What's Wrong with Containment?

BEST OF THE MARINE CORPS - May 2006 - Defense Visual Information Center
What's Wrong with Containment? - David Hallisey

The United Nations Security Council "... decides to remain seized of the matter." Such are the concluding words of United Na­tions Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1441, unanimously approved in November 2002, to address the "...threat of lraq's non­compliance and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction... ". But this is by no means a first. Remaining "seized of the matter" is also the conclusion of UNSCR resolutions 678, 686, 687, 688, 707, 715, 949, 986, 1051,1060, 1115, 1134, 1137, 1154, 1194, 1205, and 1284, which span more than a decade of diplomacy. Other common language resonating throughout these resolutions point to Iraq's ac­tions that ''threaten international peace and security" and call for Saddam Hussein to "unconditionally agree," allow "immediate, un­conditional and unrestricted access," and provide "immediate, com­plete and unconditional cooperation." Additionally, the resolutions repeatedly "condemn" or "deplore" Iraq's "clear and flagrant viola­tions," "continued violations," "totally unacceptable contravention [of its obligations]," and, as far back as 1998, warn of "the severest consequences" for further non-compliance. As for "material breach," this was already acknowledged in UNSCR 707 in August 1991, just four months after the signing of the cease-fire agreement. In total, there are seventeen binding Security Council resolutions on this re­curring theme, thirty statements from the president of the U.N. Se­curity Council regarding Saddam Hussein's violations, and an addi­tional twenty-eight resolutions regarding U.N. sanctions.1 The U.N. Security Council appears convincingly "seized of the matter ... " But seized to what, exactly?

Reading through the resolutions provides a framework of his­torical developments in Iraq, as well as an interpretation of future courses of action. For instance, there is no doubt that the Security Council believes Iraq, in its current state, poses a grave threat and that it must be disarmed. That has never been nor the issue at hand. What is in question now is how to achieve disarmament.

Options in Iraq are generally reduced to diplomacy or the use of force. The first option calls for continued containment, while the second calls for military intervention. It is easy to question and criti­cize the second option, as it carries with it the almost certain cost of human lives and, simultaneously, the uncertainty associated with the 'fog of war.' In contrast, the first option appears to avoid such costs, as it is crafted to rely on means such as deterrence, inspections, sanc­tions, and international pressure to achieve its aims - in this case, the disarmament of Iraq. These tools of diplomacy are usually suc­cessful, namely because they are backed by the credible threat of force in the event of non-compliance. Thus, the first option is able to find legitimacy and effectiveness vis-a-vis the second. In cases where diplomatic efforts fall short of their aim and are not reinforced with action - as is currently the situation in Iraq - then the costs of sus­taining such efforts can prove severe.

What exactly are the costs of continued containment in Iraq? Certainly there are basic economic costs to consider, but there are also other, less tangible (and yet more crucial) prices to pay, as well. Specifically, there are substantial opportunity costs of sustaining a stalled policy, coupled with severe credibility costs of inaction. Be­fore discussing each, however, it is helpful to understand the nature of diplomatic containment in Iraq and its shortcomings to date.


The policy of containment in Iraq over the last twelve years centers on three principles: unfettered access to Iraqi weapons by U.N. weapons inspectors to provide transparency, economic sanc­tions to induce compliance, and a military presence to enforce a no­ fly zone. These three pillars, taken individually or collectively, are not necessarily a failure, but in over twelve years of application (in varying degrees), they have exhausted their usefulness and have not succeeded in achieving their ultimate goal of disarmament. As con­tainment continues to miss the mark, both tangible and intangible costs continue to mount.


At the end of the Gulf War in 1991, the cease fire agreement (UNSCR 687) called for the disarmament of all of Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and medium to long-range ballistic mis­siles (missiles with a range greater than 150km), both of which Saddam employed in the past against his own population, as well as against his neighbors in the region. This disarmament was to be achieved through an unprecedented level of access to Iraqi military sites, personnel, and records to ensure full compliance, as well as to prevent future rearmament. The need for such unprecedented access, however, placed the success or failure of the inspections directly in the hands of Saddam, for he was the one who ultimately had to pro­vide the requisite cooperation. Armed with such unilateral power, it is no surprise that Saddam's 'unconditional' compliance was never forthcoming. Compliance, therefore, is the principal weakness of this first pillar of containment.

