Winning the Fight Without Losing the War

December 11, 2002

Winning the Fight Without Losing the War

 The first issue is what to do about Iraq, specifically Saddam Hussein.


The first issue is what to do about Iraq, specifically Saddam Hussein. In my view he has to go. I think that he will make plenty of blunders--if we play our cards right--to provide a plausible pretext that will allow the United States to remove him. With a modicum of creative diplomacy and some humility in presenting our evidence, I think we can succeed with minimal necessary international support.

Why does he need to be removed? I believe that Saddam is a special case. We are still technically at war with him. We have evidence that he tried to assassinate former President George Bush. It is quite clear that we are not able to reach any kind of modus vivendi with him. If this administration decided to make a deal with Saddam, something along the lines of "we leave him alone if he leaves us alone," coupled with more perhaps more intrusive inspections--but essentially if we agree to allow him to be just another Middle East tyrant, that is not going to work. It is not going to be accepted by the American body politic. In the practice of international relations when you deal with a serious adversary you either try to cut a deal or you crush him. I don't see as us prepared as a country, not simply this administration, to make a deal with Saddam Hussein. That means he has to go.

The second question concerns our goals. Here I am a little uncomfortable with the direction of the discussion--how the removal of Saddam Hussein is the first stage in the grand reshaping of the Middle East according to American specifications. (1) This is not because I don't prefer democracy to tyranny--I voted for democracy with my feet. However, we have to be concerned about winning a very important fight, but losing an even more important war. And that raises a fundamental question in my mind.

Former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov (2) who is also, among other things, an experienced Middle Eastern expert, drew a parallel with the Soviet experience. He said that in his view the most unfortunate thing that happened to Soviet foreign policy was the American defeat in Vietnam coupled with the Soviet victory in Angola. It gave the Soviets an impression of invincibility--the belief that they could walk on water, at almost no cost. And we all know what followed.

I do not believe in simplistic comparisons. It is obvious the United States has incomparably greater resources than the Soviet Union in the late 1970s and a much broader reach not only militarily but also economically and culturally than the Soviet Union at that time. But I am worried that we might learn the wrong strategic lessons from a likely tactical success. I thought that our campaign in Afghanistan was a clear case. Following 9/11, we had to go--we had no choice. We engaged in a military campaign in Afghanistan because the Taliban, by refusing to turn over Osama bin Laden and dismantle Al-Qaeda, posed a direct threat to the security of the United States.

I think that Iraq is a more complicated matter. On balance, I do think that we need to remove Saddam Hussein and decapitate his regime, and this will require the use of force. But I am concerned when people want to use a war in Iraq as a tool to achieve larger goals beyond removing the present, immediate danger.

Why is it not preferable, for example, to foment a coup d'etat, where Saddam might be removed, in one way or another. A new group of generals could rise to power as the ruling junta, allow unfettered inspections, and end any threat posed by the Iraqi WMD program. That would be, in my view, the neatest solution. I don't know if it is feasible or not, but somehow I have a hunch that the President of the United States would not mind it if it were to occur. But if this was not possible, I would look for something closer to that model than a grand, ambitious scheme requiring a long presence in Iraq. In the name of promoting democracy in the Arab world, we would have to do things that would be looked at as rather nasty and would not be appreciated by the population we are supposedly trying to help. In the end, we may find ourselves on receiving ends of those very things that we want to avoid by taking out Saddam Hussein.

Finally, I want to say that no one expected when the Soviet Union collapsed, the next existential threat would arise from Al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. I think that what we are dealing with today is a combination of Muslim extremism and a global backlash against the United States. If we behave in a manner that encourages this global backlash, I have no idea where the next threat will come from. But I can only tell you when I go to Moscow, it is the younger, well educated people, many of whom studied in the United States, who are more anti-American than the older generation. I think that much of this can also be seen in China. So, it seems to me that we have to be quite careful in finding the right balance. We need to remove Saddam Hussein from power and liquidate his weapons of mass destruction. We need to ensure that a post-Saddam regime is something better for the people of Iraq--even if it is not a democracy. After all, the Soviet regime post-Stalin and the Chinese regime after Mao Zedong, even if not liberal democracies, were still immeasurably better. Finally, we need to lay the foundation that will permit the United States to gracefully, but fairly quickly, exit post-war Iraq, under suitable international cover, if possible.

  1. See especially Charles Krauthammer, "Time to Come Ashore", in this issue of In the National Interest.
  2. Yevgeny Primakov wrote for the October 23, 2002 issue of In the National Interest. An archived copy of his article is available at

Dimitri K. Simes is the President of The Nixon Center and the Publisher of In the National Interest.