Debate: Is Regime Change in Iraq Necessary? Bobbitt vs. Skidelsky
Philip Bobbitt and Robert Skidelsky
Prospect | Saturday, February 01, 2003

Dear Robert
8th January 2003
In 1991, in order to enforce UN security council resolution 678, which called for the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait, coalition forces invaded Iraq. After an initial bombardment and battle, no effective opposition lay between them and Baghdad. But for reasons that seemed persuasive at the time, the advance was halted and a ceasefire agreed. This armistice was incorporated in UNSCR 687, requiring Iraq to "unconditionally accept" the removal, destruction and rendering harmless of all weapons of mass destruction and any launchers with a range greater than 150 km, and not to seek to develop or acquire such weapons in the future. Other UN resolutions ordered Iraq to return all prisoners of war and Kuwaiti property, to pay damages resulting from the war, and to comply with two no-fly zones negotiated as part of the ceasefire agreement.
Not one of these provisions has been complied with. Iraq subsequently rearmed. It replaced its original design for a nuclear warhead with a new design that could accommodate a Scud missile. Nine such missiles are still unaccounted for. Since 1998, Iraq has tried to acquire weapons-grade uranium. In August 2002, former weapons inspectors for the UN testified that "the current leadership in Baghdad will eventually achieve a nuclear weapon."
After the defection of the head of its biological weapons programme in 1995, the Iraqi government was compelled to acknowledge that it had produced no less-and possibly more-than 183 biological weapons, in violation of the ceasefire agreement and of UN resolutions. Its violations of the no-fly zones and its repeated armed attacks on US and British planes surveilling those zones has continued up through last week.
I expect that the UN will authorise further action against Iraq and that, unless its leadership resigns, a US-led coalition will change the regime by force in order to enforce the ceasefire agreements and the various resolutions-14 by my count-that Iraq has violated. But the way this has come about, as so often in political life, has little to do with the merits of such enforcement and prompts the question of whether a new legal and political understanding of 21st- century threats is called for.
Throughout Iraq's violations of the ceasefire arrangements, the international community was completely flummoxed. Sanctions were maintained against the regime (over the objections of states that were Iraq's creditors and wished to be paid off) and these did have the effect of denying Saddam about $150 billion. However, they were manipulated so that they did not halt his rearmament but did harm the Iraqi people. The middle class was destroyed and Unicef says 500,000 children died from 1991 to 1998 partly as a result of sanctions.
But there was no stomach in the west to call Saddam to account, even when he finally expelled the inspectors. All the elements that counselled against going to Baghdad in 1991 were still present-the anxiety of local states, the difficulty of administering a postwar state, and so on.
It was 11th September that, illogically perhaps, provided the political will to confront Saddam even though there was no evidence that the Iraqis were part of the al Qaeda plot. President Bush skilfully used the attack to pursue the disarmament of Iraq. The security council was moved to pass a unanimous resolution again calling on Iraq to disarm. The inspectors were readmitted; they will report in late January and many people will look to their report to see whether it provides a "smoking gun."
This is a profound misunderstanding. It treats the inspections as if they were an end in themselves, an exercise to determine whether Iraq has violated an international gun control law. It results in the ludicrous position of wanting to stop pre-emptive action until the weapons to be pre-empted can be shown to exist-and thus defy pre-emption.
The whole point of the original inspections was to establish the intention to comply with the ceasefire agreement; failure to establish such intentions led to the sanctions. We now know perfectly well what Saddam's intentions are: he will seek weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) to the degree he can get away with it. That is why for 12 years he has preferred living under an onerous sanctions regime to coming clean. If now he allows inspectors in, it does not establish his intention to comply with the ceasefire agreement. It only establishes that it is possible to make him temporarily fearful.