Security Council resolutions and warnings for Iraq to pro­vide access to weapons sites, presidential palaces, scientists, and documents frequently passed unheeded or met with delays and resis­tance. In many cases, Iraq's interpretation of 'unconditional coop­eration' went beyond mere hindrance and included hostile threats and use of force, such as firing warning shots, or attacking U.N. inspectors taking photographs.2 Even so-called improvements in cooperation do not reflect the unconditional level called for over the last twelve years. Scientists are yet to be interviewed outside Iraq with their families and valuable reconnaissance flights are negoti­ated, rather than granted.

In 1998, Saddam ceased all cooperation with inspectors and forced them to leave Iraq. Therefore, for more than four years, Iraq was left without any monitoring or accounting of its weapons pro­grams. Prior to leaving the country, the chief weapons inspector at the time, Richard Butler, was confident of the existence of chemical and biological weapons that had yet to be destroyed, including 400 biological weapon-capable bombs; 2,160 tons of growth media ca­pable of producing 26,000 liters of anthrax (three times the amount Iraq declared); 1,200 liters of botulin toxin; 5,500 liters of clostridium perfrigens (sixteen times the amount Iraq declared); 15,000 artillery shells capable of delivering nerve agents; 550 shells filled with mus­tard agents and 30,000 empty munitions that could be filled with chemical agents.3 To believe that Saddam subsequently abolished these programs and weapons on his own accord (or that he intends to now) is purely wishful thinking. Even Hans Blix, in his recent re­ports to the Security Council, shares the same concern with regard to Iraq's claimed unilateral destruction of biological agents.4 Comment­ing on the overall inspections process, Butler stated, "Iraq's record with dealing with inspectors... was very bad. Iraq cheated and de­ceived the inspectors, and it's not easy to think that they would be­have differently in the future. The new inspectorate, which was es­tablished to replace the previous one, has much weaker powers than those under which I operated. There is, therefore, considerable doubt... that future inspections would be very effective."5

Lacking true cooperation, inspections cannot find what Saddam does not allow to be found. Although those who champion the merits of these inspections point to the large quantities of arms destroyed under the auspices of inspectors, in reality, the greatest gains in this direction are a direct result of lraqi defectors and intel­ligence work. These sources provided critical information that then led inspectors to their 'goal.' In other words, inspectors cannot disarm Iraq, they can simply oversee it with a cooperative regime.

Inspections and verification do have their usefulness when operating under supportive governments. They helped achieve suc­cessful disarmament in cases such as South Africa, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan, but these models all had cooperative agents at the helm, not Saddam Hussein. An International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report from 1994 summarizes South Africa's nuclear disarmament and verification by stating, "... the results of extensive inspections and assessment, and the transparency and openness shown, have led to the conclusion that there were no indications to suggest that the initial inventory is incomplete or that the nuclear weapons program was not completely terminated and dismantled. "6 Unfortunately, in over twelve years, the IAEA has never come close to such encourag­ing language in reporting on Iraq's programs.

The United Nations should not be faulted for initially adopt­ing a robust inspection policy in 1991, but after countless violations, conditional demands and a persistently disingenuous regime, the international community is long overdue in changing its course. When cooperation is non-existent, inspections are non-effective in disar­mament. In 1991, some believed the inspections process should take only a matter of months, assuming the minimum levels of coopera­tion. Twelve years later, it continues with merely relative or incre­mental declarations of 'progress' and 'achievement' in cooperation, but still no transparency and, therefore, no disarmament.


