Commentary

One Last Time: The Case Against a War with Iraq

By William A. Niskanen
March 3, 2003

One last time, let me summarize the case against a war with Iraq-hopefully before the shooting starts. Secretary of State Colin Powell has provided substantially more documentation for a view that most of us have shared for some time: Saddam Hussein is a tyrant and a liar and he controls some dangerous weapons. But that is not a sufficient basis for another war with Iraq.

The administration has yet to challenge any of the following statements that bear on whether Iraq is a serious threat to U.S. national interests:

  • Iraq has not attacked the United States.
  • The administration has provided no evidence that Iraq supported the September 11 attack.
  • Iraq does not have the capability for a direct attack on the United States — lacking long-range missiles, bombers, and naval forces.
  • Iraq has an indirect capability to attack the United States only by supplying dangerous weapons to a terrorist group that might penetrate the United States. Three conditions, however, bear on the relevance of this indirect capability:

    1. Iraq does not have a record of supporting terrorist groups “of a global reach.”
    2. Iraq is in no way distinctive in its potential for an indirect threat to the United States. A dozen or more national governments that are not friendly to the United States have nuclear, chemical, and/or biological weapons programs at some stage of development.
    3. Any terrorist attack that could be clearly attributed to support by Iraq, as was the September 11 attack to the Taliban government in Afghanistan, would clearly provoke a U.S. military response and a regime change in Iraq.

Other conditions, however uncontested, are not a clear threat to U.S. national interests and there is no clearly correct U.S. response. They include the following: The Iraqi government is clearly a threat to the Iraqi population. The issue here is whether U.S. interests are clearly served by using military force to overthrow a local tyrant. Iraq is also a potential threat to some of the neighbor countries. The issue here is whether U.S. interests are clearly served by a war with Iraq to prevent such a regional threat from being exercised, even if, as is now the case, the major neighbor governments do not support such a war.

A war, of course, is not without costs.

In this case, the major cost of a war with Iraq is that it would undermine the continuing and more threatening war against terrorism. Critical intelligence resources would be diverted to the conduct of the war and away from the war against terrorism. Other governments, whose support is not critical to a war in Iraq, may reduce their cooperation in the sharing of intelligence on terrorists and their willingness to arrest and possibly extradite terrorists. And a war with Iraq threatens to enflame the militant Muslims around the world and unify them against the United States. Those of us who live and work in the District of Columbia (and in New York City) would be more threatened by terrorism as a consequence of a U.S. war with Iraq.

One other cost of a war with Iraq is that it would be strongly contrary to the centuries-old principle of international law against preventive wars, the principle by which Americans have always distinguished the bad guys from the good guys. A U.S. violation of this principle may invite a more general breakdown of this important principle. A third cost of a war with Iraq would be the casualties of innocent people, both Americans and Iraqis, casualties that are likely to be high in an urban end-game for the Iraqi regime.

Compared to these costs, the budget and economic costs of the war, probably less than one percent of one year’s U.S. GDP, seem trivial.

In summary, Secretary Powell’s articulate enumeration provided more detail on Saddam Hussein’s deceits and transgressions but no new information that would make a sufficient case for the U.S. to wage a preventive war with Iraq.

William A. Niskanen is the chairman of the Cato Institute, a former senior economic adviser to President Reagan, and a long-time defense analyst.