Saddam Hussein is once again thumbing his nose at the West. He's threatening to shoot down American U-2 spy planes and to stop United Nations inspectors from scouring his country in the search for weapons of mass destruction. The U.S. response? Along with a bit of saber-rattling, Washington is asking the U.N. for yet more sanctions. Haven't we been down this path before? If U.S. policy makers had been paying attention, they would have realized that sanctions will never dislodge Saddam. Instead we need to go back to the policy we tried, but never stuck with: fomenting an Iraqi insurgency to depose the butcher of Baghdad.
Washington's abandonment of this policy is precisely why the sanctions failed. Many nations had agreed to sacrifice their economic interests in Iraq, in the expectation that U.S. efforts to remove Saddam were serious and would soon bear fruit. As the years passed, confidence in U.S. leadership waned as Washington surrendered the initiative in setting policy to an amorphous, rudderless international community. As a result, Iraq's neighbors, and even some European allies, have begun to lose interest in the effort. Both Russia and China have become more aggressive in pursuing their own agendas in the Middle East.
Sanctions aren't even enforceable without a credible American threat to use force -- a threat that is nonexistent as long as Washington defers to the U.N. Security Council, which since 1993 has failed to declare Saddam in "material breach" of the cease-fire agreements -- a declaration necessary to justify a military response. U.S. strikes last year against a few minor installations in the wake of Saddam's invasion of the U.N.-mandated Kurdish "safe haven" in northern Iraq met with broad international condemnation. By relentlessly maintaining the initiative against the U.S., Saddam is wearing down the will of the international community. He may well prevail in the long run.
The erosion of Saddam's containment highlights the importance of ousting his regime. But efforts to encourage a change in Baghdad have reached a dead end, largely because the U.S. has relied on a narrow clique of military officers to launch a coup rather than challenging the regime more broadly and aggressively.
Two coup attempts exemplify the U.S.'s failure. In late March 1991, shortly after the Gulf War, Iraqis were in open revolt. Fighting erupted in all but three of Iraq's provinces, and Saddam's army was left with two days' worth of ammunition. A desperate Saddam sent one of his highest-ranking officers as a "defector" with information that Iraq's senior military leaders were on the verge of a coup but hesitated as long as they faced the threat of a revolution. Accordingly, the U.S. signaled to Saddam that he could use his air power, grounded under the terms of the cease-fire, to crush the revolt. No coup followed.
In 1995 Hussein Kamel, Saddam's son-in-law, defected to Jordan. His defection gave U.S. policy makers the idea of tapping a group of former Iraqi officials to plot a coup. The U.S. moved in 1996 to support a group under the command of Gen. Ayad Alawi, himself a defector from Saddam's regime. But the movement, known as the Wifaq (Arabic for "trust"), was plagued from the start by double agents. Indeed, Saddam penetrated it far more effectively than it penetrated his inner circle. In July 1996 Saddam's security apparatus swept across Iraq and arrested hundreds of the Wifaq's agents. Saddam's security services then used CIA communications equipment, captured from the defectors, to contact the CIA station chief in Amman, Jordan, to crow over their victory.
Today, the sanctions regime is on the brink of crumbling, and efforts to oust Saddam via a coup have failed so many times that this is hardly a credible option. But the U.S. faces an opportunity in the state of Saddam's conventional forces. The money he has collected from smuggling and sanctions-busting exports of oil has been funneled to benefit his personal welfare and to build weapons of mass destruction. In contrast, his conventional army still languishes, posing a far smaller threat than it did on the eve of war in 1990. The army is not only weak but demoralized. Despite cruel penalties for desertion, about a third of the army is AWOL. Even among officers within the elite Republican Guard units, the AWOL rate is at least 17%.
A weak and demoralized army is vulnerable to an organized and internationally supported insurgency, especially one that operates from territory in Iraq free of Saddam's control, such as the northern safe haven. At one point, the U.S. supported such an insurgency, called the Iraqi National Congress, led by Ahmad Chalabi. It reached its peak in March 1995 when INC troops invaded Iraqi territory under Saddam's control with impunity, absorbing thousands of defecting Iraqi soldiers along the way. The stature it gained through this effort and American support also helped it negotiate a cease-fire among warring Kurdish factions in northern Iraq. But the U.S. never recognized the INC as the provisional government of Iraq, an act that could have freed up some of Iraq's assets for its use. Nor were sanctions lifted in areas liberated from Saddam's grip.
Worse, the U.S. abandoned the INC at the pinnacle of its success in 1995. U.S. officials assumed that broad-based upheaval in Iraq, as well as the separation of the Shiite areas in the south or Kurdish areas in the north from the rest of the country, would so humiliate and threaten the military establishment that potential coup plotters would rally behind Saddam. Once again, needless to say, the hoped-for coup never materialized. The INC still exists, though far weaker now than in 1995, in part because of Saddam's invasion of parts of northern Iraq in late 1996 and in part because the U.S. abandonment of the INC diminished its mediating role among Kurds, leading to a re-eruption of fighting in northern Iraq between the two largest Kurdish factions this September.
Washington's consistent preference for a coup over a broad-based revolution illustrates a deeper theme underlying U.S. policy in the Middle East. The U.S. has traditionally aimed its blows at individual tyrants rather than at the institution of tyranny, hoping that friendly tyrants would bring stability. Thus, U.S. officials were never comfortable with the INC's assertion that the problem in Iraq was the tyrannical nature of the Baathist system of government. The current impasse demands that Washington re-examine its entire approach to the Middle East.
Washington has no choice now but to abandon the coup option and resurrect the INC. An insurgency may be able to defeat Saddam's weak and demoralized conventional army. But one thing is clear: There is no cost-free way to depose Saddam. He is more resolute, wily and brutal than we. His strength lies in his weapons of terror; that is why he is so attached to them. The week-long interruption in U.N. inspections gave him ample time to prepare his biological capability for use. Organizing an insurgency to liberate Iraq under the INC may provoke Saddam to use these weapons on the way down. Better that, though, than current policy, which will lead him to use them on his way back up.
Mr. Wurmser is director of the Middle East program at the American Enterprise Institute.