I think the most important lesson of this saga is that we must devise new rules in international law that provide the parameters which can determine when the pursuit of WMDs represents a threat to international security. If the world had waited-if there had been no 11th September-Saddam would surely have acquired nuclear weapons and increased his stock of biological ones. It is the US and its allies who would then have been deterred. One cannot imagine a Desert Storm operation against a nuclear-armed Iraq.
What would these new rules look like? How could they distinguish between the intentions of non-aggressive states with WMDs and those who seek these weapons not for defence but to aggrandise their territory and wealth? How can sovereignty be defined so that it does not allow the internal use of WMDs against a state's own people, nor give to every state, however it behaves, the right to acquire whatever weapons it wishes?
Dear Philip
9th January 2003
Your main argument for the policy of regime change in Iraq is that Saddam Hussein has broken the conditions under which he was allowed to stay in power following the Gulf war of 1991. The chief of these-expressed in UNSCR 687-was that Iraq should eliminate, under international inspection, its WMD programmes. But instead of disarming, Iraq, you say, has rearmed. In your view, President Bush has skilfully seized the opportunity opened up by 11th September to enforce, however belatedly, the ceasefire conditions of 1991 which Saddam has violated. Given Saddam's record, this entails "regime change"-by force if necessary.
It is a powerful case, and one which is not open to two objections often advanced against the US's war strategy. The first is that there is no evidence of a link between the Iraqi regime and international terror. The second is that Saddam poses no present threat to the US and its allies, or even his neighbours, such as would justify a pre-emptive war. Your argument does not rely on asserting the negative. It is simply that Saddam has violated the terms of his contract, and cannot be trusted or induced to keep to it in the future. So although he is no threat today, he may be one tomorrow. Thus the only way to achieve the elimination of Iraq's WMDs is to eliminate the regime.
It is this last step which is the non sequitur. I agree with you that Saddam will "seek WMDs to the degree he can get away with it." This makes the case for reinserting the inspection regime, withdrawn in 1998, overwhelming. President Bush deserves credit for reviving the international community's resolve to act on this, backed by the willingness to use force if Hans Blix and his colleagues are obstructed. But what you have not explained any better than your president is why the legitimate aim of eliminating Saddam's capacity for aggression requires the elimination of his regime.
The fact that he is in breach of contract-even one drawn up by President Bush senior-is not a sufficient reason for President Bush junior to make war against him. We need to be sure that the chief aim that UNSCR 687 was designed to secure-the liquidation of his capacity for aggression-has not in fact been achieved, and cannot be achieved without his removal.
Your support for this contention rests on a one-sided assessment of the results of the inspection/sanctions regime in place between 1991 and 1998. You imply that this was a complete failure. But that is not so. In its own dossier of Saddam's crimes, designed to magnify the threat he poses, the British government admitted that, despite Iraq's obstruction of the work of Unscom and the IAEA, the major elements of Iraq's chemical, biological and nuclear development programmes were, in fact, destroyed or dismantled (Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction, September 2002), leaving it with what the former British ambassador to Iraq, Harold Walker, described as a "risible" capacity. Moreover, this degradation of his military assets has affected Saddam's behaviour. He is not a better man, but he is a less bloodthirsty ruler. Why do you believe that the much tougher inspection regime now in place should not shrink his capacity and improve his behaviour still further? What has happened to alter your view, expressed in The Shield of Achilles, that US policy to Iraq should be to insist on "the continuing sanctions against Iraqi rearmament...."?
The imperfect, but far from nugatory, results of the inspection/sanctions system have to be weighed against the incalculable consequences of war. We need to have a reasonable expectation not just that the state of affairs which regime change brings about would be better than the existing state of affairs-for Iraq and the rest of the middle east-but that it would be sufficiently better to make up for the evils of the transition. I would prefer that Saddam remain bottled up in Baghdad than that the middle east be inflamed by Islamic fundamentalism.
