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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

8th January 2003

Dear Robert:

In 1991, in order to enforce UN security council resolution 678, which called for the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait, coalition forces invaded Iraq. After an initial bombardment and battle, no effective opposition lay between them and Baghdad. But for reasons that seemed persuasive at the time, the advance was halted and a ceasefire agreed. This armistice was incorporated in UNSCR 687, requiring Iraq to "unconditionally accept" the removal, destruction and rendering harmless of all weapons of mass destruction and any launchers with a range greater than 150 km, and not to seek to develop or acquire such weapons in the future. Other UN resolutions ordered Iraq to return all prisoners of war and Kuwaiti property, to pay damages resulting from the war, and to comply with two no-fly zones negotiated as part of the ceasefire agreement.

Not one of these provisions has been complied with. Iraq subsequently rearmed. It replaced its original design for a nuclear warhead with a new design that could accommodate a Scud missile. Nine such missiles are still unaccounted for. Since 1998, Iraq has tried to acquire weapons-grade uranium. In August 2002, former weapons inspectors for the UN testified that "the current leadership in Baghdad will eventually achieve a nuclear weapon."

After the defection of the head of its biological weapons programme in 1995, the Iraqi government was compelled to acknowledge that it had produced no less-and possibly more-than 183 biological weapons, in violation of the ceasefire agreement and of UN resolutions. Its violations of the no-fly zones and its repeated armed attacks on US and British planes surveilling those zones has continued up through last week.

I expect that the UN will authorise further action against Iraq and that, unless its leadership resigns, a US-led coalition will change the regime by force in order to enforce the ceasefire agreements and the various resolutions-14 by my count-that Iraq has violated. But the way this has come about, as so often in political life, has little to do with the merits of such enforcement and prompts the question of whether a new legal and political understanding of 21st-century threats is called for.

Throughout Iraq's violations of the ceasefire arrangements, the international community was completely flummoxed. Sanctions were maintained against the regime (over the objections of states that were Iraq's creditors and wished to be paid off) and these did have the effect of denying Saddam about $150 billion. However, they were manipulated so that they did not halt his rearmament but did harm the Iraqi people. The middle class was destroyed and Unicef says 500,000 children died from 1991 to 1998 partly as a result of sanctions.

But there was no stomach in the west to call Saddam to account, even when he finally expelled the inspectors. All the elements that counselled against going to Baghdad in 1991 were still present-the anxiety of local states, the difficulty of administering a postwar state, and so on.

It was 11th September that, illogically perhaps, provided the political will to confront Saddam even though there was no evidence that the Iraqis were part of the al Qaeda plot. President Bush skilfully used the attack to pursue the disarmament of Iraq. The security council was moved to pass a unanimous resolution again calling on Iraq to disarm. The inspectors were readmitted; they will report in late January and many people will look to their report to see whether it provides a "smoking gun."

This is a profound misunderstanding. It treats the inspections as if they were an end in themselves, an exercise to determine whether Iraq has violated an international gun control law. It results in the ludicrous position of wanting to stop pre-emptive action until the weapons to be pre-empted can be shown to exist-and thus defy pre-emption.

The whole point of the original inspections was to establish the intention to comply with the ceasefire agreement; failure to establish such intentions led to the sanctions. We now know perfectly well what Saddam's intentions are: he will seek weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) to the degree he can get away with it. That is why for 12 years he has preferred living under an onerous sanctions regime to coming clean. If now he allows inspectors in, it does not establish his intention to comply with the ceasefire agreement. It only establishes that it is possible to make him temporarily fearful.

I think the most important lesson of this saga is that we must devise new rules in international law that provide the parameters which can determine when the pursuit of WMDs represents a threat to international security. If the world had waited-if there had been no 11th September-Saddam would surely have acquired nuclear weapons and increased his stock of biological ones. It is the US and its allies who would then have been deterred. One cannot imagine a Desert Storm operation against a nuclear-armed Iraq.

What would these new rules look like? How could they distinguish between the intentions of non-aggressive states with WMDs and those who seek these weapons not for defence but to aggrandise their territory and wealth? How can sovereignty be defined so that it does not allow the internal use of WMDs against a state's own people, nor give to every state, however it behaves, the right to acquire whatever weapons it wishes?

Yours

Philip

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Philip C. Bobbitt

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