Updated December 23, 1998
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
Iraq: U.S. Policy Options
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs
Foreign Affairs and National Defense Division
In the aftermath of the December 16-19 U.S.-British bombing campaign against
Iraq (Operation Desert Fox), the United States continues to search for a sustainable and
effective means of ending the threat posed by Iraq. Many in Congress believe that U.S.
policy should focus primarily on removing Saddam Husayn from power. The
Administration says it is working toward that outcome but that achieving it will be
difficult. According to the Administration, near term U.S. policy should focus primarily
on preventing any restart of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs and
on containing Iraq's ability to threaten its neighbors. This report will be updated to
reflect regional, diplomatic, or legislative developments.
Repeated crises with Iraq over disarmament issues1 have elicited a wide range of
suggestions in Congress and among outside experts for dealing with the threat from Iraq
over the long term. Even before Operation Desert Fox, there was a consensus within and
outside the Administration that, as long as Saddam Husayn presides over Iraq, that
country will pose a continuing threat to U.S. forces, allies, and economic and political
interests in the Persian Gulf and Middle East region. Some other countries, including
permanent members of the U.N. Security Council France, Russia, and China, argue that
Iraq, even under its existing leadership, can and should be coaxed back into the family of
nations. Options for dealing with Iraq range from launching a U.S. ground invasion of
Iraq to overturn the current regime, all the way to lifting international sanctions and
establishing a political dialogue between Washington and Baghdad. (For information on
past and current U.S. efforts to change the regime in Iraq, see CRS Report 98-179 F,
Iraq's Opposition Movements.)
For background on the recent crises, see CRS Issue Brief 92117, Iraqi Compliance With
Ceasefire Agreements, and CRS Issue Brief 94049, Iraq-U.S. Confrontations.
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
The Current Policy: Containment Plus
In the aftermath of Operation Desert Fox, high-ranking U.S. officials state that the
primary goal of U.S. policy remains the containment of the threat posed by Iraq’s current
regime to Iraq’s neighbors and the world, using additional military force if necessary.
For the seven years since the 1991 Gulf war, the primary mechanism for accomplishing
this objective has been to ensure that the U.N. weapons inspection and monitoring regime
maintains robust and to work to maintain comprehensive international sanctions on Iraq
until it complies with all applicable U.N. resolutions. The United States and Britain also
maintain no fly zones over northern and southern Iraq (France overflies part of the
southern zone), and the United States and Britain have told Iraq they will enforce a U.N.
prohibition on the reinforcement of Iraqi ground forces in the south.
In explaining why he aborted an earlier airstrike campaign, President Clinton said
November 15, 1998 that restoring a robust WMD inspections program is the optimal goal
for the United States, because inspectors (UNSCOM) on the ground represent the best
means of preventing and/or detecting any restart of prohibited Iraqi weapons programs.
For now, Operation Desert Fox has, as was predicted, led to a suspension of UNSCOM's
work in Iraq, including the monitoring of industrial facilities that could be converted to
WMD production. Iraq is threatening never to allow UNSCOM back into Iraq. The
airstrike campaign, according to the Administration, succeeded in degrading Iraq's ability
to restart its WMD programs, particularly its ability to produce prohibited missiles, and
reduced the threat Iraq poses to its neighbors.
The United States has threatened further airstrikes if it detects a restart of any WMD
programs or Iraqi attempts to threaten its neighbors. However, in the absence of an
UNSCOM presence in Iraq, it is unclear whether U.S. intelligence alone is capable of
detecting a reconstitution of Iraqi WMD programs. The United States has said it wants
UNSCOM to reenter Iraq — provided Iraq gives it full cooperation — and the
Administration has implied that it will entertain some Russian and French proposals to
encourage Iraq to accept the resumption of a weapons inspections and/or monitoring
Although seeking to keep Iraq contained, since November 1998 the Administration
has stated openly that it would prefer a new government in Iraq. Congress has expressed
its support for regime change in Iraq, most recently in the Iraq Liberation Act (P.L. 105338, October 31, 1998) and H.Res.612 (December 17, 1998), supporting U.S. forces in
Operation Desert Fox. During 1991-1996, the Bush and Clinton Administrations backed
groups and initiatives intended to overthrow the regime, although the U.S. financial and
political resources committed to the efforts were relatively small. However, many in and
outside the Administration believe that the organized opposition is too weak and divided
to oust Saddam and that there are no certain means of promoting an internal military or
Ba'th Party coup against him.
