A flurry of diplomatic activity has overtaken the Senate debate on the use of force by the United States against Syria as punishment for/deterrence against the use of chemical weapons. The world awaits the next meeting, the next announcement, the next slip-of-the-tongue, or the first bomb.
The interregnum is a good time to note that the president has been blaming the Iraq war for American reticence on war in Syria. “I’m not sure that we’re ever going to get a majority of the American people — after over a decade of war, after what happened in Iraq,” he told PBS. What, exactly does the president think, “happened in Iraq” and why does he think the war was only “a decade” long?
The Iraq War began in 1990 with the invasion of Kuwait and as a direct outgrowth of the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, in which the U.S. supported Saddam Hussein. President George H.W. Bush said of the occupation of Kuwait, “This aggression will not stand,” and indeed it did not. But when Kuwait was liberated, the U.S.-led coalition made a decision not to invade Iraq and not to depose Saddam, but according to Gen. Colin Powell’s memoirs, “our practical intention to leave Baghdad enough power to survive as a threat to an Iran that remained bitterly hostile toward the United States.” A ceasefire, then, and political accommodation with a properly chastened Saddam. UN Security Council Resolution 687 was duly approved on 3 April 1991, including the following clauses:
7. Invites Iraq to reaffirm unconditionally its obligations under the Geneva Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare, signed at Geneva on 17 June 1925, and to ratify the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction, of 10 April 1972;
8. Decides that Iraq shall unconditionally accept the destruction, removal, or rendering harmless, under international supervision, of:
(a) All chemical and biological weapons and all stocks of agents and all related subsystems and components and all research, development, support and manufacturing facilities;
(b) All ballistic missiles with a range greater than 150 kilometres and related major parts, and repair and production facilities;
9. Decides, for the implementation of paragraph 8 above, the following:
(a) Iraq shall submit to the Secretary-General, within fifteen days of the adoption of the present resolution, a declaration of the locations, amounts and types of all items specified in paragraph 8 and agree to urgent, on-site inspection as specified below.
Political/military events then evolved along two related axes:
First, in April 1991, President Bush (41) encouraged the uprising of the Iraqi people against their government — much the way Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did to the Syrian people in 2012. The Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south of Iraq responded, and the result was horrific slaughter; tens of thousands of people were massacred by Saddam’s forces. To protect the civilians, a “no fly zone” was instituted in both parts of the country, managed under UN auspices by the U.S., Britain, and France. It was only supposed to operate until Saddam met the terms of the ceasefire, including those related to WMD, and the ceasefire became a permanent peace agreement.
Eleven years later, the U.S. and Britain were still flying over Iraq from Saudi territory (irritating a younger Osama Bin Laden) and the French had pulled out. In the meantime, the UN instituted the Oil for Food program to ensure that the most vulnerable of Iraq’s citizens received food and medicine. The Economist rightly called the program, administered out of the UN Secretariat and administered by the Security Council, “Oil for Fraud.” Senior UN officials as well as French and Russian politicians were feeding at the trough — making it hard to get their honest attention in 2002. (Investigative journalist Claudia Rosett provides the details.)
At the same time — or because he was paying off the right UN functionaries — Saddam had changed the terms of reference on the weapons inspectors.The diplomatic dance continued because Saddam, far from declaring “the locations, amounts and types of all items specified in paragraph 8,” had the UN inspectors “weapons hunting” in various parts of the country to try to find what he claimed was there but didn’t hand over. In 1998, Saddam expelled the inspectors, beginning a drawn-out process of reinserting them and determining where they would/could go. “Diplomacy” was given wide preference over additional military action.
Much of this was ignored for a decade or so –President Obama might almost be forgiven for thinking there was no war until 2003. There was no draft in the U.S. to put pressure on the government over the deployment of U.S. troops, and oil flowed; the Kurds and the southern Shiites were reasonably (most of the time) protected, and oil flowed; the Saudis weren’t complaining, and oil flowed; the American public didn’t seem to notice, and oil flowed.
After September 11, 2001 however, the United States turned its attention to the region with a vengeance, so to speak. Being bogged down in Iraq was suddenly a problem in the larger scheme of things, but there were only two ways to get out from under the UN Security Council ceasefire resolution of 1991:
• To give it up without having Saddam meet the conditions, thus leaving in place the programs most of the world’s intelligence services (including those of the U.S., France, Germany, and Israel) believed were there; or
• To declare an end to the ceasefire, a return to the condition of warfare and finish the war.
The UN debate was really about how to end the war that began in 1990.
So, as the Obama Administration tries to salvage a diplomatic deal, Iraq should indeed be uppermost in the president’s mind — not as a metaphor for a failed attempt at “nation building,” but as the driver of questions about the failures of inspections, sanctions, and international control regimes. And greed. Questions might include:
Do we know where the stockpiles are and how can we be sure they are where they were? Since we know Assad has hidden them, how will we know we’ve accounted for all of them?
Will the chemical stockpiles will be centralized in one place and then destroyed?
How, and most importantly, by whom? Remember, the last successful international acquisition of non-conventional weapons was the Libyan turnover of its entire program (more advanced than we thought it was) to the Americans and the British after the ouster of Saddam.
How will the consolidated areas be safeguarded and by whom? Will the Syrian government give a UN force “safe passage” to move assets out of the country? Will the rebels? Or will an international force be expected to guard Syrian assets in place — making them sitting ducks in the civil war?
How long will we wait?
Only if and when the administration can answer those questions to the satisfaction of Congress and the American people will the diplomatic option have a chance for greater success than it had in Iraq.