Don’t Start the Second Gulf War

This article was published in National Review Online, Aug. 12, 2002.
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President George W. Bush says that he hasn’t made up his mind about “any of our policies in regard to Iraq,” but he obviously has. To not attack after spending months talking about the need for regime change is inconceivable. Unfortunately, war is not likely to be the simple and certain procedure that he and many others seem to think.

Lots of arguments have been offered on behalf of striking Baghdad that are not reasons at all. For instance, that Saddam Hussein is an evil man who has brutalized his own people.

Certainly true. But the world is full of brutal regimes that have murdered their own people. Indeed, Washington ally Turkey’s treatment of its Kurds is scarcely more gentle than Iraq’s Kurdish policies.

Moreover, the U.S. warmly supports the royal kleptocracy next door in Saudi Arabia, fully as totalitarian, if not quite as violent, as Saddam’s government. Any non‐​Muslim and most women would probably prefer living in Iraq.

Also cited is Baghdad’s conquest of Kuwait a dozen years ago. It is a bit late to drag that out as a justification for invading Iraq and overthrowing Saddam. He is far weaker today and has remained firmly contained.

Richard Butler, former head of the U.N. Commission on Iraq, complained to the Senate Foreign Relations that Iraq had violated international law by tossing out arms inspectors. In fact, there are often as many reasons to flout as to obey U.N. rules. Washington shouldn’t go to war in some abstract pursuit of “international law.”

Slightly more plausible, at least, is the argument that creating a democratic system in Iraq would provide a useful model for the rest of the Mideast. But that presupposes democracy can be easily planted, and that it can survive once the U.S. departs.

Iraq suffers from significant internal stresses. Convenient professions of unity in pursuit of democracy from an opposition once dismissed by Mideast special envoy and retired Gen. Anthony Zinni as “silk‐​suited, Rolex‐​wearing guys in London” offer little comfort and are likely to last no longer than have similar promises in Afghanistan.

Also problematic are Kurdish demands for autonomy and Shiite Muslim resistance to the central government. One defense official told the Washington Post: “I think it is almost a certainty that we’d wind up doing a campaign against the Kurds and Shiites.” Wouldn’t that be pretty?

There are external threats as well. Particularly worrisome would be covert and possibly overt action by Iran, with which Baghdad fought a decade‐​long war and which might see intervention against a weakened Iraq as an antidote to serious political unrest at home.

Indeed, the U.S. backed Baghdad in its conflict with Iran and decided not to depose Saddam in 1991, in part out of fear of Iranian aggression throughout the Gulf should Iraq no longer provide a blocking role. Keeping the Iraqi Humpty Dumpty together after a war might not be easy.

Moreover, while Americans might see America’s war on Iraq as a war for democracy, most Arabs would likely see it as a war for Washington. If the U.S. deposes Saddam, but leaves in place friendly but despotic regimes elsewhere — such as Egypt, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia — few Arabs would take America’s democracy rhetoric seriously. Nor should they. Yet to go to war against everyone, including presumably Iran, Syria, and maybe others, would have incalculable consequences.

Saddam’s complicity in September 11 would present a good argument for devastating retaliation for an act of war, but there’s no evidence that he was involved. All that exists is a disputed meeting, which might not have occurred, in the Czech Republic between hijacker Mohammed Atta and an Iraqi official.

Certainly Saddam shed no tears over the thousands who died on that tragic day, but he has never been known to promote groups which he does not control. In contrast to Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein is no Muslim fanatic looking forward to his heavenly rewards; moreover, he heads a government and nation against which retaliation is simple.

Probably the best, at least the most fearsome, argument for overthrowing Saddam is the prospect of Baghdad developing weapons of mass destruction. Yet if nonproliferation should be enforced by war, Washington will be very busy in the coming years.

The problem is not just countries like Iran and North Korea, which seem to have or have had serious interest in developing atomic weapons. It is China, which could use them in any conflict with the U.S. over, say, Taiwan. And India, Pakistan, and Russia, which face unpredictable nationalist and theological currents, enjoy governments of varying instability, and offer uncertain security over technical know‐​how as well as weapons.

Potentially most dangerous is Pakistan’s arsenal. The government of Pervez Musharraf is none too steady; Islamabad long supported the Taliban and its military and intelligence forces almost certainly contain al Qaeda sympathizers. It is easy to imagine nuclear technology falling into terrorist hands.

An Iraqi nuclear capability seems less frightening in comparison. Saddam would not use them against America, since to do so would guarantee his incineration. Israel possesses a similarly overbearing deterrent.

Would Baghdad turn atomic weapons over to al Qaeda or similarly motivated terrorists? Not likely.

First, it would be extraordinary for Saddam to give up a technology purchased at such a high price. Second, Baghdad would be the immediate suspect and likely target of retaliation should any terrorist deploy nuclear weapons, and Saddam knows this.

Third, Saddam would be risking his own life. Al Qaeda holds secular Arab dictators in contempt and would not be above attempting to destroy them as well as America.

Of course, the world would be a better place without Saddam’s dictatorship. But there are a lot of regimes that should, and eventually will, end up in history’s dustbin. That’s not a good reason to initiate war against a state which poses no direct, ongoing threat.

Especially since war often creates unpredictable consequences. Without domestic opposition military forces to do America’s dirty work, Washington will have to bear most of the burden. The task will be more difficult and expensive without European support and Saudi staging grounds.

If Iraq’s forces don’t quickly crumble, the U.S. might find itself involved in urban conflict that will be costly in human and political terms. If Baghdad possesses any weapons of mass destruction, Saddam will have an incentive to use them — against America, Israel, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia — since Washington would be dedicated to his overthrow.

Further, the U.S. would be sloshing gasoline over a combustible political situation in friendly but undemocratic Arab regimes stretching from North Africa to Southeast Asia. Israelis and Palestinians are at war, America continues to fight Taliban and al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan as the pro‐​western government teeters on chaos, fundamentalist Muslims rule western Pakistan, and Muslim extremists are active a dozen other countries. Yet the administration wants to invade Iraq. Riots in Egypt, a fundamentalist rising in Pakistan, a spurt of sectarian violence in Indonesia, and who knows what else could pose a high price for any success in Iraq.

War is a serious business. Making war on a country which does not threaten the U.S. is particularly serious. Even if the optimists who think a campaign against Iraq would be easy are right, and we can only hope they are, war should be a last resort. As House Majority Leader Richard Armey warned, an unprovoked attack “would not be consistent with what we have been as a nation or what we should be as a nation.”

There’s certainly no hurry to go to war. Nothing is different today from September 10, 2001, or any time since Iraq was ousted from Kuwait. Observes Jim Cornette, formerly an expert in biological warfare with the Air Force: “We’ve bottled [Saddam] up for 11 years, so we’re doing okay.”

There are times when Washington has no choice but to fight. Iraq is not such a place and now is not such a time.

Doug Bandow

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan.