Iraq: Regime Change Without War
Iraq: Regime Change Without War
Andrew Mack, Director - Human Security Centre
September 1, 2002
As the debate over the looming war with Iraq becomes ever more strident, dispassionate analysis of the Bush Administration’s case for war against Iraq becomes ever more important – particularly for its critics. This means accepting that some central tenets of the hawks’ case are quite correct.
First, it is true that inspections, however intrusive, can never guarantee that all Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs will be uncovered - Hans Blix, the UN’s chief arms inspector, has admitted as much. Mobile and underground WMD facilities are almost impossible to detect. Inspections are useful; not conclusive.
Second, the Iraqi regime is utterly untrustworthy and its promises to come clean on its WMD programs aren’t, and never have, been worth the paper they are printed on.
Third, it follows that getting rid of Saddam and his thugs is a necessary condition for disarmament – as well as a decent life for the Iraqi people.
But much of the Administration’s case for war is driven by politics rather than logic and evidence and is simply wrong. The claim that Iraq seeks nuclear weapons to attack its neighbors is a case in point.
In fact there would be no conceivable reason for a nuclear-armed Iraq to launch such unprovoked attacks. This is not because Saddam would have any qualms about slaughtering innocents – clearly he wouldn’t - but because using nuclear weapons would be suicidal.
The Administration hasn’t produced any even halfway credible arguments to show why Baghdad would ever contemplate anything as irrational as unprovoked nuclear aggression. The devastating retaliation that would follow would destroy the regime – and Saddam has always shown a strong instinct for self-preservation.
But nuclear weapons do make sense as a deterrent. If Iraq had possessed even a small nuclear arsenal in 1990 there would have been no Operation Desert Storm. The risks for the US would have been too great and Congress would have voted ‘No’ to war.
What about the much-touted nightmare scenario in which Saddam shares his weapons of mass destruction with terrorist organizations?
First, there is not an iota of evidence that he has ever attempted to do so.
Second, this is no accident. The volatility of Middle East politics is such that Iraq’s secular leaders could never be sure that any weapons of mass destruction transferred to Islamic extremists would not at some stage be used against them.
Third, Al Queda certainly would not have bothered trying to make its own crude chemical and biological weapons had Iraq supplied it with far more lethal ones.
Fourth, the number of persons that would necessarily be involved in weapons’ transfers would make concealment of Iraq’s role almost impossible over the long term. The mere revelation of such transfers, let alone actual terrorist use of the weapons, would certainly lead to massive US military action against the Iraqi regime. Once again both logic and evidence suggests that deterrence works.
Ever since the Gulf War, the allied doctrine of containment – with bans on arms imports preventing Saddam from rebuilding his military capability – and of deterrence has been remarkably successful. It has prevented both new attacks by Iraq against its neighbors and the transfer of weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups.
So the first argument in the case against war is that it is unnecessary as a measure to prevent Iraqi aggression as long as a robust allied deterrence posture is maintained.
The second argument is that the undoubted benefits of regime change are not worth the likely costs of achieving it via war. We are not talking here simply about the ‘guesstimated’ US $50 – $200 billion financial costs of a military campaign against Iraq, nor its impact on the global economy, nor even the heavy civilian and US death toll likely to arise from the urban warfare campaign that Saddam will force the US to fight. Some potential costs are much more serious.
War with Iraq will further inflame an already unstable region while adding more fuel to the anti-American rage that feeds terrorism in the Muslim world. Waging an unnecessary war against Iraq, in other words, risks undermining the global campaign against terrorism.
And if the use of weapons of mass destruction really is the primary concern, then Washington needs to reflect more seriously on the prospect that a Saddam confronting certain military defeat and death or capture would no longer be deterred from using his existing chemical and biological arsenals.
War could trigger the use of the very weapons whose elimination is part of the its central rationale.
Finally, military victory provides no guarantee that a successor regime will be any better than Saddam’s, while sustained US commitment to post-Baathist institution-building is anything but certain. Indeed if its recent performance in
Afghanistan and elsewhere is any guide, the US would begin to lose interest in Iraq the moment its military goals were realized.
Moreover, few in Washington seem to have considered the possibility that any future Iraqi regime, even a ‘moderate’ one, might still seek to pursue a nuclear weapons program as a deterrent against Israel and Iran.
What of the Administration’s claim that regime change is necessary to stop the often violent persecution of the Iraqi people? This is a compelling argument, but one that reeks of hypocrisy coming from a state that supported Saddam in the 1980s when it suited US interests to do so, and did absolutely nothing to stop genocides and mass murder in Cambodia, Rwanda and elsewhere in the world.
The critics have made a powerful case against the war option, but none has articulated a coherent non-military strategy for seeking the demise of this monstrous regime. Indeed the Administration’s claim that the do-nothing policy advocated by many critics – especially in Europe – amounts to little more than appeasement has some validity.
But there is an alternative strategy, one that shares the Administration’s goal of ending Saddam’s violent and despotic reign, but would pursue it by radically different means.
