Kennan’s Warning on Ukraine
Ambition, Insecurity, and the Perils of Independence
As the conflict in Afghanistan winds down, the question of what the United States should do about Iraq has risen to the forefront of American foreign policy. Hawks argue that toppling Saddam Hussein should be “phase two” in the war on terrorism. They see Iraq’s development of unconventional weapons as a critical threat to U.S. national interests and want to parlay the success of the Afghan campaign into a similar operation further west. Those who pass for doves in the mainstream debate point to the difficulty of such an undertaking and the lack of any evidence tying Saddam to the recent attacks on the United States. They argue that the goal of America’s Iraq policy should be to revive U.N. weapons inspections and re-energize containment. Both camps have it partly right—and partly wrong.
Thanks to Washington’s own missed opportunities and others’ shameful cynicism, there are no longer any good policy options toward Iraq. The hawks are wrong to think the problem is desperately urgent or connected to terrorism, but they are right to see the prospect of a nuclear-armed Saddam as so worrisome that it requires drastic action. The doves, meanwhile, are right about Iraq’s not being a good candidate for a replay of Operation Enduring Freedom, but they are wrong to think that inspections and deterrence are adequate responses to Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs.
After the more immediate danger posed by Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network has been dealt with, the Bush administration should indeed turn its attention to Baghdad. What it should do at that point, however, is pursue the one strategy that offers a way out of the impasse. The United States should invade Iraq, eliminate the present regime, and pave the way for a successor prepared to abide by its international commitments and live in peace with its neighbors.
The reasons for contemplating such dramatic action have little to do with the events of September 11 and the subsequent crisis and much to do with the course of U.S. policy toward Iraq since 1991. After Iraq’s defeat in the Persian Gulf War, the first Bush administration hoped Saddam would fall from power. It had no clear strategy for how to make that happen, however, and so settled for keeping him isolated and defanged until the lucky day eventually arrived. For lack of a better alternative the Clinton administration continued the same policy, as has the current administration.
The central goal of containment over the past decade has been to prevent Saddam—a serial aggressor—from rebuilding Iraq’s military power, including its weapons of mass destruction. The United States and its allies did not want to have to deter, repel, or reverse another Iraqi invasion; they wanted to deny Saddam the wherewithal to mount a threat to his neighbors in the first place. So they put in place, under U.N. auspices, a combination of economic, military, and diplomatic constraints that prevented Saddam from once again destabilizing one of the world’s most strategically important regions, while simultaneously allowing humanitarian exemptions so Iraq could meet the nonmilitary needs of its population. Despite the criticism it often received, this policy was a sensible approach to a situation in which there were few attractive options. It served its purposes well, and far longer than most thought possible.
Over the last few years, however, containment has started to unravel. Serious inspections of Saddam’s WMD programs stopped long ago. Fewer and fewer nations respect the U.N.-mandated constraints, and more and more are tired of constantly battling with Saddam to force him to comply. Ludicrous Iraqi propaganda about how the economic sanctions are responsible for the deaths of more than a million people since 1991 is now accepted at face value the world over. A dozen or more nations have flown commercial airliners into Iraq to flout the ban on air travel to and from the country—a ban they now claim never existed, but one that was a well-respected fact just a few years ago. Smuggled Iraqi oil flows via Jordan, Syria, Turkey, and the Persian Gulf states at a rate more than double what it was in 1998. Iraq is increasingly able to get its hands on prohibited items such as spare parts for its tanks and planes and equipment for its crippled logistical system. Most stunning of all, the Chinese were recently caught building a nationwide fiber-optic communications network for Saddam’s regime; the key nodes of this system were destroyed by U.S. airstrikes in January 2001. If respect for the sanctions has already eroded to the point where the Chinese are willing to sell Iraq such critical technology, how long will it be before someone proves willing to sell tanks? Or missiles? Or fissile material?
