As crises erupt around the globe, al-Qaeda obviously is alive and deadly, if not well. Yet President George W. Bush remains fixated on Baghdad; Saddam is "a dangerous man," he declared in his weekly radio address. True, but irrelevant. The administration must decide whether to protect Americans by focusing on the fight against terrorism or risk Americans' lives by setting the globe further aflame with an unnecessary war against Iraq.
The world has become very ugly. There is murderous hostage-taking in Moscow; a brutal bombing in Bali, Indonesia; plans to hit U.S. embassies in Southeast Asia and Europe; an attack on a French oil tanker off Yemen; a failed plot against Saudi oil facilities. There are shootings of American soldiers in Kuwait; bombings in the Philippines; the Washington, D.C., sniper a possible free-lance terrorist; the arrest of al-Qaeda wannabes in Portland and Buffalo.
Warns CIA Director George Tenet: "al-Qaeda is in an execution phase and intends to strike us both here and overseas." An Italian investigator told Time magazine that al-Qaeda terrorists now "are better organized than at any point in the past year." Muslim hatred of the West continues to grow. Palestinians and Israelis are at war. Islamic fundamentalists made dramatic electoral gains in Pakistan.
Why, then, the administration's focus on Baghdad? Obviously Saddam is a monster. But Turkey treats its Kurds no better than does Iraq and Christian women are worse off in Saudi Arabia.
Baghdad has attacked its neighbors, but today is contained and constrained, far weaker than in 1990. Yes, Iraq deployed chemical weapons against Iran in war and maybe against the Kurds in civil war. But Saddam only used these weapons against defenseless adversaries. In contrast, the United States possesses thousands of nuclear warheads.
Baghdad is trying to develop an atomic bomb; so is North Korea, however. Brazil's new leftist president-elect has expressed an interest in doing so. Islamic Pakistan already possesses nukes.
Moreover, Saddam couldn't use them against the United States or Israel without fearful retaliation. Still, we are warned, with them he could deter America from attacking him.
Yet Washington has never before been free to bomb any country at any time. A nuclear-armed Soviet Union long constrained America.
Would Baghdad give nuclear weapons to terrorists? Al-Qaeda thinks little better of secular Arab dictators than of Western democracies. Former National Security Council staffer Daniel Benjamin calls Iraq and al-Qaeda "natural enemies." Saddam is not likely to turn over his military crown jewels to those he doesn't control. Especially since he would be immediately suspected -- and face devastating retaliation -- if terrorists ever used weapons of mass destruction against the United State.
As for loose nukes, Pakistan not only possesses nuclear weapons but apparently aided North Korea's nuclear program. So did China and Russia.
Equally frightening, Saddam likely will use, against both America and Israel, whatever chemical or biological weapons he possesses if Washington attempts to depose him. Director Tenet warns: "Should Saddam conclude that a U.S.-led attack could no longer be deterred, he probably would become much less constrained in adopting terrorist actions."
In sum, Washington's policy against weapons of mass destruction actually encourages their use.
Moreover, any war would divert resources from fighting a resurgent al-Qaeda. Yet, warns Director Tenet, "the threat environment we find ourselves in today is as bad as it was last summer, the summer before Sept. 11."
Attacking Iraq also is likely to reduce cooperation with Arab states and perhaps Asian and European ones as well. Yet cracking down on local terrorist cells and funding sources requires their assistance.
Moreover, even if the power of the so-called Arab street is overstated, the Pakistani election demonstrates Muslim anger against the West. To oust Saddam, but destabilize Pervez Musharraf, would be a losing bargain. And there is the aftermath in Iraq. Even if a U.S. victory generated dancing in Baghdad's streets, a permanent American military occupation might be necessary to hold that artificial country together. The struggle between Kurdish and Shiite separatists, squabbling expatriates, domestic factions, and outside states, such as Iran and Turkey, is likely to be murderous.
To not attack Iraq is "appeasement" and "moral cowardice," charges Nile Gardiner of the Heritage Foundation. Washington's critics are against us and "with our enemies," says Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy.
In fact, opposition to the administration's dangerous aggressiveness is simply good sense.
There is no more fundamental duty for government than to protect its people from outside threats. Yet President Bush admits, "We've got a long way to go" to defeat al-Qaeda. Making war on Iraq will make that defeat even more distant.