Commentary

Faulty Justifications for War with Iraq

This article was published in the Orange County Register, Feb. 2, 2003.

The pro-war camp cites an array of reasons why a U.S. military campaign to overthrow Saddam Hussein is a good idea. Four reasons are especially prominent, and all of them have major flaws.

Saddam Hussein is an evil ruler who represses, tortures, and murders his own people. His overthrow would be an act of liberation.

There is no doubt that Saddam is a murderous tyrant. But that characteristic does not distinguish him from several dozen other rulers around the world. If overthrowing a dictator is sufficient reason for the United States to go to war, one must ask how many other holy crusades are in our future. When does the United States attack North Korea’s Kim Jong Il, Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Sudan’s genocidal slave-masters, or Burma’s murderous military junta-to name just a few of the world’s most odious regimes?

The United States is supposed to be a constitutional republic. As such, the job of the U.S. military is to defend the vital security interests of the American people. U.S. troops are not armed crusaders with a mission to right all wrongs and liberate oppressed populations. American dollars are too scarce and American lives too precious for such feckless ventures.

Saddam’s overthrow would trigger a democratic transformation in the Middle East, producing new regimes that would be far friendlier to both Israel and the United States.

That is a fantasy, not a realistic goal. It is highly improbable that overthrowing Saddam’s regime and setting up a democratic successor in Iraq would lead to a surge of democracy in the region. Indeed, it probably wouldn’t even lead to a stable, united, democratic Iraq over the long-term. A U.S. occupation force would be needed for many years just to keep a client regime in power.

The harsh reality is that the Middle East has no history of democratic rule, democratic institutions, or serious democratic movements. To expect stable democracies to emerge from such an environment is naive.

Moreover, even in the unlikely event that a wave of democratic revolutions swept the Middle East following the U.S. conquest of Iraq, the United States would probably not like the results. If free elections were held today in such countries as Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, they would produce virulently anti-American governments.

Overthrowing Saddam would weaken the terrorist threat and intimidate other regimes that might be tempted to cooperate with terrorists.

A war with Iraq is likely to have the opposite effect. It will serve as a recruiting poster for Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. However much Americans might believe that an attack on Iraq is justified, it will be perceived throughout the Islamic world as aggressive U.S. imperialism. That perception will be intensified if the United States occupies Iraq for an extended period and takes control of the country’s oil resources. As far as intimidating other regimes is concerned, if the U.S. ouster of the Taliban government in Afghanistan did not show how perilous it is to harbor anti-American terrorists, it is not apparent how overthrowing the Iraqi government will convey that message with greater clarity.

If we do not oust Saddam, Iraq will someday use its weapons of mass destruction to blackmail the United States, or even worse, will pass along such weapons to Al Qaeda, which will use them against American targets.

The United States successfully deterred the likes of Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong — two brutal and erratic rulers. And those dictators possessed nuclear, not just chemical and biological, weapons, whereas there is no credible evidence of an active Iraqi nuclear weapons program. The pro-war faction has never explained why the United States cannot deter a garden-variety thug like Saddam Hussein.

Saddam and the other members of the Iraqi political elite know that threatening, much less attacking, the United States would be an act of suicide. Young, useful idiots like the September 11 terrorists may be suicidal, but rulers of countries almost never are. Iraq’s rulers know that attacking the United States would lead to an annihilating counterstroke from the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.

Nor is it likely that Iraq would pass along chemical or biological weapons to Al Qaeda. Evidence of a connection between Baghdad and Al Qaeda is flimsy at best. Moreover, Saddam knows that he would be at the top of a very short list of suspects as the source of such a weapon if Al Qaeda detonated one against an American target. The only circumstance under which Saddam might pass a weapon to Al Qaeda is if the United States invades Iraq because he would then have nothing to lose.

Going to war is serious business. The issue is not whether Iraq has cooperated sufficiently with U.N. inspectors or complied with U.N. resolutions. The issue is not whether the Iraqi people and the Middle East region would be better off without Saddam Hussein. The issue is not even whether Iraq possesses chemical or biological weapons. The only pertinent issue is whether Iraq poses a serious, imminent threat to the United States, thereby justifying preemptive war. The pro-war camp has utterly failed to make the case that Iraq poses such a threat.

Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and is the author or editor of 15 books on international affairs, including “Peace & Freedom: Foreign Policy for a Constitutional Republic.”