The Moral Quandary
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."