The second pillar of containment is in the form of UNSCR 661, adopted in August 1990, which imposed sanctions on Iraq after its invasion of neighboring Kuwait. Sanctions, however, were not a tool with which the United Nations had a great deal of experience, especially in understanding near and long-term effects. Accordingly, in March 1991, the United Nations dispatched an inter-agency mis­sion to look into the humanitarian needs of Iraq, especially in light of its eight-year war with Iran that concluded in 1990 and the Gulf War that ended just the month before. The mission concluded: "... the Iraqi people may soon face a further imminent catastrophe, which could include epidemic and famine, if massive life-supporting needs are not rapidly met."7 In response, the United Nations offered pro­grams for Iraq to sell limited quantities of oil to generate revenues in order to meet its domestic needs. The government of Iraq repeatedly declined these offers. Eventually, the government agreed and an "oil for food" program was implemented in December 1996 after more than five years of unnecessary hardship on the Iraqi people.

Although this program originally contained caps and quotas on oil sales, today there is no limit to how much oil Iraq is allowed to sell under 'oil for food' in order to meet national requirements. Addi­tionally, the term 'oil for food' may be misleading, as the program includes provisions not only for food, but also health, transporta­tion, oil production, water and sanitation, agriculture, electricity, tele­communications, education, residential construction, internally dis­placed persons (IDPs), and even land mine clearing operations. De­spite the program's comprehensive reach, containment through sanc­tions is under heavy criticism for causing suffering of innocent Iraqi citizens. The number of deaths related to sanctions is disputed and varies from the hundreds of thousands to over one million, but the controversy is enough to diminish international support for the pro­gram.

On the other hand, many believe that Iraq has the resources to control needless suffering and the United Nations insists that sanc­tions can be lifted once Iraq demonstrates compliance with previous enacted resolutions, something which has not happened to date. Ad­ditionally, between 1993 and 1998, Iraq covertly negotiated contracts with more than 500 companies for a variety of prohibited items, in­cluding rocket motors, fuels, and gyroscopes.8 Meanwhile, several countries such as Russia, China, Germany and France have reestab­lished more normal business relations with Iraq outside of the rules of the sanctions. Such unraveling tends to discount calls for alterna­tives such as 'smart sanctions, in which the international commu­nity would voluntarily police itself from trading prohibited items with Iraq.

More important, however, is Saddam's own ability to subvert the sanctions for his personal gain. Most notable is Iraq's abil­ity to sell oil outside the U.N. program and, therefore, outside the oversight and controls of appropriating revenues where they are needed most. This is accomplished by smuggling the oil out of Iraq through well-established land and sea routes. Like other obstacles in the Iraqi issue, this is not a new problem. It began very early in the containment process and has endured for more than a decade.

According to State Department figures, illegal oil flow via sea routes known as the 'smuggler's superhighway' averaged ap­proximately 100,000 barrels per day in January 2000.9 The figures tend to rise and fall with various factors, but the revenues generated from this oil go straight into Saddam's treasury. According to a BBC report, these revenues (from sea smuggling alone) were estimated to be as much as one billion dollars a year.10 Additionally, Saddam's regime is well known to have sold U.N.-approved oil contracts with an unapproved premium attached, as well as reselling humanitarian goods with, a significant mark-up.

Unfortunately, there is little evidence to suggest that Saddam is using any of these extra revenues to help the humanitarian situa­tion in his country-a situation in which over half the population in rural areas does not have access to safe drinking water and 70 per­cent of children's deaths are due to diarrhea or respiratory problems, both of which are easily preventable.11 There is evidence, however, that he is spending on lavish palaces and personal aims, including dozens of newly constructed "villas," complete with gold fixtures, imported marble, man-made lakes, waterfalls, and zoos.12 Some of these palaces are reported to be as extravagant as Versailles. How does an economy such as Iraq's support such luxuries while the popu­lation suffers? This situation can only be achieved by Saddam's di­rect and indirect undermining of the Security Council's sanctions program.

The net result is that today, the UN-mandated sanctions have more to do with unintended consequences for the Iraqi people and less to do with achieving their aim of coercion to disarm.

No-Fly Zone (Military Presence)

A containment policy for Iraq is often compared to keeping Saddam in a box. Inspectors and sanctions help to disarm him in that box and as long as he is there, what harm can he do to international peace and security? As it turns out, quite a bit.

