In late November, the journalism department at New York University hosted a forum on Iraq. The first five speakers, who included such liberal luminaries as historian Frances FitzGerald, cultural critic Todd Gitlin, former UN official Brian Urquhart and political scientist Michael Walzer, all expressed varying degrees of skepticism about the wisdom of invading Iraq. Then it was Kanan Makiya’s turn. The son of a prominent Iraqi architect who came to this country in the late 1960s to attend MIT and never left, Makiya has spent the past fifteen years publicizing the horrors taking place in his native land. In Republic of Fear (1989) and Cruelty and Silence (1993) he chronicled the instruments of repression used by Saddam Hussein to brutalize his people and to suppress the Kurdish and Shiite uprisings after the Gulf War.

Now Makiya warned the audience of 200 that he would be striking a “discordant note” with the rest of the panel. “When you look at this coming war from the point of view of the people who are going to pay the greatest price–the people of Iraq–they overwhelmingly want it,” Makiya declared. He discussed the steps he and other Iraqi exiles were taking to convince the Bush Administration to make the installation of a democratic government in Baghdad one of its chief war aims. And he urged those in attendance to support that goal. A war to overthrow Saddam, he said, “could have enormous transformative power throughout the Middle East.” If there is even a “sliver of a chance–even 5 to 10 percent–that what I’m talking about might happen,” Makiya said, those committed to bringing democracy and justice to the world have a “moral obligation” to support military action in Iraq. Amid applause from the audience, the other panelists shifted uncomfortably.

Their discomfort is shared by many American liberals. For, on Iraq, the left finds itself in a quandary, torn between two fundamental principles. One is anti-imperialism–a deep suspicion of US military action abroad, especially when undertaken unilaterally. The other is humanitarianism–an impulse to see America use its influence to promote freedom and human rights around the world. In some cases, like Vietnam, the left has united under the anti-imperial banner; in others, like Bosnia, it has largely embraced the humanitarian standard. In Iraq, both principles seem to apply. How to weigh them? Only by coolly assessing the validity of the humanitarian and anti-intervention arguments can liberals hope to develop a position that is both coherent and defensible.

The humanitarian argument has been put forward most vigorously by Christopher Hitchens, which is unfortunate, since he’s been unable to separate the issue from his own messy breakup with the left. In a recent article in the Washington Post, for instance, Hitchens denounced Saddam Hussein and antiwar activists with equal zest. On the day Saddam falls, he taunted, “I am booked to have a reunion in Baghdad with several old comrades who have been through hell. We shall not be inviting anyone who spent this precious time urging democratic countries to give Saddam another chance.”

Such posturing has made it easy to dismiss Hitchens’s views as mere self-promotion. But others have made the case for regime change more persuasively. One is Salman Rushdie. No friend of US foreign policy, Rushdie, in an op-ed piece in the Post, came out unequivocally for military action in Iraq. The case against Saddam, he wrote, is based on his decades-long “assault on the Iraqi people. He has impoverished them, murdered them, gassed and tortured them, sent them off to die by the tens of thousands in futile wars, repressed them, gagged them, bludgeoned them and then murdered them some more. Saddam Hussein and his ruthless gang of cronies from his home village of Tikrit are homicidal criminals, and their Iraq is a living hell.” Rushdie added that “all the Iraqi democratic voices that still exist, all the leaders and potential leaders who still survive, are asking, even pleading for the proposed regime change.”

Probably the strongest brief for intervention is The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq, by Kenneth Pollack. A longtime analyst at the CIA who served on President Clinton’s National Security Council, Pollack favors intervention mainly for strategic reasons, viewing Saddam as so serious a threat to international peace and security that he must be removed. But Pollack’s horror at Saddam’s brutality pervades and shapes his argument. In his book, he grimly describes the techniques used by the Baathist regime to intimidate and terrorize the Iraqi people. Iraq, Pollack writes, has a dozen intelligence and security agencies employing up to 500,000 people. Torture, killing, rape, genocide and other cruelties are parceled out to as many of the regime’s personnel as possible so as to implicate them in its crimes. Tortures include gouging out the eyes of children to force confessions from their parents, cutting out the tongues of critics to silence them and dragging in a man’s wife or daughter to be raped in front of him. While ordinary Iraqis must subsist on their monthly ration cards, Saddam has, since the end of the Gulf War, built fifty new palaces with “gold-plated faucets and artificial rivers, lakes, and waterfalls that employ pumping equipment that could have been used to address the country’s desperate water and sanitation problems.” When Saddam’s efforts to obtain a nuclear weapon are added in, Pollack writes, it’s clear that both the Iraqi people and the world at large would benefit from his ouster.