The target list for Operation Desert Fox appeared to answer calls for a use of U.S.
airpower to help promote the goal of removing Saddam from power. Some outside
experts believed that airstrikes should target Saddam's power bases in Iraq, such as the
Republican Guard, the Special Republican Guard, and the intelligence services, in an
attempt to prompt a coup against him. According to this view, under this scenario
elements in the military and security forces will conclude that they will not survive unless
they displace Saddam Husayn. Several targets in these categories were damaged in the
operation, but there was no evidence of resulting military unrest against Saddam.
Suggested Modifications to Current Policy
The Administration asserts that U.S. policy will be able to keep Iraq in a “strategic
box,” but many in Congress and in the policy community see the need for adjustments.
Many of these suggested changes to existing policy do not necessarily center around
stronger steps on behalf of the Iraqi opposition. One observer, Richard Haass, Director
of Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, believes that a straightforward
containment policy is achievable and realistic, and that the Administration should not
openly seek the overthrow of the Iraqi regime or insist on an indefinite maintenance of
This suggestion is in line with the views of U.S. allies and other countries that
believe the United States should indicate its willingness, in line with Paragraph 22 of U.N.
Security Council Resolution 687, to lift the embargo on Iraqi oil exports in return for Iraqi
compliance with all post-war agreements. These countries maintain that Iraq does not
now have sufficient incentive to comply on WMD issues because it believes the United
States will not permit the easing of sanctions as long as Saddam rules Iraq. Some U.S.
allies also believe that a stated U.S. desire to change the regime in Iraq removes Iraqi
incentives to comply with U.N. resolutions, none of which mentions Saddam's removal.
These sentiments form the basis of French and Russian efforts, in the aftermath of
Operation Desert Fox, to encourage Iraq to resume cooperation with a WMD
inspection/monitoring regime by offering to restrict UNSCOM's activities or ease
sanctions. France is said to be promoting a more limited UNSCOM operation and a
monitored lifting of the ban on international trade with Iraq. Russia is suggesting reviving
the idea of a comprehensive review of all outstanding requirements on Iraq, along the
lines of that offered to Iraq prior to Operation Desert Fox. The United States rejects the
easing of sanctions, but some press reports indicate it might agree to relegating some
weapons categories, particularly nuclear issues, to monitoring rather than continued
inspections. During mid 1998, Russia had tried to persuade the United States to agree to
this change in nuclear inspections as an incentive to Iraq.
Some outside experts believe that Iran can contribute more than tactical benefits to
the U.S. effort to contain Iraq. These experts maintain that, because Iran and Iraq are
longtime rivals, continued warming of U.S.-Iran relations could place additional pressure
on Iraq.3 On the other hand, this suggestion might not take sufficient account of the
significant improvement in Iranian-Iraqi relations over the past two years, culminating in
an early April 1998 mutual release of almost 6,000 prisoners from the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq
war. A U.S. effort to use Iran as a counterweight to Iraq could also represent a return to
Haass, Richard. Containing Iraq Without War. Washington Post, February 20, 1998.
Friedman, Thomas. A One Word Strategy. New York Times editorial, January 6, 1998. P.A21.
a previous U.S. policy of alternately tilting toward Iran or Iraq to maintain Gulf stability.4
Another option attempts to strengthen containment by addressing the apparent
erosion of Arab support for U.S. efforts to maintain international sanctions on Iraq.
Many experts, and some Administration officials involved in the peace process, believe
Arab governments and public opinion see a double standard in which the United States
strictly enforces U.N. resolutions on Iraq but does not press for full Israeli compliance on
relevant U.N. resolutions.5 Others counter that the two situations are not nearly
comparable, arguing that Israel is a small state surrounded by potentially hostile neighbors
and has never used weapons of mass destruction against its adversaries, as has Iraq. The
United States has tried to address this issue, in part, by helping broker the October 1998
Wye River Memorandum which provided for Israel to withdraw from additional territory.
Despite the Wye accords, several Arab states gave only grudging public support to
Operation Desert Fox on the grounds that Iraq was to blame for inviting U.S. military
action by violating U.N. resolutions. Saudi Arabia, a close ally of the United States, did
not allow strike aircraft to operate from Saudi territory. Operation Desert Fox also
touched off anti-American demonstrations in Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestinian
territories, and in Syria, where demonstrators entered the grounds of the U.S. Embassy
and Ambassador's residence.
Potential Major Shifts in U.S. Policy
Some believe that the options described above will not ensure protection of U.S.
interests in the Persian Gulf and Middle East, and they advocate dramatic changes in U.S.
policy toward Iraq.