The questions you raise at the end of your letter concerning the just and expedient grounds for intervention in the domestic affairs of legally sovereign states are profoundly important. As you have argued, the change in the nature of states demands a change in the security paradigm. The extent to which the so-called Westphalian system, based on nation states, needs to be modified to reflect the reality, and perhaps even more, the consciousness of living in a globalised world is at the heart of the debate on the future of international relations. But the lesson of Iraq is surely that there are no short cuts to making the world a better place. Trigger-happiness is no substitute for patient and costly vigilance, and US leadership in constructing a new world order will be effective only to the extent that America carries its peers, and refrains from inflaming the hatreds of peoples, against which there is no ultimate defence.
Dear Robert
11th January 2003
You agree that Saddam will seek weapons of mass destruction to the degree he can get away with it. But you believe that it is scarcely necessary to eliminate the regime when we can reinsert the UN inspectors who were "withdrawn" in 1998.
But you ignore the regime's behaviour before the Gulf war and you treat its action since then as mere "breach of contract" which, you say, is hardly a sufficient reason to remove Saddam.
Your entire approach is to treat the presence of the inspectors as a given, and then to assume that their work will proceed unimpeded, indefinitely. Nothing in the history of the past 12 years supports this assumption.
The inspectors were not "withdrawn"-they were expelled. For more than three years there were no inspections. Saddam agreed to their return only at gunpoint and when he thinks he can get away with it, he will force them out again.
The importance of their expulsion does not lie in a mere breach of contract. It goes to the heart of what the contract was all about, namely war. The "contract," as you refer to the ceasefire agreement, stopped the advance of the coalition armies and saved the regime. To agree to this cessation, the coalition had to be assured that Saddam would not regroup and re-equip his armies, that he would not use these forces against communities with which the coalition was tacitly allied, and that he would disarm, including the dismantling of his WMD programmes. By violating every one of these undertakings he has attempted to restore the region to the state of insecurity that led us to take up arms in the first place. I have little doubt that, were he to get WMDs-accurate missiles and nuclear warheads-he would attempt again to seize the oil fields of Kuwait and the Emirates that he covets because, with such weapons, it is the west and not Iraq which would be deterred from action.
You do not take this fear seriously because of your faith in inspections and what you believe inspections to have achieved. But I should remind you that Iraq is wealthy. Whatever weapons he has destroyed he can buy again, and deploy quickly-far more quickly than we can assemble the political support, security council resolutions and forces on the ground to stop him. That is why your test-that we be sure that his disarmament "has not in fact been achieved and cannot be achieved"-is the wrong one. Before such an impossible test can ever be satisfied, he will be rearmed and dangerous to a degree that we will hesitate to stop.
When I wrote in The Shield of Achilles that we had to continue sanctions, it was because when I was writing-before 11th September-there was no political will on any state's part, including the US and Britain, to confront Saddam. The issue I was addressing was not whether we should continue sanctions in lieu of force, but rather whether, against the wishes of three permanent members of the UNSC, we should have any sanctions even after the inspectors had been expelled. And that recent history is one reason why your confidence in the indefinite extension of sanctions is so misplaced.
Nor do I recognise your portrait of a kinder, gentler Saddam. I do not want to wholly abandon the idea of redemption, but if ever there was a psychopathic tyrant with a love of violence and aggrandisement by its means, it is Saddam. Nor is this irrelevant to your argument: because continuing inspections indefinitely means continuing sanctions indefinitely, for without sanctions he will be richer even quicker and can replace whatever weapons we have seized, including buying nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles from North Korea. That means he will continue to force his people to suffer the effect of sanctions as he siphons off money for his armies and his family. Extending inspections means more agony for the Iraqi people.
If I could agree with you on the effectiveness and vigour of eternal vigilance I would then also agree with you that it is to be preferred to war. The outcomes of violence are unpredictable and we should be loath to take up the instruments of war. I too would prefer to see Saddam contained rather than inflaming anti-western feeling. Containment is, if one is willing to disregard the suffering of those who live under the regime, always to be preferred to rollback, which has its own deadly consequences for civilians.