Repeated calls to resuscitate the anti-Saddam coalition and strengthen containment are correct about the problem but na•ve in thinking it can be solved easily. Comprehensive sanctions of the type imposed on Iraq are of necessity a multilateral effort, and at this point there are simply too many important countries willing to subvert them for the scheme to be effective. The current administration’s unhappy experience in trying to sell “smart sanctions” to the international community shows just how bad the situation is. The administration’s proposed reforms would lift most of the economic constraints on Iraq in return for tighter controls over what comes into the country—a perfectly reasonable idea for anyone actually interested in helping the Iraqi people while keeping Saddam’s military in check. But France, Russia, China, and others have opposed the plan because Baghdad fears, correctly, that if it were accepted some form of international military and financial controls might be prolonged.
Ironically, in practice the smart sanctions probably would not do much more than briefly stave off containment’s collapse. Right now the U.N. uses its control over Iraq’s contracts to determine what goes into and out of the country legally. The system is policed through U.N. (read U.S.) scrutiny of every Iraqi contract—a cumbersome and glacially slow process that still fails to stop Saddam’s massive smuggling activities. The Bush administration’s proposal would shift the enforcement burden away from the U.N. and onto Iraq’s neighbors and try to shut down illegal trade by buying the cooperation of those states through which it would have to pass—Jordan, Syria, Turkey, Iran, and the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates). The problem is that all these countries profit from the smuggling, all have populations opposed to enforcing the sanctions, and all except the GCC and Iran are now highly vulnerable to Iraqi economic pressure. So no matter what they may say publicly, none of them is likely to help much in blocking the flow of oil, money, and contraband.
At this point, restoring a serious and sustainable containment regime would require an entirely new set of arrangements. General economic sanctions would have to be lifted and the current U.N. contracting system virtually eliminated, while the core military embargo and financial controls would have to be left in place, harsh penalties instituted for violators, and preauthorization arranged for the use of force by the United States to compel compliance. Such a deal is unimaginable in the U.N. Security Council today, where many of the members compete to see who can appease Iraq most. And although in theory similar reforms could be imposed by the United States unilaterally, any attempt to do so would soon run into passionate international opposition, crippling U.S. diplomacy long before it had much effect on Saddam. Reforming containment enough to make it viable, therefore, is simply not in the offing.
In response to the problems of containment, some have argued that the United States should fall back on a strategy of deterrence—or rather, containment as it was actually practiced against the Soviet Union during the Cold War (as opposed to the supersized version applied to Iraq in the 1990s). This would mean allowing the post-Gulf War constraints to slip away altogether and relying solely on the threat of U.S. intervention to dissuade Saddam from future aggression. Such an approach would be generally welcome outside the United States. But it would involve running a terrible risk, for it is not at all clear that Saddam can be deterred successfully for very long.
This is not to argue that Saddam is irrational. There is considerable evidence that he weighs costs and benefits, follows a crude logic in determining how best to achieve his goals, understands deterrence, and has been deterred in the past. Few knowledgeable observers doubt that Saddam refrained from using WMD when he attacked Israel during the Gulf War because he feared Israeli nuclear retaliation, and he seems to have been deterred from using WMD against Saudi Arabia and coalition forces because he feared U.S. retaliation.
Nevertheless, Saddam has a number of pathologies that make deterring him unusually difficult. He is an inveterate gambler and risk-taker who regularly twists his calculation of the odds to suit his preferred course of action. He bases his calculations on assumptions that outsiders often find bizarre and has little understanding of the larger world. He is a solitary decision-maker who relies little on advice from others. And he has poor sources of information about matters outside Iraq, along with intelligence services that generally tell him what they believe he wants to hear. These pathologies lie behind the many terrible miscalculations Saddam has made over the years that flew in the face of deterrence—including the invasion of Iran in 1980, the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the decision to fight for Kuwait in 1990–91, and the decision to threaten Kuwait again in 1994.
