Flush from its decisive victory in Afghanistan, the U.S. military turns its sights toward Iraq. U.S. bombers mercilessly pound Republican Guard troops. Special forces strike quietly in the dark of night, destroying Iraq’s hidden chemical and germ weapons laboratories. Emboldened, Iraqi opposition forces unite and press toward Baghdad. And, eager to save their own lives, Iraqi generals depose Saddam Hussein. The job left undone at the end of the gulf war a decade ago is finally completed.
Fantasy? Perhaps. But many policy-makers and power brokers in Washington believe the next chapter in the war against terrorism must be Saddam’s removal from power. By the end of last week, Iraq was a constant topic of conversation in the capital.
Writing in the Washington Post, former CIA Director James Woolsey argued that swift successes in Afghanistan proved the United States could take the fight to Saddam, and win. And President Bush talked tough on Monday, warning Iraq and others that “if they develop weapons of mass destruction that will be used to terrorize nations, they will be held accountable.”
Those intent on deposing Saddam argue that as long as he stays in place, America remains vulnerable to the chemical and biological weapons he could sell to terrorists. His ouster also would accomplish what some key members in the administration feel is the unfinished business of the gulf war.
But making Iraq “Phase II” in the war on terrorism poses substantial risks. The international coalition against terrorism may well crumble if Washington goes it alone. Nor will toppling Saddam be the cakewalk that some armchair strategists suggest. Victory would likely require American boots on the ground—many, many boots. Even worse, the war may provoke what we most fear: biological weapons unleashed against our troops on the battlefield or in our cities here at home.
The administration has not decided what it’s going to do. But it’s most likely to use America’s credibility—strengthened by Sept. 11 and the removal of the Taliban—to marshal international support for cracking down on Iraq. That means pushing for more effective sanctions, the return of U.N. inspectors to track down Saddam’s weapons programs and agreement on clear “red lines” that—if crossed—would lead to war.
If the international community refuses to take these steps, however, the Bush administration may well decide to go it alone against Iraq.
The case for unseating Saddam is compelling.
Many of the reasons existed well before Sept. 11: Saddam threatens Middle Eastern stability and the Persian Gulf’s oil; he proved that when he invaded Iran in 1980 and Kuwait a decade later. He came close to building a nuclear bomb before the gulf war and, the CIA believes, he has been adding to his stock of gas and germ weapons.
Moreover, the containment strategy that Washington has pursued since the end of the Persian Gulf War has been failing. In 1998, Saddam blocked continued work by U.N. arms inspectors, forcing them to leave. After that, he was free to rebuild weapons and weapons-making facilities that the inspectors had destroyed.
Meanwhile, international support for economic sanctions—imposed on Iraq after the invasion of Kuwait—has flagged. Baghdad’s complaints that the sanctions were impoverishing the Iraqi people has won it considerable sympathy, even though it is Saddam who has chosen not to use the proceeds of the oil he is allowed to sell to meet the basic needs of his people.
Since Sept. 11, there are new reasons to be wary of Iraq. Although no “smoking gun” links Saddam to recent terrorist attacks, some circumstantial evidence points to his possible involvement. Mohamed Atta, the ringleader of the attacks, met with an Iraqi intelligence operative in Prague this year. And recent Iraqi defectors say Baghdad has operated schools to train terrorists.
Those in Washington who have favored attacking Iraq—including Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz—argue that the only way to guarantee Iraq will not pose further threats to its neighbors, or us, is to oust Saddam. And many say we’ve proved our ability to do so through our successes in Afghanistan. In their view, ousting Saddam requires only sustained U.S. bombing and massive assistance to the Iraqi opposition. That combination will produce defections in the army and security forces—and the end of Saddam’s brutal rule. In short, Iraq will be Afghanistan all over again.
An acceptable cost?
No one disputes that we all would be better off if Saddam went packing. But the real question is whether we can remove him from power at an acceptable cost. Some senior officials in the first Bush administration—like current Secretary of State Colin Powell—believe we can’t. He made the same arguments in 1991, when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and wanted to stop the gulf war once Iraq was pushed out of Kuwait. (Wolfowitz, who was an undersecretary of defense then, believes the United States should have continued fighting until Saddam was ousted.)
The argument against removing Saddam this time is strong. We have no proof that Iraq is linked to the recent terrorist attacks; without that, our major allies won’t join us in the march to Baghdad. And while many Arab countries may secretly want Saddam gone, they won’t support a U.S. effort to unseat him because they fear the reaction on the streets.
The lack of allies would make a war against Iraq a logistical nightmare. Our access to military bases in other countries could be limited, and some countries might bar us from using their airspace to reach Iraq. This would complicate what would already be a difficult military operation.
Although some argue that we could simply follow the game plan we used in Afghanistan, the reality is that waging war in Iraq would be much harder. Unlike in Afghanistan, the internal opposition in Iraq is weak, inexperienced and divided, and the government in Baghdad is strong, competent and united. It would be irresponsible to assume that large numbers of American ground forces would not be needed to get the job done.
The decision to go it alone in Iraq could also fracture the international coalition that Bush has assembled. Intelligence sharing and law enforcement cooperation is essential to deterring terrorist attacks. But cooperation could be forfeited, and the broader war against terrorism crippled.
Perhaps most frightening, attacking Iraq could cause the very thing we want to avoid: the use of chemical and biological weapons. Saddam has an incentive to refrain from using these weapons against the United States only as long as he thinks he can stay in power.
Finally, success in removing Saddam could create a new, and potentially greater, danger. Iraq could disintegrate as its major ethnic groups vie for power and its neighbors scramble for strategic advantage. That could destabilize the entire Persian Gulf.
New look at containment
So what will Bush do, given that there is no risk-free option?
So far, the administration appears to be leaning toward revitalizing the decade-old containment strategy—the new plan is being dubbed “containment-plus.” The administration even made some progress last week in getting cooperation for one of the key elements in this strategy. Russia, which had long favored lifting all sanctions on Iraq, agreed in principle to work on imposing “smarter” sanctions by June.
Such sanctions would tighten controls on Iraq’s ability to import weapons and related material; controls on most non-military imports would be relaxed. The change would make it harder for Iraq to acquire weapons of mass destruction. It would also spare Washington the criticism that it seeks to hurt ordinary Iraqis.
But the Bush effort to revitalize containment will not stop with sanctions. It is sure to also push a new, U.N.-mandated effort to get weapons inspectors back into Iraq. Indeed, just last week Bush demanded that Saddam let inspectors come back. Although these inspectors could not eliminate Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons, they could do much to prevent Baghdad from going nuclear.
The administration can also be expected to press U.S. allies and Russia to agree on a clear set of “red lines” that would justify a march on Baghdad: no invasion of neighbors; no support for terrorists; no attacks on ethnic minorities; no production, transfer, or use of weapons of mass destruction.
As the president’s comments last week suggest, the administration will most likely talk tough about Baghdad. The message to friends and allies will be blunt: Help us make containment work, or war with Iraq is inevitable. Whether the administration will need to make good on that threat will depend on how well leaders in allied capitals—and in Baghdad—are listening.