The Dangers of Delaying an Attack on Iraq

Unless there is a last-minute change in circumstances, the US and its coalition partners will soon need to go to war to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

The Iraqi leader is well on the way to having sacrificed his last clear chance to disarm himself. It was not just the current George W. Bush administration but also the US Congress and the international community that demanded he do so last autumn. Those demands were codified in numerous United Nations Security Council resolutions, not just resolution 1441 in November but in a decade of similar resolutions.

Some will say that deterrence can contain Mr Hussein even if he retains his weapons of mass destruction. Perhaps. But there is a case against relying on deterrence – Mr Hussein’s attempted assassination of former US president George Bush in 1993, his threats against Kuwait in 1994, his attacks on Kurds in 1996, and most of all the uncertainty about what he would do if he ever obtained a nuclear weapon. Moreover, whatever the case for containment, the international community decided last autumn that containment 1990s-style was insufficient and that a tougher strategy was needed. That debate is over and the credibility of the entire UN system is also on the line. At this point, Mr Hussein simply cannot be let off the hook.

Some will argue that inspections are working. But disarmament is the goal, and it is not happening. Iraq has failed to account for large quantities of precursor chemicals, biological growth media and other dangerous technologies that we know it imported or produced at one time. This is not a US conclusion; it is a UN conclusion based on inspections in the 1990s as well as Iraq’s seriously incomplete weapons declaration of last December 7. The US has done a poor job of reminding the international community about what we know, and how we know it, and must radically improve its diplomacy to develop a strong coalition for war in the coming weeks.

For as long as inspections continue, they may prevent Mr Hussein from developing nuclear weapons. Even a “basement bomb” programme—with technologies such as large magnets or centrifuge complexes needed to enrich uranium—is expensive, elaborate and hard to build or operate in secret.

But if we allow Mr Hussein to get away with the blatant dishonesty of his December 7 declaration, he will surely grow bolder and thwart inspectors—or simply kick them out of Iraq. At that point he will again be free to pursue a nuclear programme. Even if Iraq does not produce a bomb in Mr Hussein’s lifetime, his sons Uday or Qusay might receive a nuclear inheritance. With nuclear weapons, Iraq might again grow aggressive against its minorities and its neighbours, convinced the world could not retaliate.

What about the preference of Tony Blair, the UK prime minister, and the UN’s Hans Blix to wait a little longer for inspectors to check more sites in Iraq? If we really have intelligence that has a good chance of producing a smoking gun—something more substantial than the dozen artillery shells discovered recently—waiting does make sense. Yet if inspections continue into March, for example, coalition troops could have to fight in chemical gear during Iraq’s hot summer months.

So why not wait until next winter? One reason is that it would force the US to recall a large proportion of the troops it has sent to the Gulf and then redeploy them later. Deployment arithmetic and troop rotation policies cannot be allowed to determine national security decisions of fundamental importance. But there are stronger reasons not to wait.

It is doubtful that inspectors will find any smoking gun even by next year. That is especially true if Iraqi weapons scientists, surely coached and coerced by Mr Hussein, continue not to allow themselves to be interviewed outside Iraq. It is also doubtful that the international community will strengthen its resolve to deal with Mr Hussein by waiting; more probably a number of faint-hearted governments will have time to walk away.

Waiting would give western countries and Israel more time to improve security measures against Iraqi reprisal attacks—but it would also give Iraq more time to prepare plans for striking at the US or Europe.

For those who still wish to avoid war, including myself, the only remaining hope is to make such a strong statement of the international community’s readiness to disarm Iraq forcefully that Mr Hussein changes course and comes clean. But if that does not work, we need to have the courage of our convictions and get the military job done soon.