It is thus impossible to predict the kind of calculations he would make about the willingness of the United States to challenge him once he had the ability to incinerate Riyadh, Tel Aviv, or the Saudi oil fields. He might well make another grab for Kuwait, for example, and once in possession dare the United States to evict him and risk a nuclear exchange. During the Cold War, U.S. strategists used to fret that once the Soviet Union reached strategic parity, Moscow would feel free to employ its conventional forces as it saw fit because the United States would be too scared of escalation to respond. Such fears were plausible in the abstract but seem to have been groundless because Soviet leaders were fundamentally conservative decision-makers. Saddam, in contrast, is fundamentally aggressive and risk-acceptant. Leaving him free to acquire nuclear weapons and then hoping that in spite of his track record he can be deterred this time around is not the kind of social science experiment the United States government should be willing to run.
With containment collapsing and deterrence too risky, some form of regime change is steadily becoming the only answer to the Iraqi conundrum. In the wake of the September 11 attacks, in fact, supporters of one particular approach to regime change—using the Iraqi opposition to do the job, in conjunction with U.S. air power—have repackaged their ideas to fit the times and gained substantial momentum. The position of these hawks was captured succinctly in a September 20 “open letter” to President Bush from three dozen luminaries, who argued that
any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. Failure to undertake such an effort will constitute an early and perhaps decisive surrender in the war on international terrorism. The United States must therefore provide full military and financial support to the Iraqi opposition. American military force should be used to provide a “safe zone” in Iraq from which the opposition can operate.
Once the military operations in Afghanistan succeeded, they were widely touted by such hawks as a model for a future campaign against Saddam.
The hawks are right on two big points: that a nuclear-armed Saddam would be a disaster waiting to happen and that at this point it would be easier to get rid of him than to stop him from reconstituting his weapons programs. Unfortunately, most of them are wrong on key details, such as how regime change should be accomplished. Trying to topple Saddam by using the same limited military approach the United States used in Afghanistan—air power, special forces, and support for local opposition groups—would be trying to do the job on the cheap, and like all such efforts would run a real risk of disaster. It is possible that the Afghan strategy would work against Iraq—but not likely.
In recent wars, U.S. air power has repeatedly proven devastating, and against Iraq it could by itself undoubtedly accomplish numerous missions. A determined air campaign that focused on Saddam’s key supporters—the Republican Guard, the Special Republican Guard, the Baath Party, the Saddam Fedayeen, and the internal security services—might spark a coup. Indeed, in December 1998 Operation Desert Fox struck at this target set and Saddam became so concerned about a coup that he overreacted, ordering emergency security measures, including the arrest and assassination of several important Shi`ite clerics, that set off uprisings among Iraq’s Shi`a communities. If the intention is to coerce Saddam into respecting U.N. sanctions or modest U.S. dictates, then an open-ended air campaign along the lines of Desert Fox would likely do the trick.
But coercing Saddam by threatening his overthrow is one thing, and making sure that overthrow occurs is another. The fact is that Desert Fox did not produce a coup, and the unrest that Saddam created through his overreaction was easily suppressed. All available evidence indicates that even an Afghan-style war effort would have little chance of eliminating the regime in Iraq, because of the many differences between the two cases.
In Afghanistan, the military balance between the opposition and the Taliban was quite close, which is why limited U.S. actions were able to tip the scales decisively. The Northern Alliance fighters had frustrated the much larger and better-armed Taliban forces on the battlefield for seven years. Although the Taliban slowly gained control over most of the country, the Northern Alliance always gave ground grudgingly, making the Taliban pay for every step. In Iraq, in contrast, the gap in capabilities between the regime and the opposition is much wider. In 1991 and again in 1996, Saddam’s Republican Guard easily defeated even the strongest of the local Iraqi opposition forces, the two Kurdish militias. If the United States were to provide the Kurds with weapons, training, funds, and massive air support, at some point they would probably be able to hold their territory against an Iraqi assault—but even then they would have great difficulty translating such a defensive capability into the offensive power needed to overthrow Saddam.
Some argue that with U.S. aid the external Iraqi opposition, principally the Iraq National Congress (INC), could play the Northern Alliance role. But the INC has several big strikes against it. None of Iraq’s neighbors is willing to serve as a sanctuary for it because they consider it ineffectual. The INC lacks competent field commanders and has never demonstrated any serious support inside Iraq. Even with U.S. help and a base of operations in northern Iraq from 1992 to 1996, it could never gather more than a few hundred fighters at a time, was heavily reliant on the Kurds for military operations, and was unable to secure any significant defections from the Iraqi armed forces.
