of this is his failure-as far as we can tell-to restore his WMDs programmes in the four years, from 1998 to 2002, when the inspectors were out of the way.
You then switch the argument for regime change from the threat Saddam poses to others to the agony his presence in power inflicts on his own people. The reasoning here is curious. Inspections and economic sanctions, you believe, must stay in place as long as Saddam stays in power, because he is not to be trusted. Far better, therefore, that he be overthrown: the threat and agony will then be ended simultaneously. The answer to this is given in UNSC Resolutions 678 and 687 which set up the inspection/sanctions regime in 1990–91. These envisaged that sanctions would be lifted when Iraq had complied with the ceasefire conditions. Since then, the French, Russians and Chinese have frequently proposed that sanctions be eased as compliance increased. The US has consistently opposed this. Given that there has been a great deal of compliance by Iraq, it is rather rich for you to make Saddam wholly responsible for continuing the sanctions which continue the agony.
You are troubled that "so few of the many people whose views I respect in Britain support the Iraq policy of the president and the prime minister." The trouble is worse than you think, because US and British policy on Iraq is not, and has never been, identical. US policy, even pre-Bush, was for regime change. The US sees sanctions not as a way of getting Iraq to disarm, but of getting rid of Saddam. President Clinton stated in November 1997 that they should stay "as long as Saddam lasts." Frustrated by the failure of sanctions to topple Saddam, President Bush has been looking to military force to accomplish the objective. It is Saddam's continuation in power which is intolerable to the US, not the threat posed by his tiny stock of chemical and biological agents.
US policy is driven by the determination to undo the consequences of failing to march on Baghdad in 1991. It is this which makes it hard for the US to develop an internationally persuasive case for regime change in Iraq. No one shares America's obsession with Saddam. The position of the four other permanent members of the UN security council, Britain included, is that compliance will bring the end of sanctions.
Blair's one aim has been to bring the US back to the UN in an effort to avert the danger of a unilateral US strike against Saddam. Private persuasion has been balanced by public support-a most difficult hand to play, especially for a leader of the Labour party. In helping to get the US back into the UN, Blair has made war less likely. The trouble is that President Bush has created such an expectation in the American public of the imminence of regime change, that any outcome short of this will be interpreted as a massive political defeat. (What would save the situation, of course, is a peaceful regime change, however brought about.) The political crunch for Blair will come if the Americans decide to go to war without specific security council authorisation. Blair's efforts as peacemaker will then have failed, but existing British military deployments in the middle east will tether him to America's war effort. So the political consequences of a war are not only incalculable for the middle east, but for the British, and more generally, the European, Russian and Chinese relationship with the US.
This comes back to our most important point of agreement: that in rewriting the global rule book America must be able to carry its peers. No other country in the world, with the exception of Israel, supports the US policy of unconditional regime change in Iraq. A very nasty smoking gun will have to be produced to convince the doubters that a pre-emptive strike against Iraq is the only way to deal with Saddam.
As I write this, I have been trying to understand how your support for intervention in Iraq links up with the wider questions of world order raised by your book The Shield of Achilles. The connecting thread seems to be your view that in a world of market states, in which the means of violence are becoming privatised, deterrence of states is no longer as effective as it was, leaving pre-emption as the only way to meet certain threats. The Pandora's box of unilateral strikes by the powerful against the weak which this perspective opens up is deeply troubling. But that is the subject for a different debate. Even if this kind of world is coming into being-you have still not persuaded me that deterrence of Iraq is not feasible, either for the purpose of stopping it getting WMDs or using them for aggressive purposes. We are talking about the threat posed by a Saddam-controlled Iraq, not the threat posed by suicidal terror groups. Saddam is a rational calculator, not a martyr. All that he has to be sure of is that he and his land will be blown to smithereens if he does X or Y, whatever damage he might be able to inflict in return. That is the theory of deterrence. Why should it fail in his case?