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Containment a costly, deadly failure

Those who still oppose war in Iraq think containment is an alternative _ a middle way between all-out war and letting Saddam Hussein out of his box. They are wrong. Sanctions are inevitably the cornerstone of containment, and in Iraq, sanctions kill.

In this case, containment is not an alternative to war. Containment is war: a slow, grinding war in which the only certainty is that hundreds of thousands of civilians will die.

The Gulf War killed somewhere between 21,000 and 35,000 Iraqis, of whom between 1,000 and 5,000 were civilians.

Based on Iraqi government figures, UNICEF estimates that containment kills roughly 5,000 Iraqi babies (children under 5 years of age) every month, or 60,000 per year. Other estimates are lower, but by any reasonable estimate containment kills about as many people every year as the Gulf War _ and almost all the victims of containment are civilian, and two-thirds are children under 5.

Each year of containment is a new Gulf War.

Saddam Hussein is 65; containing him for another 10 years condemns at least another 360,000 Iraqis to death. Of these, 240,000 will be children under 5.

Those are the low-end estimates. Believe UNICEF and 10 more years kills 600,000 Iraqi babies and altogether almost 1-million Iraqis.

Ever since U.N.-mandated sanctions took effect, Iraqi propaganda has blamed the United States for deliberately murdering Iraqi babies to further U.S. foreign policy goals. Wrong.

The sanctions exist only because Saddam Hussein has refused for 12 years to honor the terms of a cease-fire he himself signed. In any case, the United Nations and the United States allow Iraq to sell enough oil each month to meet the basic needs of Iraqi civilians. Hussein diverts these resources. Hussein murders the babies. But containment enables the slaughter.

The slaughter of innocents is the worst cost of containment, but it is not the only cost. Containment allows Saddam Hussein to control the political climate of the Middle East. If it serves his interest to provoke a crisis, he can shoot at U.S. planes. He can mobilize his troops near Kuwait. He can support terrorists and destabilize his neighbors. The United States must respond to these provocations.

Worse, containment forces the United States to keep large conventional forces in Saudi Arabia and the rest of the region. That costs much more than money.

The existence of al-Qaida, and the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, are part of the price the United States has paid to contain Saddam Hussein.

The link is clear and direct. Since 1991 the United States has had forces in Saudi Arabia. Those forces are there for one purpose only: to defend the kingdom (and its neighbors) from Iraqi attack. If Saddam Hussein had either fallen from power in 1991 or fulfilled the terms of his cease-fire agreement and disarmed, U.S. forces would have left Saudi Arabia.

But Iraqi defiance forced the United States to stay, and one consequence was dire and direct. Osama bin Laden founded al-Qaida because U.S. forces stayed in Saudi Arabia.

This is the link between Saddam Hussein's defiance of international law and the events of Sept. 11; it is clear and compelling.

So that is our cost. And what have we bought?

We've bought the right of a dictator to suppress his own people, disturb the peace of the region and make the world darker and more dangerous for the American people.

We've bought the continuing presence of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia, causing a profound religious offense to a billion Muslims around the world, and accelerating the alarming drift of Saudi religious and political leaders toward ever more extreme forms of anti-Americanism.

Morally, politically, financially, containing Iraq is one of the costliest failures in the history of American foreign policy. Containment can be tweaked _ made a little less murderous, a little less dangerous, a little less futile _ but the basic equations don't change. Containing Hussein delivers civilians into the hands of a murderous psychopath, destabilizes the whole Middle East and foments anti-American terror _ with no end in sight.

This is disaster, not policy. It is time for a change.

Walter Russell Mead is senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and author most recently of Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World.

Special to the Washington Post