If the Iraqi opposition is much weaker than the Northern Alliance, the Iraqi regime is also much stronger than the Taliban was. The Taliban fielded perhaps 45,000 troops, while Iraq has armed forces totaling 400,000—one-quarter of them in the elite Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard—along with paramilitary forces totaling hundreds of thousands more. The Iraqi army is much better armed than the Taliban was, has better discipline, and has demonstrated better unit cohesion. The Iraqi armed forces are hardly a juggernaut, but they have repeatedly proved to be more than a match for all local opposition.
Saddam’s control over Iraq, meanwhile, is much stronger than the Taliban’s control was over Afghanistan. He has quashed countless coup attempts, insurrections, and even outright revolts during his decades in power, and this has made the average Iraqi very wary of taking action of any kind against his regime. It is true that following Saddam’s catastrophic defeat in the Gulf War there were major rebellions throughout southern Iraq. But what is noteworthy about them is not how large they were, but how small. Despite the magnitude of Saddam’s defeat, only several tens of thousands of people ever joined in the uprisings. Despite their passionate hatred of Saddam, the vast majority of Iraqis were so terrified of him that they chose to wait to see how things would turn out rather than join the rebellion and risk retribution if it failed.
The key to victory in Afghanistan was a U.S. air campaign that routed the Taliban combat forces, leaving the Northern Alliance only the tasks of reducing several isolated strongholds and generally mopping up. In Iraq, U.S. air power would have to accomplish at least the same results for an Afghan-style strategy to succeed, but on this score history is not encouraging.
In Operation Desert Storm, the United States hit Iraq with what was probably the most powerful preliminary air campaign in history. It followed this up with one of the most decisive ground campaigns of the twentieth century. By early March 1991, the Iraqi armed forces had been reduced to a shadow of their former selves. Yet weak as they were, they still had enough strength to crush the largest insurrections in Iraqi history and keep Saddam in power. Those who favor the Afghan approach against Iraq are therefore betting that a U.S. military effort significantly smaller than the one mounted in 1991 would somehow produce much greater results this time around.
Some claim that U.S. and Iraqi forces today are so different from those a decade ago that such history is no longer relevant. Iraq’s military is certainly not as capable as it once was. And since 1991, improvements in command, control, communications, and intelligence capabilities, together with the greater availability and effectiveness of precision-guided munitions, have made the U.S. military machine far more deadly. In one crucial area, however—the ability to break enemy ground forces using air strikes alone—the vast strides the U.S. military has taken since 1991 have yielded only a modest improvement.
Most of the U.S. advances have come in using fewer forces to destroy a given target. But throughout history the key determinant of whether ground units are likely to collapse from air strikes alone has not been the accuracy of the blows, but rather the commitment and discipline of the troops being struck. This point was reinforced in Afghanistan, where the less committed Taliban troops broke under U.S. airstrikes but the more determined and disciplined al Qaeda units did not—and fought hard later at Kunduz, Kandahar, and Tora Bora.
The same was true during the Gulf War, when Iraq’s low-grade infantry divisions broke under the massive U.S. air campaign, but the more determined and disciplined Republican Guard and regular army heavy divisions did not. This was hardly for lack of trying. The coalition flew 110,000 sorties against Iraq during Desert Storm, compared to only 6,500 against the Taliban by the fall of Kandahar. It hit the key Republican Guard divisions with more than 1,000 sorties apiece, used twice as many precision-guided munitions against Iraq as against the Taliban, and destroyed perhaps 1,500 Iraqi armored fighting vehicles from the air. The United States waged a far more punishing air campaign against Iraq than it did against the Taliban, in other words, and inflicted far more damage on Iraqi forces. But the key Iraqi divisions never broke and fought hard, although not particularly well, during the coalition’s subsequent ground offensive. The odds are, therefore, that even today a substantial part of Saddam’s forces would weather a sustained aerial attack, and even badly battered would still be able to prevail in combat against the opposition afterward.
