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Iraq

Right Tactics, Wrong War: Think Gulf, Not Balkans

May 02, 1999|Daniel Byman and Matthew Waxman | Daniel Byman is a policy analyst at the Rand Corp. and Matthew Waxman is a consultant at Rand

WASHINGTON — The North Atlantic Treaty Organization's air campaign against Yugoslavia is hitting the right targets--though in the wrong place. A bitter irony is that, while the current approach is problematic in the context of Kosovo, it would stand a far better chance against Iraq, at least for limited goals such as getting weapons inspectors back into the country and stopping Iraqi challenges of the no-fly zone. The difficulties associated with coercion-through-air power in Kosovo, however, may discredit the tool, as well as its wielders, and allow Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to breathe more easily in the future.

After striking Yugoslav air-defense systems, NATO is using air- and cruise-missile strikes, and soon forays by army helicopters, to hit Yugoslavia's internal security apparatus, communications facilities, infrastructure and major troop formations in the field. The stated objective is to get Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to back down and accept a benign autonomy for Kosovo along the lines negotiated at Rambouillet. As this hope dims, airstrikes are used to degrade Serbian forces, which will make it easier to introduce NATO ground forces to the region.

Because NATO's aerial bombardment lacks a serious counterpart on the ground, it cannot stop the ethnic cleansing against Albanians in Kosovo. Milosevic stays in power not only by brute force but also by outflanking political rivals and adroitly manipulating Serbian nationalism. Instead of undermining his rule, the NATO attacks have, at least for the moment, bolstered his popularity, stoked nationalist sentiment and made it harder for Milosevic to compromise on Kosovo.

The situation in Iraq is far different. To maintain his tight hold on power, Hussein relies on the loyalty of his security elite, and he tends to cut a deal when threatened by domestic instability or elite discontent. Attacks against Hussein's security forces, including Republican and Special Republican Guards, intelligence facilities and other regime protection units, jeopardize Hussein's basic ability to remain in control. They make life dangerous, not rewarding, for Hussein's accomplices, and increase the chances for a coup. An air campaign against Iraq modeled on the one currently being conducted against Yugoslavia would make Hussein extremely nervous, and perhaps willing to offer something valuable in return for stopping it.

In fact, the Iraqi dictator has demonstrated a marked sensitivity to airstrikes against his heavy forces and internal security apparatus. Operation Desert Fox, in December 1998, caused Hussein to thrash about wildly. He executed suspected foes at home and excoriated moderate Arab states for following Washington's line. His harsh language alienated Egypt, Turkey and some of the Gulf states, just as many were showing sympathy for the suffering of the Iraqi people and calling for an end to sanctions. Hussein's sensitivity was all the more remarkable given the limited nature of the December campaign, which, in contrast to current NATO operations in the Balkans, stopped after four days.

Hussein's susceptibility to such pressure appears to be the rule, not the exception. U.S. cruise-missile strikes against Iraq in 1996 were widely derided in Washington as pinpricks, but Hussein took them seriously, even though only 44 missiles were launched and the damaged targets, mostly air-defense sites, were easily rebuilt or replaced.

As long as what is demanded does not seriously threaten his rule, Hussein is better positioned than Milosevic to compromise. The Iraqi regime, unlike the Yugoslav one, is dominated almost exclusively by one man who rules with little regard for public opinion. Hussein has backed down in the past and would do so again if he deemed it prudent. If he felt the only way to stop an open-ended air campaign against him was to allow weapons inspectors back into Iraq, or to stop attacking planes in the no-fly zone, he would almost certainly give in. The key would be convincing him that the United States and its allies were serious.

The Clinton administration and its allies, however, have never chosen to present Hussein with such a dilemma. Now, instead of taking any number of opportunities to launch sustained airstrikes to protect national interests in the Persian Gulf, they have launched them to promote humanitarian goals in the Balkans, with less chance of success. Indeed, assets needed to keep Hussein in check were diverted to help carry on the air war against Yugoslavia.

The introduction of NATO ground forces may prove more successful in achieving U.S. goals but might be used to discredit air power. It would compound the tragedy taking place in Kosovo if a botched use of air power there, under inauspicious conditions, diminished the chances of using it elsewhere when the stakes are higher and the prospects of success greater, such as during the next major confrontation with Iraq.

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