But those quaint cold war terms-"containment," "rollback"-now sit within a new strategic context. Containment depends on deterrence and deterrence depends on the threat of retaliation. Once Saddam acquires WMDs we can no longer make a credible threat of retaliation when he goes on the march again (and refrains from attacking the US or Britain or Israel directly). The US will not extend deterrence to Kuwait, Iran or Saudi Arabia, or elsewhere in the Gulf as it did to Germany and Japan during the cold war. And one consequence of this, in addition to the failure of containment, is that there will be irresistible pressures for these states to acquire their own WMDs. That and not the fundamentalism we are largely powerless to affect is the real threat you are inviting when you opt for trying to "bottle up" Saddam.
These are difficult questions and I cannot be certain I am right; it gives me pause that so few of the many people whose views I respect in Britain support the Iraq policy of the president and the prime minister. I am certain, though, about your final point and am in full agreement with it: "US leadership," you write, "will be effective only to the extent that America carries its peers..." I believe this will only be possible within a generally agreed set of international rules that guide the society of states.
Dear Philip
12th January 2003
The disagreements between us are matters of judgement rather than fact. I believe that UNSCR 1441 which brought the UN inspectors back to Iraq in November will keep Saddam "bottled up in Baghdad." You believe that the only security against his aggressive ambitions is to force him from power. Neither of us knows exactly what WMDs capacity Saddam now has. But we agree, provisionally, that it is small, and that it does not include nuclear weapons. You agree therefore that the system of inspections started in 1991 has worked up to a point.
Your argument for forcing regime change on Iraq rests, therefore, on your view of what Saddam may do in the future. You believe that, even under the new more intrusive inspection system, he will be able to obtain WMDs; and that if he has WMDs we can no longer make a credible threat of retaliation when he goes on the march again. You endorse, that is, Dick Cheney's view of August 2002 that, without pre-emptive action, Iraq would "fairly soon" acquire nuclear weapons, and "could then be expected to seek domination of the entire middle east and... a great portion of the world's energy supplies."
How do you think Saddam will acquire the capacity to be such a threat? You offer several answers. The trouble is that they are all given on the assumption that he has a free hand. But I have already agreed with you that Saddam would rearm if he could. The question is why you think he can. You keep talking about his intentions; I have tried to address the issue of his capabilities.
First you say that he only consented to the return of the inspectors "at gunpoint" and that "when he thinks he can get away with it, he will force their withdrawal again." But you forget that this time the gun is loaded. You have already explained why the situation today is different from that of 1998: the political will to keep the gun loaded has been reinforced by 11th September. Saddam knows that if he tries to expel the inspectors, or refuses to co-operate with them, he will be driven from power.
Your counter-argument amounts to saying that there is no political will to maintain coercive pressure on him "indefinitely." But who is suggesting that? Saddam is 65. How much longer can he live? Given the weight you place on his personal psychopathic propensities, the question of his longevity is surely highly relevant to any determination of the necessity for "regime change."
You argue that Saddam is rich enough to acquire and deploy new WMDs as fast as his existing stock is dismantled. Yes, if he is free to export all the oil he wants to. But the point of the oil embargo is to keep him short of hard currency. True enough, he can evade the sanctions and manipulate the "Oil for Food" programmes, but only to a limited extent. The proof of this is his failure-as far as we can tell-to restore his WMDs programmes in the four years, from 1998 to 2002, when the inspectors were out of the way.
You then switch the argument for regime change from the threat Saddam poses to others to the agony his presence in power inflicts on his own people. The reasoning here is curious. Inspections and economic sanctions, you believe, must stay in place as long as Saddam stays in power, because he is not to be trusted. Far better, therefore, that he be overthrown: the threat and agony will then be ended simultaneously. The answer to this is given in UNSC Resolutions 678 and 687 which set up the inspection/sanctions regime in 1990-91. These envisaged that sanctions would be lifted when Iraq had complied with the ceasefire conditions. Since then, the French, Russians and Chinese have frequently proposed that sanctions be eased as compliance increased. The US has consistently opposed this. Given that there has been a great deal of compliance by Iraq, it is rather rich for you to make Saddam wholly responsible for continuing the sanctions which continue the agony.
