Commentary

U.S. Should Refrain from Attacking Iraq

By William A. Niskanen
This article orginally appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times on December 7, 2001.

The war against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s network has been extraordinarily successful to date, and for this the Bush administration deserves our respect and support. All too many of those who were critics or skeptics about the conduct of the war in Afghanistan only a few weeks ago, however, are now pressing the administration to broaden the war to replace Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. This pressure now comes from both the right and the left — including Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman, scribblers at both the Weekly Standard and the New Republic, and desk warriors at both the Heritage Foundation and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (sic). There is now reason to question whether the sensible center will hold.

At a recent forum at the American Enterprise Institute, the only open question was when the United States should attack Iraq. Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s national security adviser, recently heartened the hard-liners by commenting that, “We do not need the events of Sept. 11 to tell us that [Saddam] is a very dangerous man who is a threat to his own people, a threat to the region, and a threat to us.” And, in response to a question at a recent press conference, President Bush insisted that Saddam allow United Nations weapons inspectors to return to Iraq or face some unspecified consequences.

Saddam Hussein is indeed a dangerous, evil man. But that should not be a sufficient basis for taking the war to Iraq. For several reasons, the Bush administration should not follow a successful prosecution of the war in Afghanistan with another war in Iraq unless it presents evidence, at least credible enough for Tony Blair, that Saddam helped finance, organize, or implement the Sept. 11 attacks or that he has supplied weapons of mass destruction to a terrorist group. No such evidence has been presented to date.

In the absence of such evidence or a future attack on American lives and property that is more clearly attributable to Saddam, one should be concerned about the following possible consequences of another war in Iraq:

  • American popular support may not be sufficient to prosecute a sustained war against Saddam.
  • We may have few, if any, of the necessary allies — probably not France, Germany, or Russia and maybe not Britain because of its commitment to Article 51 of the UN Charter; maybe not Turkey because of its concern that a breakup of Iraq would lead to a Kurdish state on its border, and maybe not Kuwait because of a concern that it would be isolated within the Arab world.
  • In the absence of strong allies and regional bases, the successful prosecution of another war in Iraq may be more costly in time, lives and resources than the Gulf War. If Saddam already controls weapons of mass destruction, the costs could be unusually high.
  • Another war in Iraq may serve bin Laden’s objective of unifying radical Muslims around the world in a jihad against the United States, increasing the number of anti-U.S. terrorists. In contrast, the Sept. 11 attacks and the successful prosecution of the war in Afghanistan have divided the Muslim political elite.

Yes, there would be one benefit of a successful prosecution of another war in Iraq — the death of one dangerous evil man and the reduction of the potential of one government to inflict great harm on us and others. But what do we for an encore? There are any number of dangerous, evil men in the world and a much larger potential supply. One way or another, we have to learn to live in a world of dangerous, evil men without going to war against them unless they initiate or assist an attack on our vital national interests.

Yes, there is surely some better alternative to our status quo policy toward Iraq. Cato Institute analysts, for example, have made a case for negotiations to restore UN inspection of facilities that may be producing or storing weapons of mass destruction in exchange for suspending the bombing and reducing the scope of the embargo to those imports that would increase Iraq’s military capability.

But our status quo policy toward Iraq is superior to another war unless we prove that Saddam has supported “terrorism of a global reach,” the Bush criterion that has focused the war on terrorism to date. We have lived with this policy for a decade at no great cost. And we should continue to avoid another war in Iraq unless we have more justification than the common recognition that Saddam is indeed a dangerous, evil man. In the spirit of the season, we should be prepared to “risk peace.”

William Niskanen is chairman of the Cato Institute.