Do most Iraqis agree with this assessment? Given Saddam’s totalitarian control, it’s impossible to say. Some newspaper accounts have reported more popular opposition to the prospect of a US invasion than Kanan Makiya asserted at the NYU forum. But Peter Bouckaert, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, recently spent three weeks in Iraqi Kurdistan, and virtually everyone he met supported military action. “People see this as the best chance in their lifetime to have a change of government,” Bouckaert says. “They’re desperate to get rid of Saddam.” He added: “A lot of us in the progressive left have a certain reticence about going to war. So it was a shock for me to go to Kurdistan and see so many people in favor of such a course.”

Some critics of intervention argue that Saddam, by having extended women’s rights, free education and other social benefits, has a base of Sunni supporters who lend his regime some legitimacy. Perhaps so, but, judging from a visit I made to Iraq in the summer of 1991, I wonder how large that base might be. Arriving two months after the end of the Gulf War, I had the rare advantage of being able to travel around Baghdad without a government “minder.” Although Saddam’s secret police were as prevalent as ever, local residents were so disgusted with his excesses that they found ways to communicate their anger. It was not just the executions and mass imprisonments that they despised but the two disastrous and meaningless wars they’d been forced to fight over the previous decade, bloodbaths that had left hundreds of thousands dead and maimed and that had turned their country into an international pariah.

It’s sometimes said that Saddam is just one of many tyrants around the world. Both North Korea and Saudi Arabia, our great ally, have equally odious regimes. Why single out Saddam? Well, Saddam clearly qualifies as a butcher, and the impossibility of unseating all the world’s dictators seems an unconvincing reason not to seize the chance to depose one of them. When viewed from the perspective of a Kanan Makiya, the case for regime change in Iraq does indeed seem strong.

But what about when that case is viewed from the standpoint of the rest of the world? In evaluating the justness of any military venture, it’s critical to weigh the anticipated benefits against the expected costs. In the case of invading Iraq, those costs seem extremely high. A US-led intervention, while liberating the Iraqi people, might well make everyone else less safe.

To begin, there’s the continuing threat from Al Qaeda. The mounting series of attacks on “soft” targets from Tunisia to Bali to Mombasa show how lethal the danger from militant Islam remains. Even so staunch an advocate of war as Kenneth Pollack believes that the United States should not confront Saddam until it has contained Al Qaeda. “Even if Iraq is only a few years from acquiring a nuclear weapon,” he writes in The Threatening Storm, “the fact is that al-Qa’eda is attacking us right now and has demonstrated a capability that Saddam never has–the ability to reach into the US homeland and kill three thousand American civilians.” Immediately after September 11, he adds, “we rightly devoted all of the United States’ diplomatic, intelligence, and military attention to eradicating the threat from al-Qa’eda, and as long as that remains the case we should not indulge in a distraction as great as toppling Saddam.”

Already, the preparations for war are distracting Washington from the task of rebuilding Afghanistan. Every week brings fresh reports of bombings, coup plots and assassination attempts. Afghan officials from President Hamid Karzai on down have pleaded with the United States to expand the peacekeeping force in Afghanistan beyond Kabul–a critical step, they argue, to maintain order. But the Pentagon has refused, in part because it wants to keep its forces free for an assault on Baghdad. If the Karzai government does collapse, Afghanistan would no doubt slide back into anarchy, and the country would once again be open for business to the terrorists.