Using the Afghan approach in Iraq, moreover, would leave the United States dangerously vulnerable to Saddam’s counterattacks. Once Saddam realized that Washington was serious about regime change, he would fight back with everything he had—including the two or three dozen Scud-type missiles with biological and chemical warheads that U.N. inspectors and U.S. intelligence believe he has stashed away. During the Gulf War, the United States was unable to find Iraq’s Scud launchers in the western and southern parts of the country even though it used large numbers of aircraft and special forces teams in the effort. American capabilities have improved since then, but few in the U.S. military have confidence that the same mix of forces would do much better today. Likewise, once an Afghan-style air campaign began, Saddam would have every incentive to crush the Kurds. Since America’s ability to defend them without ground forces is extremely limited, it has relied on deterrence—the threat of a massive air campaign—instead. If such an air campaign is going on anyway, that threat will no longer work, and Saddam would likely move to reoccupy the north—with all of the attendant slaughter and repression that would entail.
Saddam might also decide to shut down Iraqi oil production to try to force Washington to halt its attacks. The U.S. strategic petroleum reserve could compensate for the loss of Iraqi oil for about seven months, but the uncertain length of an Afghan-style campaign against Iraq would raise the possibility that U.S. reserves might run out before Saddam fell. Unless U.S. ground forces occupied the Iraqi oil fields at the start of a war, moreover, there would be little to prevent Saddam from destroying them as a final act of vengeance, just as he destroyed Kuwait’s oil fields in 1991.
Carrying off an Afghan-style campaign against Iraq, finally, would be extremely difficult without the support of a number of regional partners—to provide bases and overflight for the air campaign, conduits and safe havens for the opposition forces, help with making up any shortfalls in Iraqi oil production, and so forth. Indeed, the Afghan operations themselves required help from countries including Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Russia, and India. A replay against Iraq, a much larger and harder target, would require a comparable lineup of local friends.
Unfortunately, this is the one approach to the problem that the frontline states have made clear they would not support. America’s allies in the region have told Washington time and again that they will not assist any U.S. military operation with an indeterminate end and low chances of success. As one high-ranking GCC official has put it, “when you are ready to use all of your forces we will be there for you, but we’re not interested in letting you try out theories about air power.”
Saddam Hussein must be dealt with. But thinking about Iraq in the context of the war on terrorism or the operations in Afghanistan obscures more than it clarifies. Given the specific features of the Iraqi situation, trying to topple Saddam with an Afghan-style campaign would be risky and ill advised. It might just work, but there is no reason to chance it, especially since adding a major ground component—that is, replaying the Gulf War rather than the Afghan campaign—would not cost much more while making success a near certainty. Even without committing its own ground forces, the United States would still be responsible for Iraq’s political and military reconstruction. Using a standoff approach to regime change, however, would limit American ability to control events while opening the door to mischief-makers who would try to turn Saddam’s fall to their own advantage. Because of the human, diplomatic, and financial costs involved, invasion should always be a last resort. Unfortunately in this case, since all the other options are worse, it is a necessary one.
The strategic logic for invasion is compelling. It would eliminate the possibility that Saddam might rebuild his military or acquire nuclear weapons and thus threaten the security of the world’s supply of oil. It would allow the United States to redeploy most of its forces away from the region afterward, or at the very least return to its pre-Gulf War “over the horizon” presence—something long sought by locals and the United States alike. And by facilitating the reconstruction of Iraq and its re-entry into regional politics it would remove a major irritant from U.S. relations with the Muslim world in general.
The military aspects of an invasion, meanwhile, although hardly painless, would be straightforward and well within U.S. capabilities. In 1991, U.S. forces ran roughshod over their Iraqi counterparts, and in the ten years since then the gap in capabilities between the two sides has widened. At this point, the United States could probably smash Iraq’s ground forces with a single corps composed of two heavy divisions and an armored cavalry regiment. To be on the safe side and to handle other missions, however, it would make sense to plan for a force twice that size. Some light infantry will be required in case Saddam’s loyalists fight in Iraq’s cities. Airmobile forces will be needed to seize Iraq’s oil fields at the start of hostilities and to occupy the sites from which Saddam could launch missiles against Israel or Saudi Arabia. And troops will have to be available for occupation duties once the fighting is over. All told, the force should total roughly 200,000-300,000 people: for the invasion, between four and six divisions plus supporting units, and for the air campaign, 700-1,000 aircraft and anywhere from one to five carrier battle groups (depending on what sort of access to bases turned out to be possible). Building up such a force in the Persian Gulf would take three to five months, but the campaign itself would probably take about a month, including the opening air operations.