U.S. Ground Offensive. At one end of the policy spectrum are those who believe
that Saddam poses a long term threat to the region sufficient to warrant a U.S. ground
offensive, if needed, to ensure his ouster.6 In the absence of any new Iraqi threat to use
military force or weapons of mass destruction, the Administration appears to have rejected
this option. Defense Department military planners believe that at least 200,000 U.S.
ground troops — a significant proportion of total U.S. forces — would be required to
enter Iraq in sufficient force to ensure collapse of the regime. Iraqi forces would likely
fight hard and cause major U.S. casualties if U.S. forces drew close to major cities, such
as Basra, although some observers believe the Iraqi military might quickly turn on
Saddam. Administration officials doubt that Saudi Arabia, which has been hesitant to
allow U.S. airstrikes against Iraq in the 1998 inspections crises, would permit the
stationing of U.S. ground forces for a move against Iraq. Kuwait is too small and its
facilities too limited to serve as a staging area for a major U.S. military operation in Iraq.
See, Searching for Stable Peace in the Persian Gulf. U.S. Army War College, February 2,
1998, by (name r edacted). The author maintains that this policy might have contributed to the
fall of the Shah of Iran, the rise to power of Saddam Husayn, Iraq’s development of weapons of
mass destruction, and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
Wright, Robin. White House Mulls Policies on Iraq.
Advocates of this option include William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, and Robert
Kagan, a senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Iran and many Arab states do not want to see a Western power invade and occupy an Arab
state and would not be expected to support this option, even though each of those
countries has been at odds with Iraq at various times over the past few decades. On
December 23, 1998, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger again publicly ruled out this
option as too risky, too costly, and having the potential to turn the United States into an
occupying power in Iraq.
Diplomacy and Engagement. Another option, diametrically opposed to the above
and little discussed among policy experts, is to reopen official ties to the Iraqi government
and offer other incentives for Iraq to fully comply with applicable U.N. resolutions.
Jordan’s King Husayn reportedly planned to recommend this option in talks with
Administration officials in mid-March 1998, but the Administration signaled, in advance
of his visit, that a U.S.-Iraq dialogue is not under consideration.7 King Husayn and
Crown Prince Hassan (acting as regent in King Husayn's absence for cancer treatment)
believe that a U.S. dialogue with Iraq could help the United States communicate the
reasons for its insistence on full compliance and hold out for Iraq the hope that
compliance would lead to an easing of international sanctions. The Administration and
other opponents of the idea assert that Iraq would likely view a U.S. offer of dialogue as
a sign that it can achieve lifting of sanctions without full compliance.
There has been some discussion of options short of full diplomatic engagement but
leaning in that direction. Some experts believe the United States could accept a lifting of
most international sanctions while at the same time protecting U.S. interests by
articulating a posture of military deterrence should Iraq threaten its neighbors. Some
observers who favor this posture, such as Carter Administration National Security Adviser
Zbigniew Brzezinski, suggest that Iraq is strategically weak and that the United States
could easily undertake military action if Iraq is detected restarting its weapons of mass
destruction programs or attempts to use any such weapons. Some maintain that Iraq was
deterred from using chemical weapons against coalition forces during the Gulf war
because of implied U.S. implied threats of massive (nuclear) retaliation. Supporters of
this option also argue that, at the height of the Cold War, U.S. deterrence strategy helped
prevent aggression by the Soviet Union, a far more formidable military power than Iraq.
Opponents of this idea maintain that Saddam's leadership of Iraq is highly personal and
not necessarily subject to the rational strategic calculations that characterized the Soviet
A related option could be to draw Iraq into regional security talks with the Persian
Gulf monarchies and Iran, focusing on conventional arms control and Gulf-wide
monitoring of weapons of mass destruction programs.8 Such an option could provide Iraq
hope of rejoining the international community, while ensuring that it does not reemerge
as a security threat. This option does not appear to be under consideration by the
Administration at this time, probably because the Administration doubts that Iraq can be
trusted to abide by any security agreement.
Faraj, Caroline, and Opall, Barbara. Clinton Spurns Hussein on Iraq. Defense News, March 915, 1998. P.1.
See articles by (name redacted) entitled Beyond Dual Containment. Middle East Insight ,
November 1995 and the Emirates Center Occasional Papers, January 1997, and Searching for
Stable Peace in the Persian Gulf. U.S. Army War College, February 2, 1998.
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