Diplomacy has quieted the crisis caused by Saddam Hussein's latest demonstration of petulant behavior. But tensions are still high, and the possibility of a military showdown with the Gulf bully remains.
In this situation, the United States must preserve as much international consensus as it can in support of the UN weapons-inspection effort, which has proven effective and might be undermined by unilateral US military action. Although a number of military options exist, the US must avoid using threat or force in a way that could split the UN Security Council.
We also need to be sensitive to humanitarian concerns about punishing the Iraqi people in ways that leave Saddam unscathed. Weak threats and token strikes that have no real impact on what Saddam holds vital, would only allow him to show that he can defy the UN and the US with impunity. If the US does use military force in the future, its strategy must be precise and powerful - hitting Saddam where it hurts rather than giving him a slap on the wrist.
Before exercising any military options, the US needs to understand that the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) and sanctions are not a failure. Iraq imported more than $80 billion worth of arms during the Iran-Iraq war. It was importing around $3 billion worth of arms annually at the time of the Gulf War. It needs a minimum of about $1.5 billion worth of imports annually simply to keep its military machine alive. Iraq, however, has had no significant military imports since 1990, and has had no successes in mass producing a single advanced weapon domestically.
At the same time, UNSCOM has destroyed virtually all of Iraq's major facilities for producing missiles and chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. UNSCOM's intrusive monitoring program limits Iraq's incessant clandestine efforts and prevents it from rapidly resuming the manufacture of advanced biological and chemical arms. Keeping UNSCOM alive and effective is far more important than forcing a military showdown with Saddam.
If threats and negotiation can work, they should be allowed to do so. Unilateral US military action, or action with a limited or forced international consensus, should be a last resort because it runs the risk of undermining or ending support for sanctions.
But preventing Iraq from causing a proliferation of advanced weaponry in the region, thus touching off a vastly destabilizing arms race with neighboring Iran, is a vital national security interest for the US. So, too, is the defense of our Arab allies and Israel, and the protection of our own forces in the Gulf. Our economy is dependent on the global price and availability of oil, and the Persian Gulf is the key to energy security.
We should not be trigger happy, but military options should be kept at hand to serve all these interests. Fortunately, the US has options it can execute with, or without, allied support. They go far beyond the kind of pointlessly expensive slap on the wrist that the US has used in firing cruise missiles against targets Saddam does not really value, like an intelligence headquarters.
Some options do not require immediate US military action. We can shift the burden of triggering military action to Saddam by utilizing "halt or shoot" options like forbidding all Iraqi military fights. A nationwide no-fly zone would paralyze and weaken critical Iraqi military capabilities. Another step would be to demand a nationwide halt to all armored movements larger than battalion-sized units. This would destroy the Iraqi Army's ability to train and exercise.
A third option would be to attack and destroy any facility where UNSCOM is denied timely access. A fourth would be to destroy any facility where Iraq has interfered with the UN monitoring equipment or tags. None of these options would hurt the Iraqi people. All would threaten the "crown jewels" of Saddam's regime.
There are other "crown jewels" that the US could attack and which would not hurt the Iraqi people. These include air bases that house Saddam's remaining MiG-29s, Su-24s, and Mirage F-Is, the only aircraft he has remaining that really matter.
The US could expand its attacks to cover all critical Iraqi security facilities. Such an operation should be designed to kill as many military occupants as possible and should be sustained until Saddam completely backs down.
Destroying Iraq's remaining military production facilities on a step-by-step basis would confront Saddam with the risk of losing his conventional military capabilities. Ordinary Iraqis are also unlikely to mourn the destruction of Saddam's new palaces, giving us at least 17 targets that were built or rebuilt after UN sanctions began.
In short, we have good options if we are forced to use them in future confrontations with Saddam, and if we have the will to escalate beyond military tokenism. These options will exist long after the current crisis is past. They can be made part of a badly needed, clear, declaratory doctrine regarding Iraq.
It should be made unambiguously clear to the world that the US will enforce the terms of the UN cease-fire until Iraq's capability to produce weapons of mass destruction is destroyed and cannot be rebuilt.
* Anthony H. Cordesman is co-director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington.