Inverse Engagement: Lessons from US-Iraq Relations, 1982-1990

Article excerpt

February 2003 marked the 12th anniversary of the liberation of Kuwait by the United States and its global allies and their near-total victory over the military forces of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in Operation Desert Storm. However, much to the surprise of members of the first Bush Administration, academic scholars, military analysts, media pundits, foreign policy experts, and the average layman, Saddam Hussein remained in power in Iraq and continued to successfully defy the international community. Regardless of the military success of the US war with Iraq prosecuted by the second Bush Administration in 2003, Saddam's longevity should in itself serve as a significant warning to policymakers that something may be amiss in the formulation and execution of US foreign policy. In this article I reexamine the fundamental intellectual assumptions of what is known as "engagement," the foreign policy doctrine that guided US behavior toward Iraq in the decade preceding Saddam's invasion of Kuwait. Despite the whol esale failure of engagement in Iraq before 1990, the fundamental assumptions that guided US engagement policies have remained largely unexamined. This failure to acknowledge historic mistakes raises the disturbing possibility that similar failures of engagement may occur in Washington's strategic relationships with other problematic international actors and rogue states.

Engagement in Practice: US Relations with Iraq, 1982-1990

Engagement serves as a core policy doctrine of US national security strategy in the 21st century. (1) In practice, implementing engagement relies heavily on the manipulation of economic incentives, primarily in the areas of trade and finance, to influence the behavior of other states. Engagement uses economic interdependence, or mutual dependence, to create ties that bind states together. Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye suggest that economic interdependence should be understood in terms of the power to influence, or the effects on each state of their trade linkages. Indeed, as many scholars have indicated, states have long recognized the truth that power generally flows from asymmetrical (or imbalanced) interdependence. (2) In keeping with this tradition, Keohane and Nye stress that when planning an effective diplomatic strategy, "It is asymmetries in dependence that are most likely to provide sources of influence for actors in their dealings with one another. Less dependent actors can often use the interdepend ent relationship as a source of power in bargaining over an issue and perhaps to affect other issues." (3) At its core, economic statecraft is founded on the principle of asymmetrical power.

In 1979 political turmoil in the Middle East forever changed the regional strategic landscape. In January of that year a groundswell of Islamist protesters drove the Shah of Iran from the Persian throne, in December the Soviet Union launched its ruinous war in Afghanistan, and in September 1980 Iraq invaded Iran. Thus, the Middle East stage was radically changed as the Reagan Administration entered the White House. In the minds of Ronald Reagan's foreign policy team, US national interests in the oil-rich Persian Gulf now faced two significant new threats: communist expansionism by direct military means from the Soviet Union and the spread of anti-US Islamic fundamentalism from Iran. With these two factors in mind, Iraq's sponsorship of international terrorism was seen as a lesser of evils, and therefore Baghdad was perceived as a potential partner that could serve US strategic interests in the region.

In March 1982, the US government officially began engaging Saddam Hussein by removing Iraq from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. The official reason was to recognize Iraq's improved record, (4) a claim that a Defense Department official later rebutted in stating, "No one had any doubts about [the Iraqis'] continued involvement in terrorism.... The real reason was to help them succeed in the war against Iran. …