Listening to George W. Bush’s State of the Union address, I made the naive assumption that the president’s belligerent rhetoric about states that threaten us with weapons of mass destruction actually meant something in terms of administration policy. Subsequent spin and leaks from the White House indicate that it did not. The phrase “axis of evil” was a bit of speechwriter’s filigree, not an indication that Bush has chosen the path of military confrontation with Iraq. That’s not to say Bush has decided against making war on Saddam—the issue is reportedly still on the table.
Outside the administration, the chorus for action grows louder. The latest voice is that of Kenneth Pollack, a former National Security Council official in the Clinton administration who makes the case for invasion in a forthcoming article in Foreign Affairs.Pollack’s views are especially significant in light of an influential article he co-wrote three years ago titled “The Rollback Fantasy” that argued against invasion (click here for a summary). Even many prominent Iraq skeptics such as Leon Fuerth, the man who would have been Al Gore’s Conde Rice, sound more like fledgling hawks than outright doves these days. In a recent debate with echt hawk Richard Perle, Fuerth argued not that we shouldn’t go to war with Iraq at all, but that we shouldn’t attack Iraq just yet.
The real issue may indeed be one of timing. There’s a growing consensus in foreign policy circles that we won’t be able to avoid war with Saddam forever. But starting from a bias in favor of the view of Iraq hawks like Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, I’ve come around to the side of quasi-doves like Fuerth and Colin Powell. My reason is that the chief arguments for what Bush appeared to be doing in his big speech—expanding the War on Terrorism into a War on Iraq right now—simply aren’t persuasive.
One set of arguments for going after Saddam now relates to the present “opportunity.” Robert Kagan and William Kristol, who often rattle their sabers under a shared byline in the Weekly Standard, view the Sept. 11 attacks as opening a window for action. Initially, they and others in this camp tried to link Saddam to al-Qaida and the anthrax letters. But as solid evidence for such a connection has failed to materialize, the hawks evolved toward a different “opportunity” argument: The American public finally understood the danger posed by Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction and was ready to follow the president’s martial lead. Some advocates of prompt action against Saddam also argue that our rapid defeat of the Taliban points the way toward another rapid victory without the large-scale loss of American life. Richard Perle, for instance, envisions an Iraqi Phase 2 as a virtual remake of the Afghan Phase 1, with the Iraqi National Congress cast as the Northern Alliance, and American air power reprising its previous starring role.
But if this seems a propitious moment to finally get Saddam in certain ways, it’s a distinctly impractical one in others. We are still engaged in a complicated campaign against the far-flung and not inconsiderable remnants of al-Qaida. Moreover, that war has left us militarily depleted. It will take months to replenish our stock of precision-guided missiles. With time and aid, the Iraqi National Congress might become a formidable fighting force; it isn’t one now. It’s also important to be clear on what sort of public support Bush does and doesn’t have for going forward. Near-universal backing for a war of self-defense in Afghanistan doesn’t, as Michael Kinsley notes, translate into political carte blanche for a different sort of war. It doesn’t obviate the need for a casus belli to justify a new Iraqi war, both to the American public and to nations whose help we need in the far-from-finished War on Terrorism.
Absent a compelling link to Sept. 11, the Iraq hawks use as their primary justification Saddam’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction—biological, chemical, and nuclear. But if the justification for war is going to be Iraq’s so-called “WMD” capability, it will be politically necessary to begin by demanding a resumption of the U.N. inspection program that Saddam unilaterally terminated in 1998. The opinion of many Iraq watchers is that Saddam, crazy like a fox, would agree to renewed inspections, both because he doesn’t want to die and also because he knows he can hide some of his collection of poisons, as he has in the past. Under tougher rules of engagement, of the kind Robert Wright proposes, playing cat-and-mouse with inspectors could lead to a U.S. attack. But this wouldn’t happen on the accelerated timetable of the hawks.
There’s also a case for acting based on what might be called a moment of negative opportunity. In his Foreign Affairs article, Pollack argues that the policy of containing Iraq, which worked for a while, is falling apart. Countries that once supported U.N. sanctions are now defying them openly, permitting Iraq to rebuild its military. If we don’t act soon, we will face the prospect of confronting a strengthened and emboldened Saddam. That’s a genuine problem, but a weak argument for war. It’s true, sanctions have been unraveling, as China, Russia, Turkey, and others have defied the U.N. embargo. But would it really be easier to get the necessary international support for an invasion and occupation of Iraq than to reconstitute an effective international sanctions regime?
The other argument for acting now is that we face an emergency. Since he kicked out the U.N. weapons inspectors, Saddam has resumed seeking nuclear weapon systems, as well as chemical and biological ones. He might be nutty enough to use such weapons against us or our allies without regard for the consequences. But even if we posit that Saddam is in some sense rational, deterrence and containment will no longer be effective policies for dealing with him once he joins the nuclear club. With nukes for cover, Saddam will be able to re-invade Kuwait or attack Saudi Arabia or bomb Israel. He’ll also have the terrifying capacity to depart the world stage in a blaze of glory.
This logic is unassailable. If Saddam were on the verge of acquiring the Bomb, the case for pre-emptive action would be overwhelming (though such action might take the form of an airstrike of the kind Israel launched against the Osirak reactor in 1981, rather than a full-dress invasion). But is Saddam that close to getting nukes? It’s hard to answer that question without a security clearance. Pollack describes Iraq’s nuclear program as “mostly dormant” but revivable, especially if sanctions are lifted. Most experts see the major obstacle to an Iraqi bomb as the lack of fissile material. To get enough of it for a bomb, Saddam has to either derive it from the lightly enriched uranium he still has or buy it on the black market.
To get a better sense of how soon this could happen, I spoke to Khidhir Hamza, who was a top official in Iraq’s nuclear program until he escaped and defected to the United States in 1994. Hamza says he’s less concerned than some others about Saddam buying plutonium on the black market, since most of the supposed sellers are in reality swindlers or foreign intelligence agents. But Hamza thinks that various uranium enrichment efforts underway in Iraq before the Gulf War could yield a workable bomb. He cites an estimate by German intelligence—an estimate some consider unreliable—that Saddam could go nuclear in just three years. The CIA has offered a more sober estimate of five years.
But if the realistic worst-case scenario for Saddam building a bomb is three years—with the opportunity for us to inflict Osirak-type setbacks along the way—why must we invade Iraq right now? Certainly, there are risks to waiting. We could misjudge the situation, or Saddam could get lucky on the black market. And of course, as long as Saddam remains in power, the Iraqi people will suffer mightily. But we have to weigh the risks of delay against the hazards of acting. The Taliban model might not hold. A ground invasion could cost many American lives or fracture the anti-terror coalition. Perhaps most alarmingly, a U.S. invasion could provoke Saddam to use biological and chemical weapons that he already has against Israel, Kuwait, or U.S. interests. Saddam is currently deterred from using weapons of mass destruction by the expectation of retaliation. But as Steve Chapman points out, this deterrent effect breaks down once we signal our intention to finish him off.
For the United States, there are also benefits to waiting. If can we hold off attacking Iraq for a time—while keeping close tabs on Saddam’s nuclear program—we might be the ones to get lucky. Saddam Hussein is 64 years old. Between now and making a bomb, he could succumb to natural causes, or unnatural ones like a coup or a Mossad bullet. As he gets older, Saddam might even realize, in the way Muammar Qaddafi seems to have done, that whatever his ambitions, menacing the United States is a suicidal tactic. But if we don’t get luck in any of these ways, we can still send in the Marines.