Immediately after the 1991 Gulf War, despite a battered army, a U.N. footprint in the country, and economic sanctions in place, Saddam was still able to use his military to repress ethnic groups in the north and south of Iraq - namely the Kurds and Shiite Muslims. U.N. Security Council Resolution 688 was issued in April 1991 to demand an end to this repression. As a result, a third pillar of con­tainment, a U.S./U.K.13 enforced no-fly zone in northern and south­ern Iraq, was installed. The no-fly zones prevent Iraq from flying aircraft or helicopters north of the thirty-sixth parallel or south of the thirty-third parallel, an area encompassing approximately 62 per­cent of Iraqi territory, 14 especially where ethnic groups are concen­trated. Overall, the northern and southern no-fly zones, patrolled on a daily basis for over ten years, have proved helpful in preventing Saddam from mobilizing his military against ethnic groups or neigh­bors, but cannot prevent other means of repression, such as police brutality, or security threats like those stemming from weapons of mass destruction.

Although a helpful tool in containing Saddam, the no-fly zones do not induce disarmament. Additionally, these U.S./U.K. military operations are wrought with controversy and lack international sup­port. The reason for this controversy is that in implementing the no ­fly zones, the United States refers to UNSCR 688, which demands that Iraq end repression of its population, as well as pointing to the cease-fire agreement (UNSCR 687), which forbids Iraq from inter­fering with allied air operations over the country. However, because UNSCR 688 was not passed under Chapter VII (peace and security) provisions, other countries do not hold the same interpretation that military action is permitted to enforce its terms.15

As a result, Saddam exploits this lack of international sup­port and is emboldened to provoke attacks against U.S. and British aircraft on patrol. When fired upon, the pilots fire back at the anti­aircraft batteries on the ground, invoking rights of self-defense. If the no-fly zones were fully backed by the United Nations, however, firing upon the aircraft would be akin to an act of war, rather than just another 'incident'. These incidents occur on such a regular basis that they are now routine. In the first seven months of 2001 in the southern no-fly zone alone, there were as many as 370 provocations.16 In essence, an entire generation of Navy and Air Force fighter pilots has been groomed under a decade of daily enforcement of the no-fly zones. Although no American or British aircraft have been lost to date, the risk is always present and increases with time - highlight­ing, again, the dangerous costs associated with the interpretation of words.

Despite containment, Saddam still finds sufficient maneuver­ing room with respect to inspections, sanctions and the no-fly zone through acts of propaganda, repression, defiance and even terror­ism. In fact, in over ten years, Saddam has managed to violate every measure of the original cease-fire agreement of 1991. These mea­sures range not only from disarmament issues, but also the return of Kuwaiti prisoners of war and information on unaccounted for or dis­placed persons. An Amnesty International report ranks Iraq as the worst country in the world in terms of missing persons.17 Further­more, in 1994, Saddam tried to mass troops again near the Kuwaiti border, similar to his build up prior to the 1990 invasion of that country, and in 1993, his intelligence service was linked to an assas­sination plot against George Bush when the former U.S. president was visiting Kuwait. More recent evidence suggests continued ties to terrorism, the most open of which is his well-advertised U.S.$25,000 payments to families of Palestinian suicide bombers.

Additionally, for almost 30 years, Saddam has sought to make Iraq a nuclear-armed state, able to assert sweeping power over the entire Middle-East region. Within the last twelve years, under closer scrutiny, inspection and supervision than any country in history, the IAEA and UNSCOM have repeatedly underestimated or grossly mis­calculated Iraq's nuclear weapons program and progress, thanks to Saddam's lack of cooperation. Simply stated, U.N. inspectors do not have an accurate picture of Saddam's nuclear, chemical or biologi­cal programs, nor will they be able to achieve it through contain­ment.


Saddam's box, therefore, is not airtight. In fact it is riddled with holes in that inspectors require an ever-elusive degree of coop­eration, sanctions are circumvented and undermined, and the no-fly zone lacks U.N. support and legitimacy. In such a scenario, contain­ment does not equate to compliance and disarmament-not in twelve years of trying, nor in the future. Using resolutions and containment alone, the United Nations cannot inspect, coerce or deter Saddam into compliance and so until the United Nations is willing to enforce its words, or as long as Saddam remains in power, a stalemate en­sues. The Clinton administration recognized this dilemma, as did the Congress, when it adopted an official policy of regime change in Iraq, titled House Resolution 4655, "The Iraqi Liberation Act of 1988." Perhaps the more appropriate questions are not, "Why Iraq?" and "Why now?" but rather "What next?" and "Why this long?"

