Commentary

The Madman in Iraq

In his nationally televised interview Feb. 8 with NBC’s Tim Russert, President Bush tried to justify his decision to take the country to war in Iraq. He failed miserably.

First, he cited the nature of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein to the people of the United States. And, second, he asserted that war was the best option for dealing with this threat. As he said, the president’s “most solemn responsibility is to keep this country secure.”

But if military action was not needed to do that and if, inadvertently, his actions have made America less secure, then the war in Iraq was not simply unnecessary — it is disastrous for U.S. security.

According to the president, Hussein was a threat to the United States because he was “a dangerous man in a dangerous part of the world.” The president later said, “I don’t think America can stand by and hope for the best from a madman.” Repeating what many senior officials in his administration have said in recent days, the president stressed the need to deal with threats “before they become imminent.”

Threat, by definition, combines an enemy’s intent to do harm with the capability to inflict harm. But the Bush administration focused almost exclusively on Hussein’s intent rather than his capability. Saddam may have wanted weapons of mass destruction (WMD), but the latest evidence indicates that Iraq did not have an arsenal of such weapons. Moreover, mere possession of WMD does not constitute a threat. If it did, we would be preparing to go to war against the many other countries that have such weapons, including India, China, Pakistan, France, or even the United Kingdom.

So, it matters not that Saddam might have had WMDs — it does matter what he was likely to do with them. Saddam hated the United States. But an enemy must also have a capability for doing us harm, for translating that hate into action. Here, Saddam was practically impotent. Saddam may have had missiles — even missiles not allowed under the terms imposed after the 1991 Gulf War — but he didn’t have long-range missiles that could hit a target in the United States. He had no air force. He had no blue water navy. His supposedly threatening unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) could hardly get off the ground in Baghdad, let alone fly the thousands of miles to New York City or Washington, D.C.

He had one other option. Hussein could have harmed Americans by aligning with terrorists. He was unlikely to do that because, as a secular leader of a country divided along religious lines, Saddam represented everything that the global jihadists and Islamic fundamentalists hate.

Saddam was deterred from cooperating with terrorists because he feared the terrorists. He was deterred even more from aligning with them because he feared us: while the world speculated that Saddam might have had terrible weapons, the world knows that we do, and that we have the means to deliver them. Anywhere. Anytime.

An individual may take preemptive action against another threatening person. When a homeowner kills an intruder brandishing a gun, the homeowner reasons there is nothing to prevent the intruder from shooting first. Indeed, there is a powerful incentive for the intruder to shoot first. The intruder reasons: “If I shoot first, and the homeowner falls dead (or is badly wounded), I run away.” Knowing this, the homeowner doesn’t depend upon legal niceties to stop his assailant. Preemptive action is a logical solution.

But no foreign government, no leader in a foreign government, can initiate action against the United States without the certainty of knowing that we retain the capability to retaliate. There are no lucky shots. There are no, “if I get off this round first, I’ll get away.”

Deterrence still works against governments, and against the leaders of governments. It did against Saddam — repeatedly. He never attacked the United States directly because he knew such actions to be suicidal.

Which is why the war on Iraq is so tragic, not simply because it was unnecessary, but because the war and the aftermath are so dangerous. We chose to take action against an evil and despicable person who had been, and could be in the future, deterred from taking action against us. Now, our actions in Iraq play into the feelings of resentment, humiliation, and anger that bin Laden uses to recruit new fighters in his global jihad against Americans.

By toppling Saddam’s regime, and by initiating a U.S. military occupation in a foreign land, the president has strengthened the one group of people who cannot be deterred, and who have repeatedly demonstrated both the intent and the capability to do us harm. That is the threat. It is imminent. And it is not going away.

Christopher Preble is the director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy.