Commentary

The Risk of Doing Nothing

By Charles V. Peña
May 18, 2003

When President Bush addressed the American people, and the world, two days before initiating a U.S.-led attack against Iraq, he said: “We are now acting because the risks of inaction would be far greater.” The implication was that military action would make the United States safer. Now that the United States has won the war, deposed Saddam, and embarked on democracy-building in Iraq, it is worth re-examining the president’s assertion.

First, the swift U.S. military victory is proof that Iraq never posed much of a military threat. Of course, the real threat, according to the administration, was not Iraq’s military, but its weapons of mass destruction and alleged ties to the al Qaeda terrorist network.

To date, no chemical or biological weapons have been found in Iraq, despite assertions prior to the war that the United States knew the Iraqis had such weapons and where they were located. And it’s not just a few weapons that need to be unearthed to lend any credibility to the president’s justification for launching a pre-emptive war. Bush accused Iraq of having enough material “to produce over 25,000 liters of anthrax - enough doses to kill several million people … more than 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin - enough to subject millions of people to death by respiratory failure … as much as 500 tons of sarin, mustard and VX nerve agent.”

Yet possession of chemical or biological weapons is not enough to claim that Iraq was a threat that required immediate military action. Indeed, if the Iraqis had weapons of mass destruction but were unwilling (or unable) to use them to defend their country, when and how were they going to use them at all?

If the war wasn’t about the Iraqi military chimera, then what about the threat of terrorism? Bases used by Ansar al-Islam - a radical Islamic group accused by the administration of having ties to al Qaeda — were destroyed in northern Iraq. But these bases could have been destroyed without a full-scale war. They were in Kurdish-controlled territory and could have been bombed with precision weaponry as part of U.S.-led no-fly zone operations.

To be sure, Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator who terrorized his own people. Liberating the Iraqis from his rule became part of the administration’s rationale for war. And no one, even those who opposed the war, would argue that the Iraqi people are not better off with Saddam gone. But the question is whether the United States is better off. The answer is less clear.

The United States appears to have two contrasting options for post-war Iraq. The first option is the president’s vision of a “sustained commitment” to rebuild Iraq and create a constitutional democracy, civil society, and a free market economy. But this also implies a prolonged U.S. military commitment likely to be viewed as an occupation. And the cost of a sustained commitment could be substantial. Estimates vary from $75 billion to $500 billion. Given rocky relations with the United Nations and many U.S. allies, that bill will likely be paid by American taxpayers.

The second option is to hand the government to the Iraqi people right away and remove U.S. forces from the region. That might produce an Islamic state and a possible power vacuum, which might be filled by Iran or perhaps Syria — both countries accused by the United States of sponsoring terrorism and pursuing weapons of mass destruction. The administration’s rhetoric is schizophrenic, with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld claiming that the U.S. does not plan to stay too long in Iraq but that Iraq should not be a theocracy, implying that the U.S. might be there for a long time.

Neither option is satisfying. And both carry risks.

A third option — but not one currently be on the table — is for the United States to leave Iraq as quickly as possible and turn the task of democratization and reconstruction over to a coalition of the willing. This would reduce the likelihood that the U.S. presence would become a convenient excuse for terrorism, as well as possibly make it more difficult for radical Islamic groups to gain power and control the new government. It’s not a perfect option. But it may be the least bad of only poor options.

Perhaps the most disturbing event in the wake of this war is that the State Department recently issued a worldwide caution that “the recent events in Iraq may increase the potential threat to U.S. citizens and interests abroad, including by terrorist groups.”

Given that, were any or all of the risks associated with winning the war less than the risk of having done nothing?.

Charles V. Peña is director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute.