For months, President Bush has been asserting his intention to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. That goal appears to have broad support from the American people and Congress. Through careful diplomacy, he can probably also gain at least the acquiescence—if not the active support—of a number of European and Arab allies.
A military operation to remove Mr. Hussein, however, would be the most momentous use of force by the United States since the Vietnam War. If President Bush undertakes such a mission, it will dominate the remainder of his term, radically reshape the politics of the Persian Gulf and Middle East, and have major repercussions for the global economy. Yet there has been little debate about the pros and cons of such a war. Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings planned for next week will be a start, but only a start.
The track record suggests that the United States can continue to contain Saddam Hussein without war, just as we deterred the Soviets during the Cold War and just as we have contained North Korea for half a century. Mr. Hussein values his hold on power and his life more than anything and has refrained from actions likely to lead to his downfall. Yet there is a serious case for overthrowing him if he continues to hide his weapons of mass destruction and deny access to United Nations inspectors. Although he appears not to have been implicated in the Sept. 11 attacks, he could decide to give biological arms to Al Qaeda in the future. He may also be gradually progressing toward a nuclear weapons capability. But the case for overthrow needs to be compared with the costs and risks of an invasion of Iraq.
Unfortunately, most advocates of overthrowing the Iraqi regime have tended to minimize the attendant costs. For them, the rapid fall of the Taliban seemed to mark the arrival of a new form of warfare requiring only small numbers of American ground forces and promising decisive results at little cost. But there are ample grounds for thinking that war against Iraq would be much tougher.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban fought from fixed trench lines outside of cities. Similarly, during Operation Desert Storm, in 1991, Iraqi forces fought us in the open desert and could not counter American airpower. In a future war, however, Iraqi forces would probably take a lesson from their defeat in 1991 and fight from the cities, where civilian casualties would greatly raise the cost of air strikes and buildings would provide disguise for weaponry and military personnel. While many of Iraq’s 425,000 active-duty troops are poorly trained and their loyalty to Mr. Hussein is questionable, his top 100,000 troops—especially the Republican Guard and the Special Republican Guard—are unlikely to crack quickly. They fear retribution from Mr. Hussein or from a new regime in Iraq made up of their internal enemies more than they fear the weak Iraqi opposition and American airpower. If there is any real hope of their deserting Mr. Hussein and handing us a victory without a fight, it will probably require the deployment of a large American invasion force on Iraq’s border.
If we had to fight the Republican Guard in Baghdad, the urban combat could resemble that in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993—not to mention Israel’s reoccupation of parts of the West Bank this year. Small arms fired from close range would put American aircraft and troops at much greater risk than they were in Desert Storm or the Kosovo and Afghanistan wars. Iraq might use chemical or biological agents against our invading forces. American military casualties could number into the thousands. Mr. Hussein may well fire Scud missiles carrying chemical or biological warheads against Israel, Kuwait or Saudi Arabia—or may gas Iraqis who rise against him, as he did in 1988.
Even with these factors, American forces would still win such a war and be able to install a new government. But the price would be substantial in Iraqi and American lives. According to a leaked Pentagon war plan, the operation could require 250,000 American troops invading Iraq from multiple directions. Deploying smaller forces would be to hope for victory rather than to ensure it. After the war, stability and democracy in Iraq would be far from guaranteed, and we might need to occupy Iraq for a decade or more.
There is a case to be made that these costs are worth sustaining. But if so, we need Mr. Bush to make it. He has not yet done so.