You are troubled that "so few of the many people whose views I respect in Britain support the Iraq policy of the president and the prime minister." The trouble is worse than you think, because US and British policy on Iraq is not, and has never been, identical. US policy, even pre-Bush, was for regime change. The US sees sanctions not as a way of getting Iraq to disarm, but of getting rid of Saddam. President Clinton stated in November 1997 that they should stay "as long as Saddam lasts." Frustrated by the failure of sanctions to topple Saddam, President Bush has been looking to military force to accomplish the objective. It is Saddam's continuation in power which is intolerable to the US, not the threat posed by his tiny stock of chemical and biological agents.
US policy is driven by the determination to undo the consequences of failing to march on Baghdad in 1991. It is this which makes it hard for the US to develop an internationally persuasive case for regime change in Iraq. No one shares America's obsession with Saddam. The position of the four other permanent members of the UN security council, Britain included, is that compliance will bring the end of sanctions.
Blair's one aim has been to bring the US back to the UN in an effort to avert the danger of a unilateral US strike against Saddam. Private persuasion has been balanced by public support-a most difficult hand to play, especially for a leader of the Labour party. In helping to get the US back into the UN, Blair has made war less likely. The trouble is that President Bush has created such an expectation in the American public of the imminence of regime change, that any outcome short of this will be interpreted as a massive political defeat. (What would save the situation, of course, is a peaceful regime change, however brought about.) The political crunch for Blair will come if the Americans decide to go to war without specific security council authorisation. Blair's efforts as peacemaker will then have failed, but existing British military deployments in the middle east will tether him to America's war effort. So the political consequences of a war are not only incalculable for the middle east, but for the British, and more generally, the European, Russian and Chinese relationship with the US.
This comes back to our most important point of agreement: that in rewriting the global rule book America must be able to carry its peers. No other country in the world, with the exception of Israel, supports the US policy of unconditional regime change in Iraq. A very nasty smoking gun will have to be produced to convince the doubters that a pre-emptive strike against Iraq is the only way to deal with Saddam.
As I write this, I have been trying to understand how your support for intervention in Iraq links up with the wider questions of world order raised by your book The Shield of Achilles. The connecting thread seems to be your view that in a world of market states, in which the means of violence are becoming privatised, deterrence of states is no longer as effective as it was, leaving pre-emption as the only way to meet certain threats. The Pandora's box of unilateral strikes by the powerful against the weak which this perspective opens up is deeply troubling. But that is the subject for a different debate. Even if this kind of world is coming into being-you have still not persuaded me that deterrence of Iraq is not feasible, either for the purpose of stopping it getting WMDs or using them for aggressive purposes. We are talking about the threat posed by a Saddam-controlled Iraq, not the threat posed by suicidal terror groups. Saddam is a rational calculator, not a martyr. All that he has to be sure of is that he and his land will be blown to smithereens if he does X orY, whatever damage he might be able to inflict in return. That is the theory of deterrence. Why should it fail in his case?
Dear Robert
13th January 2003
My argument for forcing regime change does not rest entirely on what Saddam may do in the future, but rather on what we can expect from him in light of what he and we have done in the past. From this I conclude that the UN has little competence at effective inspections (even now we do not really know whether Iraq has access to nuclear weapons) and little will to enforce sanctions indefinitely. If, as you suggest, Saddam were to get a clean bill of health from the current inspectors, this would only demonstrate the folly of the inspection approach, for then the inspectors would be withdrawn, the sanctions lifted and Iraq rearmed with the deadliest weapons a rich state can arm itself with. I gather from your criticism of the US "obsession" with sanctions not being lifted that you might even be amongst those who would support this.
