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A Case for Containment

Before the United States goes to war, we should consider once more whether war is necessary. The facts suggest that it isn't.

Why? Our current policy is working. Saddam Hussein has been contained. That is, Hussein has not used weapons of mass destruction against anyone who could retaliate with either weapons of mass destruction or overwhelming conventional military power. His use of weapons of mass destruction in the past came when we were supporting him (before 1991) and supplying him with the materials to construct the weapons.

It has been clear to Hussein since he invaded Kuwait and was defeated in the Persian Gulf War that the United States no longer supports him. Since then he has neither threatened to use weapons of mass destruction nor threatened conventional military attacks on his neighbors. So the evidence proves that he has been contained and he can continue to be contained.

If the United States decided to tighten the embargo instead of invading, as Secretary of State Colin Powell originally proposed and as the U.N. Security Council approved, we could get agreement from the countries surrounding Iraq to eliminate the leaks in the embargo, especially if we compensated them—as we should—for the revenue they would lose as a result of not trading with Iraq.

Will Hussein ever use weapons of mass destruction? I can only cite what the CIA has said, namely that he shows no signs of using them, because he knows we would retaliate with deadly force. The only circumstance under which he is likely to use them, the CIA said, is if we attack him.

The administration has not answered that argument other than to speculate that he may be tempted to use these weapons against us even if we do not attack first. Following this argument to its logical conclusion, it seems clear that by attacking Iraq now we will substantially increase the likelihood that he will use or try to use weapons of mass destruction against us or his neighbors. Abandoning containment now has real consequences.

Unfortunately, no one is asking whether containment has worked. The question being asked now: Has Hussein met all of his obligations under the U.N. resolution? He has not met all of his obligations, and he is never going to meet all of his obligations. Instead, the United States should be asking: What is the most prudent and effective policy to deal with a Saddam Hussein who is not meeting his obligations? To me, the question is not even close. Rather than go to war, we should apply a policy of "containment plus," which entails tightened sanctions, beefed-up inspections, support for opposition groups and the creation of a U.N. war-crimes tribunal.

To make the sanctions work, and to keep Hussein from getting the hard currency and supplies he needs for his weapons program, we must tighten and enforce the embargo. That would require stationing U.N.-authorized troops on Iraq's borders to monitor trade and compensating Iraq's neighbors for lost revenue caused by the embargo.

Weapons inspectors must be backed by force and authorized by the United Nations. That means, for example, destroying from the air any building to which inspectors are denied entrance. We may need to use U.N.-sanctioned force in other ways, but the goal should be to disarm Iraq, not change the regime.

To isolate Hussein further, the U.N. Security Council should create a war-crimes tribunal to indict him. As we have seen in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, such tribunals can discredit and even destroy criminal regimes. Meanwhile, the United States could work for a change in Iraq's leadership by supporting effective opposition groups.

This policy is more likely to prevent Saddam Hussein from using weapons of mass destruction and less likely to lead to other terrorist attacks on the United States and its citizens at home or abroad. It might even be more successful in bringing about an indigenous change in the regime.

This article originally appeared in the February 11, 2003 issue of The Washington Post.

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