The casualties incurred during such an operation might well be greater than during the Afghan or Gulf Wars, but they are unlikely to be catastrophic. Two factors that could increase the toll would be the willingness of Iraqi forces to fight tenaciously for their cities and a decision by Saddam to employ unconventional weapons during the crisis. On the other hand, it is possible that the mere presence of such American forces on Iraq’s doorstep could produce a coup that would topple Saddam without significant combat.
The military aspects of an invasion, actually, are likely to be the easiest part of the deal. The diplomatic fallout will probably be more difficult, with its severity directly related to the length of the campaign and the certainty of its outcome. Just as in Afghanistan, the longer it drags on and the more uncertain it looks, the more dissent will be heard, both at home and abroad—whereas the quicker and more decisive the victory, the more palatable it will be for all concerned.
The only country whose support would be absolutely necessary for an invasion is Kuwait. The task would be made dramatically easier if the Saudis helped, however, both because of the excellent bases on their territory and because the GCC and Jordan would undoubtedly follow the Saudi lead. Although both the Saudis and the Kuwaitis have said they do not want the United States to attack Iraq, the consensus among those who know those countries’ leaders well is that they would grudgingly consent if the United States could convince them it was willing to use the full range of its military capabilities to ensure a swift, successful campaign.
Egyptian permission would be required to move ships through the Suez Canal and planes across its airspace, but given the importance of U.S. economic and military assistance to Egypt that should not be a problem. Turkey’s support would also be useful, in particular because it would make it much easier to defend the Kurds in northern Iraq from an Iraqi counteroffensive. Other regional states would have an incentive to come on board because they would want to have a say in the postinvasion political arrangements in Baghdad. The French, the Russians, and the Chinese would object strongly to the whole concept and might try to kill it by raising a diplomatic firestorm. Still, they could not stop a U.S. invasion were the administration truly set on one, and they might eventually jump on board once it went ahead if only to retain political and economic influence in Iraq later on.
The biggest headaches for the United States are likely to stem not from the invasion itself but from its aftermath. Once the country has been conquered and Saddam’s regime driven from power, the United States would be left “owning” a country of 22 million people ravaged by more than two decades of war, totalitarian misrule, and severe deprivation. The invaders would get to decide the composition and form of a future Iraqi government—both an opportunity and a burden. Some form of unitary but federalized state would probably best suit the bewildering array of local and foreign interests involved, but ideally this decision would be a collective one: as in Afghanistan, the United States should try to turn the question of future Iraqi political arrangements over to the U.N., or possibly the Arab League, thus shedding and spreading some responsibility for the outcome. Alternatively, it might bring in those countries most directly affected by the outcome—the Saudis, Kuwaitis, Jordanians, and Turks—both to co-opt them and as an incentive for their diplomatic support. In the end, of course, it would be up to the United States to make sure that a post-Saddam Iraq did not slip into chaos like Lebanon in the 1980s or Afghanistan in the 1990s, creating spillover effects in the region and raising the possibility of a new terrorist haven.
Because it will be important to ensure that Iraq does not fall apart afterward, the United States will also need to repair much of the damage done to the Iraqi economy since Saddam’s accession. It could undoubtedly raise substantial funds for this purpose from the GCC and perhaps some European and East Asian allies dependent on Persian Gulf oil. And as soon as Iraq’s oil started flowing again, the country could contribute to its own future. Current estimates of the cost of rebuilding Iraq’s economy, however, range from $50 billion to $150 billion, and that does not include repairing the damage from yet another major war. The United States should thus be prepared to contribute several billion dollars per year for as much as a decade to rebuild the country.
