Saturday, May 21, 2022

Perspective | Biden’s Putin comments could warp US policy

Some commentators have praised Biden’s line, but the US experience with Iraq in the 1990s shows how such declarations can narrow strategic thinking, create political expectations that distort strategy, alienate allies and steel the resolve of rivals. While there are differences between the two situations, understanding how the United States embraced regime change in Iraq, even before 9/11, can help avoid similar errors today.

After Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990, the George HW Bush administration assembled a global coalition that imposed sanctions, hastened military forces to the region and demanded that Hussein’s troops leave Kuwait.

As the crisis developed, Bush and his advisers decided against pursuing regime change because it would fracture their international coalition, give Democrats an opening to criticize Bush for inflating US objectives and risk entrapping US forces in an occupation. Yet, Bush and his aides saw regime change as a hope — if not a policy — because they assumed dealing with postwar Iraq would be easier if Hussein was overthrown. As the president told the National Security Council (NSC) on Aug. 6, 1990, “All will not be tranquil until Saddam Hussein is history.”

Richard Haass, a Middle East expert on the NSC, designed the administration’s containment strategy, which aimed to navigate a middle ground between regime change and normalization. Haass argued that US forces should remain in the region to enforce sanctions, which would stay in place until Hussein complied with UN weapons inspectors who would destroy his weapons of mass destruction programs. Cooperating with inspectors would provide Iraq a clear path back to a normal status in international politics while also limiting the country’s ability to threaten regional stability.

Yet the war itself and its messy conclusion led to a gradual inflation of US goals. Top administration stats doubted Hussein would survive the combination of coalition forces routing his troops and uprisings by Kurds and Shiites following the Iraqi defeat — and they were disappointed when Hussein remained in power. Bush’s critics faulted the president, first for not crushing Republican Guard forces retreating from Kuwait, then for declining to help the Iraqi rebels until a humanitarian crisis in northern Iraq prompted a US intervention.

In this context, the Bush administration started to expand US goals and rhetoric. Bush first openly called for regime change in a Feb. 15, 1991 speech, stating, “There’s another way for the bloodshed to stop, and that is for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside.”

Bush later explained that he said this “impulsively” and that he intended to call for a military coup rather than a popular uprising. Indeed, Bush’s administration had always seen a coup as one way to resolve the crisis and did not believe the president’s remarks had created a new policy.

Official calls for regime change nonetheless intensified in the spring of 1991. On March 13, Bush stated that it would be “impossible to have normalized relations with Iraq while Saddam is in there.” In April, he pledged to keep sanctions in place as long as Hussein remained in power, a total reversal of Haass’s vision of containment and UN Security Council resolutions that authorized the use of force to defeat Hussein’s aggression but not to overthrow him.

Neither Bush nor his successor Bill Clinton did much to foment regime change beyond haphazard attempts to foster a coup, but declaring it as a policy objective created a number of problems over the next decade.

First, it opened a gap between the United States and its allies. The majority of the coalition assembled against Hussein, including China, Russia, France and most Middle Eastern states, said sanctions should be lifted as he completed with inspections. This rift grew so big that by the decade’s end, France, Russia and China called for an end to sanctions even though weapons inspectors had not finished their work.

Conversely, Bush’s position reduced Hussein’s incentives for cooperating with inspections. Haass had envisioned compliance with inspections as offering a path out of sanctions. Without that outlet, Hussein had little reason to cooperate — especially since he believed cultivating the myth that he had weapons of mass destruction deterred regional foes and cowed his people.

Inflating the standard for success from defeating and deterring aggression and reducing Iraqi military capacity to overthrowing the regime left many American policymakers and politicians viewing containment as inadequate. In 1998, frustration with containment and Hussein’s continued obstruction of inspections prompted Congress to pass the bipartisan Iraq Liberation Act, which made regime change the official US policy.

Finally, Bush’s stance constrained his successors’ freedom of action. Clinton found this out the hard way shortly before taking office when he told an interview: “The people of Iraq would be better off if they had a different leader. But my job is not to pick their rulers for them.” Instead, Hussein could have “a different relationship with the United States” so long as he changed “his behavior.” The comments ignited a fierce backlash, and Clinton soon disclaimed any intention of “normalizing relations” with Iraq.

The episode revealed that without officially changing policy, Bush’s endorsement of regime change had combined with anger over Hussein’s survival, brutality and persistent harassment of inspectors to create a new red line in US politics, one that precluded a more flexible strategy.

Bush’s off-the-cuff comments unwittingly helped spark forces that, by the end of the decade, led most in the US foreign policy establishment to see containment as having failed or on the verge of failure. This consensus limited debate before the 2003 American invasion of Iraq to how to achieve regime change rather than whether it was necessary and whether a revived containment strategy could manage the Iraqi threat. As Sandy Berger, Clinton’s final national security adviser, said in early 2002, Hussein could not “be accommodated. Our goal should be regime change. The question is not whether, but how and when.”

This semi-intentional drift to regime change on Iraq between 1990 and 2003 is not a path the United States wants to take with Russia, a vastly more powerful state. Biden has no acceptable means of achieving regime change in Russia and does not have to pursue this end to compel Putin’s withdrawal from Ukraine. The Iraq case also vividly demonstrated that the abrupt removal of a long-entrenched dictator can unleash civil and regional disorder — causing new problems for US foreign policy.

Biden is right to express moral outrage at Putin’s brutality, untruths and naked aggression. Moreover, he deserves high marks for the current strategy of sanctions, deterrence, material support for Ukraine and the rallying of a broad coalition. But the Iraq case shows that if moral opprobrium and frustrated outbursts make it sound like the United States supports regime change, this can distort strategy, disrupt vital coalitions, raise the political standards for success, and push Putin away from negotiation. That would undermine American goals and push the world toward a greater crisis.

Putin already says that the United States has been trying to topple him for years and that the fate of Russia is at stake in this crisis. Confirming his delusions will only increase his recklessness, allow him to pose as the defender of Russian sovereignty against an existential foreign menace and reduce the space for a possible compromise.

One of the tragedies of foreign policy is that the United States has to fight aggression without always being able to eliminate its roots, which, in this case, lie mainly in Putin and his regime. Thinking that the United States can transcend this tragedy may create far worse problems, as the painful experience in Iraq demonstrates. Defeating Putin’s aggression and restoring Ukrainian sovereignty are tall enough tasks without embracing regime change and its attendant hazards.

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