In his State of the Union address last January, and a number of times since, President George W. Bush put the world on notice that the United States would ?not stand aside? as dangerous dictators armed themselves with weapons of mass destruction. Bush never said specifically that this meant that the United States was going to launch an attack on Iraq, but it was widely interpreted as meaning just that. The question, most observers in Washington and elsewhere have believed, is not whether the United States was going to use force to overthrow Saddam, but when and how.
The time for answering those questions has now arrived. There was always good reason to doubt that any invasion of Iraq would take place before late 2002 or early 2003—time was needed to build a diplomatic case, finish the Afghan campaign, replenish stocks of precision weapons used in that campaign, and wait for the heat of the Mesopottamian summer to abate. But the optimal window for invading Iraq—during the cooler winter and following the November 2002 Congressional elections—is fast approaching. Given the time that will be necessary to prepare public and international opinion, attempt to rally allied and Arab support, and perhaps most importantly to deploy a large American force to the region, Bush must decide in the next few weeks whether or not he intends to put his money—not to mention American lives—where his mouth is.
The case for getting rid of Saddam Hussein is a strong one. He is a brutal dictator who has mistreated his people for decades, used force against most of his neighbors (including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Israel), relentlessly sought to develop weapons of mass destruction, and even used chemical weapons against civilians in his own country. While Saddam was probably not involved in the September 11 terrorist attacks, those atrocities (and the anthrax attacks that followed them) do serve as useful reminders of the potential consequences were terrorists to get their hands on the sorts of weapons that Saddam has proven himself so determined to build.
The question, however, is not whether Saddam should go, but whether the benefits of toppling him outweigh the costs and risks of doing so. To start with, and contrary to the claims of some administration hawks and their neoconservative supporters, overthrowing Saddam will require the United States to deploy a massive invasion force of tens of thousands of troops and hundreds of aircraft. It is true that the Iraqi army might crumble quickly like the Taliban in Afghanistan, but no prudent military planner, and certainly no U.S. president, could assume such an outcome.
Then there is the question of casualties. Accustomed to minimal losses in recent U.S. wars like the Gulf War in 1991, Kosovo in 1999, and most recently Afghanistan, the American public supports the idea of overthrowing Saddam, but how they would react if doing so entailed hundreds or even thousands of American deaths is uncertain. High U.S. casualties are unlikely, especially if Washington deploys a force large enough to intimidate the Iraqi army and persuade it not to fight. But if the Iraqi Special Republican Guard does put up resistance in Baghdad and other cities, or if Saddam resorts to the use of chemical or biological weapons, casualty figures could mount.
After that one must consider the effect of a U.S. invasion on regional politics, not least the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is already enflamed. Earlier this year, it was probably true that Arab regimes would publicly grumble at the prospect of a U.S. strike on Iraq but privately lend their support with the polite request that Washington at least get it over with quickly. Now, however, with U.S.-supported Israeli force undertaking military operations on the West Bank, gaining Arab support, or avoiding the overthrow of Arab regimes who do lend such support, will be far more difficult.
Finally there are the questions of what the United States would do after it won the war. For in some ways getting rid of the Saddam Hussein regime would be the easy part. Harder would be to ensure that whatever replaced it provided a modicum of stability in Iraq, kept the country from disintegrating into its Kurdish, Sunni and Shi?a ethnic components, avoiding interventions by Turkey, Iran and Syria, and did not require the deployment of tens of thousands of American occupation troops for an indefinite period.
All of these great challenges can be met with sufficient American leadership. But to succeed, President Bush will have to work hard to gain international support, clearly explain to the American people why it is necessary to take risks to get rid of Saddam, and accept that changing the Iraqi regime is unlikely to be a quick or easy task. So far he has failed to do so.