In Iraq, continued containment cannot achieve its aims. In­stead, such a policy erodes the cohesiveness oft he international com­munity. On the whole, this policy requires paying out over time the cost of lost opportunities and the cost of lost credibility, exacting a near unbearable toll on the future.

Lost Opportunities

For the last half of the twentieth century, the United States maintained an interest in ensuring stability in the Gulf region due to the geographic significance of the area and the world's need for se­cure oil supplies. Prior to 1991, this usually amounted to an "over the horizon" presence - out of the way, but close enough to respond to a crisis. However, since Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, and at the request of other nations in the region, the United States built up size­able military forces in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait itself. The United States also committed to maintain at least one Carirer Battle Group in the immediate area, 365 days a year. These forces provide regional security for many of Iraq's neighbors and also serve as a means of enforcing the pillars of containment. But what would these forces be doing if there were a previously dis­armed and non-threatening Iraqi regime? It is hard to say, but hav­ing to provide security, deter aggression, and enforce the last twelve years of containment in the region might not have had the same pri­ority or borne the same costs.

Perhaps a secure and peaceful Iraq could have yielded better or more productive engagement elsewhere in the world by both the United States and the international community. More proactive or timely attention in areas such as Chechnya, Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Israel-Palestine, East Timor, the Kosovo, Kashmir, Columbia, Tai­wan, China, Afghanistan, North Korea and even international terror­ism are just a few worthy candidates from the last decade that come to mind. Thomas Barnett, a professor at the U.S. Naval War Col­lege, aptly explains that conflicts cannot be resolved without secu­rity and "security is [the United States'] most influential public-sec­tor export." By this he does not mean arms exports, but rather " ... the attention paid by [American] military forces to any region's po­tential for mass violence."18 Although the United States and the international community may not have the will or resources to en­gage in all situations, containment attention allocated to Iraq is at­tention unavailable elsewhere. This does not even mention where a previously disarmed Iraq might be today -years ahead of its current situation in progress, development, and rebuilding, as well as the prospects of its twenty-three million citizens living under repression and another four million living in exile.

Additionally, stationing troops in foreign countries (even as guests of the host government) is not always a popular policy, both at home and abroad. Therefore, the need to export security in this way sometimes comes with another cost worth mentioning: the cost of resentment. This was true at various times and in various places during the Cold War, and has received renewed attention recently in South Korea. The case of Saudi Arabia, however, is especially dramatic.

Saudi Arabia is the proclaimed guardian of the two holiest Muslim cities, Mecca and Medina. American forces operating from Saudi Arabia, whether providing security or containment, are an af­front to many Arabs. In fact, a stated objective of Osama bin Laden (a former Saudi citizen) in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks was to "... free the Peninsula from the blasphemous," referring to the approxi­mately 5 ,000 U.S. troops stationed in Saudi Arabia. While these troops (who were put in place to contain Iraq) may not have been the imme­diate cause for the terrorist attacks, there is an implied correlation and, therefore, an associated price that was paid.

Lost Credibility

Opportunity costs and trade-offs in Iraq are mostly specula­tive. What is not so unknown is the credibility costs associated with the last twelve years of chasing containment without achieving its aim. History has shown with the League of Nations that a lack of resolve or will to act is death to such an organization. Accumulating one U.N. resolution after another for more than a decade, despite language such as "condemn," "deplore," "totally unacceptable," or even "severe consequences" does not instill security. "Remain[ing] seized of the matter" does not create credibility. What does achieve this is a willingness to back words with action, when necessary. Without it, what incentive does any state have to comply with the United Nations? One need only look at the current Iraqi model for a recipe of how to obfuscate and buy time.