For this and other economic reasons, I must conclude that there is no political will to maintain coercive pressure indefinitely and therefore that the time will come when Saddam is free to export all the oil he wants. Even under the existing system it is estimated that he has gained more than $4 billion from illicit sales.
When that time comes you will get the answer to your concluding question. The theory of deterrence has two necessary requirements: (1) you must be willing to retaliate or at least convince your adversary that you will do so; and (2) you must be able to retaliate. Owing to the terrible power of WMDs and the increasing availability of accurate though expensive delivery systems, neither the US nor Britain will accept the risks of a WMDs attack in order to protect the other states of the middle east. To repeat: there is no "extended deterrence" for these states, as there was for Germany and Japan. And because of the emergence of a global terrorist network to which Saddam has access, I also doubt whether condition (2) is met. If we don't know the source of the attack on, say, New York by a radiological bomb delivered in an anonymous container ship, how can we retaliate against its author?
Saddam is neither a martyr nor a rational calculator. He is a risk-taker. Everything in his past tells us this; and this must be the basis on which we assess his likely behaviour in the future. Pre-emption is not the only means of protecting our interests-theatre missile defences, alliances, economic sanctions, regional de-nuclearisation, even extended deterrence where this is credible, all have a role. North Korea is now demanding a non-aggression pact from the US in exchange for giving up its nuclear WMDs. Well, why not?
But with a state as menacing, and as rich, as Iraq, whose neighbours are important but not, in the end, absolutely vital to our survival. I see no other way, at present, to avoid a future even more perilous than the war it may take to change the regime.
Dear Philip
14th January 2003
I am not against regime change in Iraq. The people of Iraq would be much better off without Saddam and his henchmen; the Gulf would probably be more secure. But such a change should be brought about by the Iraqis themselves. External pressure can help, but it should not substitute for a domestic decision. Otherwise, the benefits of regime change become much less clear.
Nor am I against a war to remove Saddam under all circumstances. My case rests on the proposition that the inspection/sanctions regime has worked, and will continue to work, to the extent necessary to remove the threat Saddam poses to the world and the worst of the threat to his own people. If I am wrong about this-if evidence emerges that Saddam's present WMD capacity is more than "risible"-then I would favour using force to dislodge him, whether or not the UN mandated it. But I expect it would, under the circumstances.
However, you have forced me to re-think my argument in one respect. The anti-war party have not given a convincing answer to your question: what happens if compliance is certified, the inspectors withdrawn, and sanctions ended? Would Saddam not be free to acquire a new stock of WMDs? I would now agree that the main features of the present "compellance" system should remain in place so long as Saddam stays in power. Sanctions could at the same time be made "smarter." Such a move would take into account that compliance has been less than full-blooded while also permitting economic recovery and retaining an incentive for the Iraqis themselves to get rid of Saddam.
You say that if a country already has WMDs capacity it is too late to do anything about it. This is surely too pessimistic. WMDs do not suddenly appear fully grown. There are always warning signs. We need to be able to act on them. This links up to your important point about the impossibility or difficulty of extended deterrence. What I would say is that we need to develop systems of surveillance, inspection, verification, and intervention which can be activated against countries, according to agreed criteria. One of these criteria would be the character of the regime.
In the course of our exchange I have become aware of how far America and Europe have drifted apart in their views, not just about Iraq, but about the shape of the post-cold war world. This is partly because we did not experience the trauma of 11th September. But it runs deeper. Our common culture gives us broad sympathies. But our histories have bequeathed us a different attitude to the use of force. And our interests are not always the same.
Yet without the cohesion of the US and Europe an international system fit for the 21st century cannot be evolved: it is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition. If the Iraqi crisis provides the intellectual stimulus to work out the rules of such a system, good will yet come of it.