Why the United States Should Not Attack Iraq

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For months the Bush administration has beenpreparing the country for war with Iraq. Theadministration has argued that only a forcibleregime change can neutralize the threat thatSaddam Hussein is said to pose. But the assumptionsthat underlie the administration's policyrange from cautiously pessimistic to outright fallacious.First, there is a prevalent belief that if Iraqis able to obtain nuclear weapons it will inevitablyuse them. Second, there is a notion that Hussein istotally irrational and cannot be trusted to act in apredictable manner; and, because of that, his leadershipcreates a substantial risk of instability inthe Middle East. Finally, many people in theUnited States have come to believe that war in Iraqmay be the only means of nullifying the threatposed by Iraq's nuclear, biological, and chemicalweapons programs.

There are less costly strategies for dealing withHussein than conducting a war. Hussein, while hemay not act morally, is rational in the sense thateconomists and political scientists use the term.An examination of his past actions indicates thathis principal need is to maintain his own physicaland political survival. Using that knowledge,Washington can develop a strategy that wouldallow the United States to deter Hussein from takingactions detrimental to U.S. national security,without engaging him in warfare.

The key to neutralizing the Iraqi threat is todeter Hussein from aggressive action by sendinga clear and credible message of commitment toprotecting the United States against any challengeto its security; it is essential to communicatea willingness to massively retaliate inresponse to attacks against our homeland. Thisis crucially different from President Bush's messagethat overthrowing Hussein must be a toppriority, regardless of his actual behavior. IfHussein believes that his political survival isbeing threatened, and there is nothing he can doabout it, he may respond in a dangerous andunpredictable manner—with weapons of massdestruction.

Ivan Eland and Bernard Gourley

Ivan Eland is director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute. Bernard Gourley is an independent foreign policy analyst.