The loss of international credibility, reduced slowly and al­most unnoticeably over a period of twelve years, adds up. Every time Saddam defies a resolution and is not held accountable, credibility is lost. Likewise, every oil smuggler who delivers his cargo from Iraq and every Iraqi missile fired at U.S. and British aircraft also erode credibility. Once lost, it is nearly impossible to restore. So why can­not more be done to prevent losing this precious commodity? An illuminating example of the complexities and challenges involved is seen in the 'smuggler's superhighway,' where multinational forces battle to enforce U.N. credibility on a round-the-clock basis.

Since 1991, naval forces have engaged in continuous Mari­time Interdiction Operations (MIO) in the North Arabian Gulf to stop, board, inspect, and seize (if necessary) all vessels entering and exiting Iraqi ports. However one problem is that the smugglers can­not be boarded or stopped at the source, inside Iraq, where it makes most sense to put a "cork in the bottle." Instead, multinational forces have to stand off, respecting Iraq's twelve nautical mile territorial limits, thereby giving the illicit tankers, barges, cargo ships and essentially anything that floats plenty of room to maneuver. In the past, the maneuver simply meant turning east and, after paying a protection fee to Iranian authorities, transiting the Gulf under cover of lranian territorial waters. So, despite the fact that satellite imagery and other sources give queuing and verification of ships arriving at, loading in and departing from Iraqi ports, the smugglers remain vir­tually untouchable and off-limits unless they have to enter recog­nized international waters. The few that do, if caught, are at worst off-loaded of their illicit cargo at sea and turned back to Iraq to pos­sibly try again another day. The only penalty is a loss of time and money.

Additionally, over the course of more than a decade, the stakes and risks the smugglers are willing to accept have escalated. Today, Gulf smugglers resort to marginally sea-worthy vessels, welding safety hatches and doors shut (to prevent access), sabotage and even inten­tionally scuttling or burning their ships to preclude seizure by multi­national forces. This last act has become more common and has re­sulted in loss of lives (crew members as well as boarding teams) and ecological disasters in the Northern Gulf. The encouraging news is that in October last year, Iran stopped allowing the smugglers to use its territorial seas, thereby dramatically increasing the number of sei­zures. Unfortunately, the motivation for and duration of this change of policy is uncertain. Furthermore, in addition to, or in the absence of viable sea routes, the illicit oil also flows out of lraq via trucks and pipelines where enforcement also depends primarily upon coopera­tion of neighboring states.


The United Nations cannot continue to stand on the crum­bling pillars of containment with respect to Iraq. The costs of this twelve-year course of inaction have taken a toll. Unfortunately, other options are now equally unattractive or not viable. Containment is not capable of being reformed or reinforced today. Proposals for more inspectors and more time simply miss the point. Doubling or tri­pling the number of inspectors ignores the key ingredient of coop­eration that is required. Furthermore, the United Nations does not need more time to "further condemn" Iraq's "flagrant violations;" it needs resolve to take the action that its multiple resolutions have called for already. Similarly, alternative ideas of 'smart sanctions' and voluntary enforcement are unrealistic when binding sanctions are ignored and circumvention is too profitable. Besides, is the lift­ing of sanctions and the policy of rewarding defiance the precedent the international community wants to set? Even a deterrence policy akin to the kind that won the Cold War does not work with a dictator who remains undeterred by threatening language, troop build-ups or even military action. Unlike the conservative leadership of the So­viet Union, Saddam is willing to take risks.

What is most important today is an international understand­ing and appreciation of the stakes in the current scenario. Genuine progress and, therefore, disarmament (read: the will of the interna­tional community) cannot be achieved without a fundamental change. That change should be resolve by the United Nations to abandon its twelve years of words and prepare for the action necessary to disarm Iraq. The opportunity and credibility costs of inaction in this case outweigh the potential costs of action.

Resorting to force as a last resort is a good motto, but it has run its due course in Iraq. Twelve years is not a rush to war. The current box built to contain Saddam also constrains the United Na­tions. For the United Nations this is a box of quicksand, which is not always quick, but terribly dangerous when one fails to recognize it, or stays too long. The more time that goes by, the harder it is to extract oneself. Hopefully, the United Nations is not quite as "seized" as it professes to be.