The logic that underpins this strategy – whose exercise is a variation on what Harvard’s Joseph Nye has called ‘soft power’ - is simple. It is inspired by an extraordinary and little-noticed political change that has taken place in the last thirty years. During this period the number of authoritarian regimes around the world, some every bit as awful as Saddam’s, has more than halved.
In almost none of these cases did the regime in question succumb to the sort of coercive economic sanctions imposed on Iraq, or an external military assault of the type that the US is now planning.
Authoritarian regimes ultimately fall because, as societies become more developed, more complex and more interdependent, they also become increasingly difficult to govern by brute coercion.
In addition, the devolution of economic power away from the state that is associated with the near-universal embrace of market economies creates the political space for the emergence of political opposition. Marx was right: there is a clear link between economic and political power.
The decline of autocracy has been accelerated by the growing ideological hegemony of market-oriented democracy and the legitimation crises that authoritarian states which fail to deliver the political and economic goods
invariably confront. Even in the most repressive regimes citizens now know that there are alternatives to brutal and inefficient autocracy.
While some of these extraordinary transitions have been associated with violence, the violence was rarely necessary for the change to take place. And only in extraordinarily few cases has a dictator’s demise been brought about by foreign military intervention.
Regime transition requires both structural change and human agency. It is the latter – the sometimes explosive eruptions of ‘people power’ - that makes these transitions so difficult to predict.
The sudden demise of Albania’s Hoxha, Romania’s Ceausescu, Serbia’s Milosevic and dozens of other brutal autocrats took even close observers by surprise. In different circumstances Saddam’s demise could be equally swift and just as unexpected.
Non-violent regime change is not something that can be easily engineered from outside, of course. The international community can help create the conditions that will facilitate the transition, but responsibility for actually effecting and sustaining change rests with the citizens of the autocracy.
In Iraq’s case there is much that the international community can do. The first priority would be to push forward a sweeping reform of the UN’s disastrous sanctions regime which during the past decade has had the perverse effects of strengthening the regime domestically, while enriching Saddam’s henchmen who control the black markets that sanctions inevitably generate.
The impact of sanctions on the Iraqi economy has been devastating. Although there are no accurate statistics, the Economist Intelligence Unit estimated in 1999 that Iraq’s GDP was only $13 billion in nominal terms – less than a quarter its level a decade earlier.
Iraq’s agricultural, sanitation, health and industrial infrastructures have been crippled and sanctions have effectively destroyed the country’s once thriving middle class – the most important source of potential opposition to the regime. Middle class professionals - engineers, scientists and academics - now hawk cigarettes and drive taxis to earn enough to eat.
This is not all. According to the conservative calculations of Columbia University’s Richard Garfield, between 1990 and 2000 some 350,000 Iraqi children perished as a consequence of sanctions.
Sanctions have not only strengthened the regime, devastated the economy and wrought immense humanitarian harm, they have also been totally ineffective in coercing Saddam into compliance with UN resolutions.
Sanctions theory is predicated on the idea that imposing economic pain on citizens will lead them to pressure governments to change the policies that led to the imposition of sanctions in the first place. But in authoritarian regimes the people who feel the pain have no power; those in power feel no pain. Sanctions almost never work against dictatorships for this reason.
‘Soft power’ strategy seeks regime change without resort to force. It would involve the lifting of all trade sanctions and investment restraints, except the much-discussed ‘smart sanctions’ that are directed at the regime, not the Iraqi people. The ban on imports of arms and precursors for weapons of mass destruction would also remain of course.
The aim would be to revive the crippled economy and rebuild the middle class in order to create the space for the emergence of political opposition. This would be a long-term process and just how the regime might ultimately fail is inherently unpredictable.
Skeptics argue that this scenario will never be realized in Iraq because leaders like Saddam who exercise near-total repressive control over their citizens will never relinquish power unless defeated militarily.
These pessimists sound just like Western theorists of totalitarianism who argued with great certainty in the late 1970s that real political change in the Soviet Union was impossible. Just over a decade later totalitarian communism had ceased to exist. Today’s Iraq pessimists sound as though they are reading the same 1970s’ script.
The history of the past 30 years has repeatedly demonstrated that such pessimism is quite unwarranted.
The ‘soft power’ strategy also seeks to change regional political dynamics. Rejecting the war option, for example, would diminish Baghdad’s ability to appeal to anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world. And with sanctions lifted, Saddam would no longer be able to blame the US and the Security Council for the sanctions-imposed suffering of the Iraqi people. The regime would lose a convenient scapegoat at home and sympathy abroad.
But the ‘soft power’ approach is no panacea. There are in reality no good solutions to the challenge that Saddam Hussein has posed the international community - just least bad ones.
Any ‘soft power’ strategy will be reviled by the war-fighters as rewarding Iraq for defying the international community. But Washington’s preferred policy of regime change by force not only confronts grave risks, it is based on a strategic approach that has a lousy track record.
Pursuing regime change by seeking to recreate the conditions that have led to the demise of countless other brutal autocracies around the world will incur fewer costs, pose fewer risks and has a remarkably successful track record.
Andrew Mack, former Director of Strategic Planning in the Executive Office of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, is Director of the Human Security Centre at the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.