September 20, 2002
War Against Iraq: Too Many 'Ifs'
Saddam Hussein is a determined proliferator of weapons of mass destruction, an evil man who has started two wars and has the blood of hundreds of thousands of his own citizens on his hands. Who wouldn't support a war to oust him? I would if the war was short, successful, and did not cause too many deaths to our soldiers or to Iraqi civilians. If the war gained the support of a broad swath of other countries, and was supported by United Nations resolutions. If the war did not jeopardize other foreign policy priorities. And if the U.S. and its allies were committed to stability and democracy in Iraq, and could achieve both.
These are big "ifs." The U.S. and the world community must address these basic issues head on. It is possible that a U.S./U.N. war against Iraq would be a great success. But the odds are against it. Overall, the war is a bad bet.
Will the war be short? Probably. This is a decent bet because the Iraqi armed forces, and the key Republican Guard divisions, can read the writing on the wall. They will not fight a losing battle to save Saddam when they can live and be part of the new Iraqi army to which new equipment will soon flow. The counterargument is that the Iraqis will be defending their homeland (not Kuwait), and a nationalistic fighting force on defender-friendly terrain like cities can cause immense pain to any attacking army. See the lessons of U.S. in Vietnam, Russia in Chechnya, or the Soviets in Afghanistan. Some in the Iraqi army may fight to avoid being lynched by the repressed Iraqi people in the aftermath of a loss against the U.S. Even a short war could cause U.S. casualties numbering many, many times the luckily low 16 lost in Afghanistan to date.
Will we be willing to pay the blood price? Perhaps, but even if we do, it will leave a bitter taste and make the war politically unpopular. Consider that in the necessary war in Afghanistan, the U.S. was not willing to risk our soldiers' lives to encircle and capture or kill Taliban and Al Qaeda forces at Tora Bora or at Shah-i-Kot. Because of casualty intolerance, these operations were military disasters. We let the enemy escape, perhaps even bin Laden himself. This enemy attacked the U.S. and caused 3000 U.S. deaths.
In contrast, Iraq did not attack the U.S. and nobody will ever know if they ever would. A war against Iraq will be almost thankless because no one will ever know what threat we were pre-empting. The only sure things will be the casualties of this operation, and hopefully improved lives for Iraqis. How many U.S. soldiers are we willing to lose in an optional pre-emptive war? Based on our failures in Afghanistan, not many. Saddam and his army know this, and this is another reason they may choose to fight.
What of Iraqi civilian deaths? With Saddam fighting for his life, a good bet is that he will try every trick to cause outrage against the U.S. He will place civilians at any target worth bombing. He will drag people from morgues (or kill them for the purpose) and scatter them at bombed targets. This will create gruesome pictures for the world press. When the U.S. killed hundreds of civilians at the Al Firdos bunker in Gulf War I, it damaged our reputation and shook up our bombing strategy. Do we, should we, have the guts to see these scenes replayed over and over and in an optional war?
Will the war be considered a success if it prompts Saddam to use weapons of mass destruction? The war could cause the very thing we are trying to prevent. What will we do if our troops or Israel are attacked with biological weapons? If we are fighting for the noble and just cause of saving lives, what if this war ends with an Israeli nuclear attack against Iraq?
Will the war receive international backing through the U.N.? Probably. The squabbling over inspections will get sorted out. Fundamentally, other countries are having a hard time opposing the U.S. juggernaut, and France, Saudi Arabia, and others seem willing to sign on if the U.S. gets U.N. approval. It is wise for the U.S. to seek U.N. authorization for the war. Even if the Bush administration scorns the U.N. and multilateralism in private, allies are helpful in war and U.N. resolutions will reduce resentment against the U.S. That said, one should not mistake any future U.N. resolutions for a pro-U.S. lovefest. Countries like France and Russia will support the U.S. mainly for money: oil contracts and debt repayment in post-Saddam Iraq. They aren't motivated by a shared sense of threat.
Indeed, who does share the administration's sense of threat? Classified briefings on Capitol Hill do not seem to persuade our own lawmakers, some of whom point out that Iraq is a minor terrorist threat compared to Syria or Iran. I am deeply worried that the Congress will sign on to the war and avoid tough questions due to a sense of inevitability and fear of seeming weak on Saddam. If the administration had some new evidence, surely they would present it before Congress. Surely President Bush's speech before the U.N. would have included new facts. What has changed to make Iraq such an urgent priority? If petrodollars, politics, and 'inevitability' are creating supporters at home and abroad, this raises serious questions about the actual case for war.
The most likely reason that Iraq is now a priority is that President Bush's ear has been captured by a coterie of war hawks in the administration and around the beltway. These hawks have it in for Saddam, and many are also some of Israel's biggest supporters. It is no coincidence that Saddam poses a far greater threat to Israel than to the U.S.
Strategy is the art of prioritizing. This raises two issues: does the threat from Iraq outweigh other threats that deserve a higher profile? And will the Iraq war hurt other U.S. priorities? The U.S. will spend tens or hundreds of billions of dollars to fight the war and (hopefully) rebuild Iraq. All in part to prevent Saddam from getting nuclear weapons. Analysts agree that he could build one in short order if he obtained nuclear materials. The most likely place to get fissile materials is in the crumbling nuclear infrastructure of Russia where only fifty percent of these materials are adequately safeguarded. This is where Al Qaeda and other terrorists have sought nuclear materials, and the 'loose nukes' problem in Russia is a national security threat of supreme order and consequence. Yet the U.S. is only spending one billion a year under the Nunn-Lugar and other threat reduction programs. At this rate, Russian fissile materials will not be fully secure until 2018.