The Bush Administration’s preoccupation with Iraq is similarly distracting it from the ongoing violence in the Middle East. War advocates maintain that ousting a tyrant like Saddam should not be held hostage to the fighting between Israel and the Palestinians, but only the most blinkered observer could fail to see how Washington’s neglect of that issue is inflaming anti-American sentiment in the Arab world. As the Washington Post recently reported, more than sixty Israeli settlements have taken root on the West Bank over the past two years–to resounding silence from the Bush Administration. Writing in the Financial Times, Douglas Hurd, the former British foreign secretary, noted that a quick Anglo-American military victory in Iraq would result in “a sullen and humiliated Arab nation” that could lead to acts of violence against Israel and Western interests. Calling on the West to change its priorities, Hurd urged that the coming weeks be used “to galvanize the peace process and separate the terrorists from the majority of Arabs who still want peace. While the opportunity is still there we need to show that we in the west are concerned with justice for Palestine and security for Israel.”

A US assault on Iraq could further incite Muslim extremists. Columnists like Jim Hoagland and Charles Krauthammer like to mock those who invoke the Arab “street.” And it’s true that most predictions of popular uprisings in the Arab world have proved wrong. But the main worry here is not a grassroots rebellion but a swelling of the terrorists’ ranks. An American push toward Baghdad would provide an excellent recruiting tool for Al Qaeda. What’s more, as Fareed Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International, recently pointed out, Washington has been so consumed with its military campaign against terrorism (and now with Iraq) that it has neglected the ideological front in that war, especially the effort to foster political reform in the Arab world. The United States, he wrote, “must put this ideological struggle at the heart of the war on terror.”

Then there’s the matter of casualties. It’s remarkable how few of the proponents of war address this. Jonathan Chait, in a long article in The New Republic about why liberals should support a war to oust Saddam, devoted all of three sentences to the subject. We seem to have entered the era of the “zipless” war, in which cities get stormed and missiles get fired with nary a hint of blood. To his credit, Pollack does discuss the issue. If Iraq is invaded, he writes, the number of American dead could range from 500 to 1,000 if things go well and as many as 10,000 if they don’t. The Iraqi toll would likely be much higher. During the four-day ground attack of the Gulf War, Pollack notes, between 10,000 and 30,000 Iraqis died, and an invasion now could claim similar numbers–especially if Saddam’s Republican Guard puts up a fight in the streets of Baghdad. The carnage would increase further if Saddam, feeling cornered, decided to deploy his biological and chemical weapons (if, in fact, he turns out to have them).

Once the fighting stops, of course, the United States would face the monumental task of rebuilding Iraq. To do it right, Pollack maintains, America would have to station up to 100,000 troops in the country for five to ten years, at a cost of up to $20 billion, and spend another $5 billion to $10 billion in aid. Is the Bush Administration willing to make such a commitment? It certainly hasn’t said so in its many public statements on the issue. And its behavior in post-Taliban Afghanistan inspires little confidence. The Administration has been so stingy with reconstruction aid that President Karzai has literally had to come begging to Washington.

“If we’re going to invade, the President has a responsibility to make his case–to explain how long it will take, and what resources we’ll have to put in,” says Mark Danner, who has written extensively about Haiti and Bosnia. “He’s not doing that. We have to read about postwar plans in the New York Times. It’s remarkable.” Danner, who in early October joined such other liberals as Derek Bok, Aryeh Neier and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in signing an ad in the Times opposing the war, says, “The most forceful argument for going to war is helping the Iraqi people. But that’s not the reason for this war. I don’t remember anybody in the Administration talking about the Iraqi people before August. Rather, it’s about America’s larger strategic goals in the region. They’re going to get rid of this guy, then get out. During the 2000 campaign, George Bush was totally against nation-building. And I don’t see any sign of change in that.”

Indeed, Kanan Makiya’s vision for a post-Saddam Iraq seems excessively rosy. In his talk at NYU, Makiya noted that the democratic forces within the opposition Iraqi National Congress have received the most support from the more hawkish members of the Bush Administration: Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz. This drew skepticism from fellow panelist Mansour Farhang. A former Iranian diplomat and staunch opponent of the current regime in Teheran, Farhang said the people of both Iraq and Iran would rejoice at seeing a new, democratic government in Baghdad. But, he quickly added, he doubted that America would actually install one. The Iraqi opposition, working in exile, “has had a thirty-year opportunity to create cohesive democratic organizations, and it has not done so. And now they’re learning about democracy from Rumsfeld and Cheney?”

