One of the great

One of the great things about having a weblog is having a forum for expanding on points that must be dealt with briefly in conventional article writing. The article on Iraq which I just wrote for the Washington Monthly is a case in point. And I think I’ll spend some time, as I get back to regular posts, expanding on some elements of the argument I tried to make in that piece.

One key point is the issue of sanctions and the broader matter of containment.

This was Clinton administration policy more or less throughout. And my sense is that it was a good policy for much of the 1990s. But a central premise of my article, a sine qua non really, is that containment is no longer a workable policy. So let me explain why.

One part of the equation is our ability to maintain sanctions and no-fly zones indefinitely. Simply stated, we can’t. Every year we face more and more resistance from the rest of the UN Security Council. They don’t want sanctions in place any more. At least France, Russia and China don’t — to varying degrees. So more and more diplomatic heavy lifting is required on our part every year simply to maintain the status quo. And every year our grip, if you will, loosens a bit.

That’s point one.

Point two is the geo-political and diplomatic collateral damage created by sanctions. You don’t have to believe the puffed-up claims of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children dying because of sanctions to recognize that they have caused very real suffering. They destroyed the middle class, impoverished everyone else, and certainly led to some deaths because of the crippling of the medical and social services infrastructure. It looks really bad and that’s largely because it is really bad. It gets people in the Arab world and the Muslim world and to some degree the world more generally really mad at us.

Now, could Saddam have alleviated this suffering by putting money into food and medicine rather than military and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) research? Absolutely. But in the real world that just doesn’t matter. In the latter Clinton years, the administration tried tweaking the sanctions in such a way that it would be clear that if kids weren’t getting medicine it was because of Saddam’s priorities not because of something we were doing. The idea was that if we put the lie to Saddam’s lies that people would blame Saddam and not us. It wasn’t a bad idea. But we tweaked, it was clear, but people still blamed us. It just didn’t matter. We take the rap for whatever suffering takes place under sanctions, period.

This might not be so bad if we were slowly strangling Saddam’s government with our sanctions. But no one — and I mean no one — thinks that’s true. Through a perverse irony sanctions have only left Saddam’s regime more deeply entrenched.

So here we have what I’d call the chronological issue. Sanctions cost us a lot internationally, more so every year. And our ability to maintain them diminishes every year. But Saddam can withstand them just fine. It may be terrible for the civilian population. But he’s fine.

That means that if Saddam’s “in the box” we’re “in the box” with him. And the box is a lot more cramped for us than it is for him. Time, as the cliche has it, is not on our side. Frankly, he can wait us out.

And there’s another problem. The sanctions don’t work very well. At least not in terms of stopping WMD research. Nobody who I talked to who opposes military action against Iraq thinks that sanctions have stopped Saddam’s WMD development. Not a one. And I talked to a lot of them. How much it’s slowed things down is a more difficult question. But most of the people on the non-hawk side of this debate think he’s still working on it, and is still making progress. The hawks have all sorts of scary reports about various stuff he’s been able to import in recent years or develop. And I found a lot of this pretty iffy. The truth is that we just don’t have much of a sense of what he’s doing. All we reliably have to go on is that he kept working on stuff while inspectors were in the country and fiercely resisted giving stuff up while inspectors were there. So it’s hard to figure he’s shut everything down now that inspectors have been out of the place for almost four years. If we had inspectors in the country we could keep at least a limited read on what sort of progress he was making. But since 1998, and for now at least, we don’t.

What we really have is not so much containment as deterrence. And this is the real question: whether deterrence is sufficient. I want to deal with that question separately. So let me put that aside and for the moment return to sanctions.

The best argument from the non-hawks about why not to attack Iraq is that it will gets the Arab and Muslim worlds really pissed at us and possibly create a very messy, chaotic situation. The hawks tend to pooh-pooh this argument. I don’t. It’s a damn good argument. What the non-hawks don’t pay enough attention to, however, is how our current policy — containment — does something rather similar, only in slow motion.

What were Osama bin Laden’s big rallying cries getting people to attack the US around the world and in New York? To a great degree it was troops on the Arabian Peninsula and the suffering of Iraqi children. Don’t get me wrong and don’t willfully misinterpret me. This isn’t a matter of finding root causes or saying we brought it on ourselves or anything like that. It’s just a cold-eyed realization that these have been a major irritant and stirred up a lot of trouble for us. There’s just no denying that. Recognizing this is simply a matter of realistically judging costs and benefits. Garrisoning troops on the Arabian Peninsula — and not just in the tiny coastal emirates where there’s some precedent for it — is just a losing proposition. For one thing it gets us deep in the sack with the Saudis. And, well … that just ain’t a good place to be. And why are those troops in Saudi Arabia? Lots of reasons, I suppose. And all other things aside, it’s nice for a superpower to have some troops on the ground at the choke point of the world’s oil supply. But there’s one big reason: containing Saddam.

So for me, when I looked at the containment policy it seemed like a running wound for the United States, one that was hurting us in ways we weren’t completely willing to recognize, and one that would continue to hurt us over time.

Perhaps it would be better, it seemed to me, to lance this boil rather than let the infection continue to fester.

More on related matters soon.