Another priority that ranks higher than Iraq is stability in Pakistan. Unlike Iraq, Pakistan has nuclear weapons - some 24-48 of them. Unlike Iraq, Pakistan is filled with Al Qaeda and Taliban sympathizers, and many other stripes of Muslim fundamentalists and extremists. Even worse, many of these extremists held significant positions in the military and the important Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. If extremists ever control Pakistan, the world would be faced with a nuclear-armed Taliban-like government, with strong ties to al Qaeda, and bent on dramatically escalating trouble in Kashmir. The latter of course risks war and nuclear war with India. This threat dwarfs the weapons of mass destruction threats posed by Iraq. This threat would be so great it might provoke pre-emptive strikes - conventional and/or nuclear - from India and/or the United States.
A war with Iraq could stir up fundamentalism and extremism throughout the Middle East, and the consequences of this instability would be gravest in Pakistan. The 'Arab Street' was quiet as the U.S. and its allies toppled the Taliban. But the war in Afghanistan had a clear cause, and was easily justified. It is harder to justify a war against Iraq, and such a war is a larger and probably more bloody endeavor. Fears of extremism and instability should be higher.
This war will be a supreme example of U.S. power. It will breed resentment and balancing. Countries like Iran, necessary for maintaining our success in Afghanistan and Iraq in the future, yet unhelpfully labeled part of the axis of evil (remember: strategy = setting priorities), can easily stir up trouble for post-war Afghanistan or Iraq by shipping in arms, supporting extremists, harboring fugitives, and so forth. Many other countries from China or Russia to Syria might enjoy destabilizing countries where the U.S. has invaded and now must keep the peace. Moreover, will countries who resent the U.S. be more likely to buy from Boeing or Airbus? There are many prices an arrogant, unilateralist country may pay... And President Bush's pro-U.N., multilateralist 'don't let the League of Nations happen on our watch' rhetoric will prove hollow if we end up going it alone. If we spurn the U.N., the history books will blame us for making the U.N. go the way of the League. Especially after the President's speech.
Even if the war goes well, what will the aftermath of an Iraqi war look like? There are a number of worries here. First, the President talks about stability and democracy in Afghanistan and talks as if Afghanistan is already a stable democracy. This is false. Kabul has a weak grasp of the countryside, where warlords and factions dominate. President Hamid Karzai's life is in such jeopardy that U.S. forces are deployed to try to guarantee his security. The U.S. is trying to build up an Afghan national army, but is unwilling to conduct peacekeeping on a broader scale or spend the massive amount of money it will take to rebuild Afghanistan. This is dangerously unwise as Afghanistan could easily revert to a failed state harboring Al Qaeda and other terrorists.
Second, the administration talks of rebuilding and democratizing Iraq. Based on the Afghan precedent, this is hollow rhetoric. Where is the concrete plan and budgeting for nation-building? This term was scorned by most in the Bush administration, until they realized that lip service must be paid to the concept to build support for wars. Where is the admission that nation-building will costs tens of billions of dollars in Iraq, and that some tens of thousands of troops may need to peacekeep for a very long time? It will be great for Iraq and the Middle East if we can transform the country. The President has to pony up the plans, dollars, and troops to do so.
Third, can a country divided into three parts be stabilized, or will it fly apart into separate Kurdish, Sunni, and Shiite zones? What kind of government can govern these zones, especially if they see an opportunity for independence or greater autonomy? A very strong, and probably repressive government? Or a loose confederation that is a central government in name only? And what of the Kurdish zone's relations with Turkey? Many ifs and questions here.
Finally, Iraq is in a tough neighborhood. Israel has hundreds of nuclear weapons. Iran is trying to get them. Both have been attacked by and attacked Iraq in recent decades. Any future Iraqi state is going to have powerful incentives to build a strong army and to obtain nuclear weapons.
Most wars are bets, but some bets are worse than others. There are many good reasons to wage a war against Iraq. But there are many ifs, and many ways in which the costs may vastly exceed the benefits. Perhaps the worst thing is that we are rushing to war, led by an administration seemingly determined for war. Many hard questions need to be asked and answered. Yet the President is asking for resolutions before the debate has really begun, before the arguments on all sides have time to be fully laid out and considered.
If we take the time to debate and avoid the rush to war, President Bush can use this time to markedly improve the odds of his bet. Reduce extremism by twisting arms and flowing billions to create a Palestinian state. Stabilize Afghanistan. Come up with concrete plans for a post-war Iraq, and get the massive funds committed. Get the Joint Chiefs to publicly commit the two divisions (plus rotations) that it will take to adequately peacekeep in Afghanistan and Iraq. Provide enough information to get domestic and international support for the war based on a shared sense of threat. I, for one, do not know why we are rushing to war now, and why we are focusing on Iraq at the risk of downplaying more pressing threats within Russia and Pakistan.