: The Iraq Problem: U.S. Foreign Policy in the Balance
The Iraq Problem: U.S. Foreign Policy in the Balance

Stratfor,14 February 2002


The U.S. State and Defense Departments appear to be pushing differing strategies for potentially removing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from power. Whichever faction eventually prevails will help decide future U.S. foreign policy not only in Iraq but also throughout the world.


A stream of ex-Iraqi military officers has been invited to Washington in recent months to explore options for overthrowing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. According to, several meetings in early November and December were held under the auspices of the Middle East Institute, a private group headed by former top U.S. State Department officials.

The Bush administration appears divided over how to remove Hussein. Although the State Department reportedly favors working with dissident elements inside and outside the Iraqi military, the Defense Department is said to favor working with the Iraqi National Congress (INC), a coalition of opposition groups ranging from monarchists to Kurdish nationals. The option that is eventually chosen will not just affect the internal situation in Iraq; it may also shape the future of U.S. foreign policy.

The recent Middle East Institute meetings were attended by ex-Iraqi military officers such as Najib Al-Salihi, a former chief of staff in the elite Republican Guard, and former Brig. Gen. Fawzi Al-Shamary, an important figure among mid-level Sunni Muslims. Several other former senior Iraqi officers accepted the invitation but could not get visas in time.

U.S. attendees included Middle East Institute President Edward S. Walker Jr., who was the State Department's top Middle East official in the Clinton administration, and Whitley Bruner, a former CIA chief of station in Iraq. Also on hand was Michael Eisenstadt, an Arab military specialist on temporary assignment to the U.S. Central Command.

Although the Iraqi visits were unofficial, the timing and the institute's connections with the State Department suggest that these were more than just social calls. Furthermore, the officers' airline tickets and other expenses were paid for by the State Department, according to Salon.

Despite the efforts by State, the Pentagon seems to have thrown its weight behind the INC and its chairman, Ahmed Chalabi. Though the INC's critics, mostly in the State Department and CIA, argue that the group has no following in Iraq, Chalabi still remains a favorite at the Pentagon, where he was a guest of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz in November.

The potential allies chosen by State and Defense reveal volumes about how each wishes to deal with Hussein and with U.S. foreign policy in the Persian Gulf in general.

The State Department is counting on a coup within the Iraqi army to unseat Hussein. By doing so it is choosing the quiet option, one that will cause the fewest ripples in the Middle East and the rest of the world.

The coup might be sparked by limited U.S. military action, probably bombings and Special Operations forces, but it would not require the multi-division troop deployments seen in the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and thus would not require extensive involvement by Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey or other U.S. allies in the Gulf. The coup option is by far the least intrusive and least messy option the White House is considering.

A U.S.-backed military regime in Iraq would likely keep the country strong enough to continue as a balance to Iran, something Washington has fostered for two decades. The coup option would minimize the number of international bridges the Bush administration would have to burn and would allow the international system to return largely to the way things were before Sept. 11.

The Pentagon is proposing an entirely different approach. It is doubtful that the Department of Defense believes the INC has the military strength to overthrow Hussein or the political ability and cohesion to rule Iraq in the aftermath. Rather, leaders at the Pentagon are probably planning a conventional military campaign against Iraq under the pretext of supporting an INC revolution. Such a campaign would put immense pressure on U.S. relations with basically every nation in the Middle East.

But what would come next is the really interesting part. There is little chance the INC could maintain Iraq's position as a credible counterweight to Iran. They'd be lucky if they could stay in office. This doesn't bother the Pentagon, which would rather deal with a weak, destabilized Iraq than with a military regime that might eventually turn against the United States as Hussein did.

But allowing a weak government in Iraq would throw a monkey wrench into Washington's policy of balancing an equally strong Iraq and Iran, ensuring that neither country gets too powerful to contain. This strongly suggests the Pentagon is willing to contain Iran in some other manner -- ranging from heavier sanctions to military action.

The State Department wants to maintain and refine Washington's previous foreign policy, which was multilateral at its core. The Pentagon wants to turn that foreign policy on its head and take advantage of what it sees as nearly insurmountable U.S. advantages in military and economic power.

It is not clear that either strategy has yet been chosen, though a decision is expected within a month or two. But the choice will set the course for U.S. foreign policy for years to come.

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