The history of US policy toward Iraq reinforces such doubts. Samantha Power, in researching her book “A Problem From Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide, spent three years studying documents about the Anfal, Saddam’s murderous campaign against the Kurds. Saddam’s rule has been so abusive, she says, that Iraq has “sacrificed its right to sovereignty. If any of us lived in a country like that, we’d be praying for global rescue. We’d be looking up in the sky and hoping to see planes.”

In the course of researching the Anfal, however, Power also saw declassified documents about the US response–or lack of it. At the time, Washington was tacitly backing Saddam in his war with Iran, and it did not want to endanger its ties to him. As one secret State Department report stated, “Human rights and chemical weapons use aside, in many respects our political and economic interests run parallel with those of Iraq.” Some of the people responsible for making Iraq policy back then are in the current Administration, Power notes, and that makes her question the sincerity of their intentions toward the Iraqi people.

Moreover, Saddam, despite his brutal record, is not now carrying out the type of mass slaughter he did against the Kurds in the late 1980s. Iraq today is not like Rwanda in 1994, when Hutus were massacring Tutsis, nor Bosnia in the early and mid-1990s, when Serbs were killing Muslims. So, however cruel Saddam’s regime might be, it is not perpetrating the type of atrocities that could normally justify a humanitarian intervention. For this reason, Human Rights Watch has not called for intervention in Iraq, as it did in the cases of Rwanda and Bosnia. (Peter Bouckaert, despite his encounters in Iraqi Kurdistan, remains opposed to military action.)

Finally, there’s the fundamental fact that we have not been attacked by Iraq–a major distinction with Afghanistan and Al Qaeda. If Saddam did obtain a nuclear weapon, of course, it would represent a major peril, but most experts agree that the threat is not imminent, undermining the Administration’s case for a pre-emptive strike. “Pre-emption and imminence go together,” Michael Walzer observed at the NYU forum. “Nobody expects an Iraqi attack right away, so there is nothing to pre-empt.” Nor, he said, could a war against Iraq be considered just, according to the strict criteria for making such a judgment. What is justifiable, Walzer said, is “using the threat of force to enforce the inspections system.”

But what happens if that threat fails? Strikingly, at the NYU forum, FitzGerald, Gitlin, Urquhart and Walzer all agreed that if the United Nations finds Iraq in noncompliance with Resolution 1441, it would have no choice but to act. “If there’s a clear violation of the UN, we would have to go to war,” FitzGerald said, summing up the panel’s view. Certainly a war conducted under the aegis of the UN would be preferable to one waged unilaterally by the United States; a UN-authorized assault, by embodying the collective will of the international community, could blunt the anger that might erupt if the world’s lone superpower went it alone.

Yet here, it seems, the left faces a trap. By insisting that any action against Iraq be undertaken multilaterally, it seems bound to endorse the decisions of the UN–even if they include a declaration of war. Yet, as was clear during the deliberations over Iraq, the Security Council has become more and more subservient to the will of the United States. What’s more, the forces unleashed by an invasion–even if backed by the UN–could still be catastrophic. If the Security Council sanctions a war, does that automatically make it just?

There must be another way. One nonviolent alternative, proposed recently in these pages by Andrew Mack (a former aide to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan), would seek to bolster the internal Iraqi opposition by lifting most of the sanctions on Iraq and opening up the country to foreign investment and other forms of international engagement [see “Containing Saddam,” December 16]. A more hardheaded policy of “containment-plus,” proposed by Morton Halperin and others, would combine an expansion of the no-fly zones in Iraq to cover the entire country, more intensive surveillance and inspections, and the use of precision airstrikes against targets not destroyed voluntarily on the ground. If evidence of an Iraqi nuclear program did emerge, a raid like the one Israel carried out in 1981–this time with UN backing–could effectively dispose of it.

The great drawback of such an approach, of course, is that it would do little to relieve the suffering of the Iraqi people. Sadly, one might simply have to live with that. In the end, the moral case for intervening in Iraq is very strong, but not strong enough.