It is one thing to recognize that because of the unique features of this case—the scale of the interests involved, Saddam’s unparalleled record of aggression and violence, and the problems with other options—an invasion of Iraq is the least bad course of action available. It is another to figure out just when such an invasion should be launched. Despite what many hawks now argue, it is a mistake to think of operations against Iraq as part of the war on terrorism. The dilemma the United States must now grapple with, in fact, is that attacking Iraq could jeopardize the success of that war, but the longer it waits before attacking the harder it will be and the greater the risk that Saddam’s strength will increase.
Toppling Saddam is not a necessary component of the war on terrorism, and by itself Iraq’s support for terrorism would not justify the heavy costs of an invasion. Iraq is indeed a state sponsor of terrorism, but on the grand roll of such sponsors it is well behind Iran, Syria, Pakistan, Sudan, Lebanon, North Korea, Libya, and several others. If the only problem the United States had with Iraq were its support for terrorism, it would be a relatively minor concern. Conversely, if one were to list Saddam Hussein’s crimes against humanity in order of their importance, his support for terrorism would rank low.
The reason for even contemplating all the costs that an invasion would entail is the risk that a nuclear-armed Saddam might wreak havoc in his region and beyond, together with the certainty that he will acquire such weapons eventually if left unchecked. Nevertheless, there is no indication that he is about to get them within weeks or months. Containment may be dying, but it is not dead yet, and a determined U.S. effort could keep it alive for some time longer. Iraq represents an emerging threat, but bin Laden and his accomplices constitute an immediate one.
Al Qaeda has demonstrated both the ability and the willingness to reach into the American homeland and slaughter thousands, and it now has the motive of revenge to add to its general ideological hostility. Breaking the network’s back in Afghanistan and elsewhere should therefore be the Bush administration’s top national security priority, and this cannot be done without the active cooperation of scores of U.S. allies around the world—for intelligence gathering, police work, and financial cooperation, all on top of any military or diplomatic help that might be required.
So far the administration’s efforts in this area are paying off, largely because others have supported them. Should that trend continue, it is likely that within anywhere from six months to two years the United States and its partners will have disrupted al Qaeda’s communications, recruitment, financing, and planning so much that what is left of the network will be largely innocuous. Until this point has been reached, it would be a mistake to jeopardize success by risking a major break with U.S. allies—something that a serious campaign against Iraq might well make necessary. And besides, laying the appropriate military, political, diplomatic, and economic groundwork for an invasion will take considerable time and effort.
Nevertheless, those calling for an immediate attack on Iraq make a legitimate point. Too much delay could be as problematic as too little, because it would risk the momentum gained from the victory over Afghanistan. Today the shock of the September 11 attacks is still fresh and the U.S. government and public are ready to make sacrifices—while the rest of the world recognizes American anger and may be leery of getting on the wrong side of it. The longer the wait before an invasion, the harder it will be to muster domestic and international support for it, even though the reason for invading would have little or nothing to do with Iraq’s connection to terrorism. And over time the effort to take down al Qaeda could actually exacerbate the problems with containment, since some of America’s partners in that effort want to loosen rather than tighten the noose on the Iraqi regime and may try to use the leverage of their cooperation with us to stall any bold moves. The United States can afford to wait a little while before turning to Saddam, in other words, but not indefinitely.
Even when a policy cannot be sustained forever, it often makes sense to spin out its final stages for as long as possible. This is not the case with the containment of Iraq today. The last two years have witnessed a dramatic erosion of the constraints on the Iraqi regime. The Bush administration’s initial solution to this problem, the smart sanctions plan, would be little more than a Band-Aid and even so could not find general acceptance. If no more serious action is taken, the United States and the world at large may soon confront a nuclear-armed Saddam. At that point the danger would be obvious to all, but it would be infinitely more difficult to confront. Taking down al Qaeda should indeed be the priority of the moment, and using half-measures, such as the Afghan approach, against Saddam would be a mistake. But these should not become permanent excuses for inaction. We may tarry, but Saddam will not.