If the Bush Administration has its way, Iraq will be the first test of its new doctrine of pre-emption, which calls for early unilateral action against enemies suspected of posing a threat to America. For the United States, the world’s military and economic superpower, to abandon a defensive, international-law stance and adopt such a destabilizing strategy is profoundly contrary to our interests and endangers our security. What was once the frothing of right-wing ideologues is now on the verge of becoming national policy. Yet we hear no opposition from leading Democrats either regarding the new doctrine–which will alienate allies and makes us even more hated around the world, and will be used by other nations as a pretext for settling their own scores–or regarding its specific application in Iraq. Instead, the Administration gained several influential supporters for an Iraqi regime change, including House minority leader Richard Gephardt and Senate majority leader Tom Daschle.
In making the case for taking pre-emptive action against Iraq, the White House has been long on innuendo and very short on evidence of an Iraqi threat requiring such drastic remedies. What we do know is that since the Gulf War, Iraq’s military capabilities have weakened significantly, to the point where they pose little or no threat to its neighbors, a fact reflected in Saddam Hussein’s bid to improve relations with both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
The United Nations inspections regime that operated in Iraq until late 1998 destroyed most of Iraq’s ballistic missiles and nuclear and chemical weapons program. Since then, UN financial controls have deprived the regime of the money it would need to rebuild its military machine or redevelop the infrastructure needed to produce weapons of mass destruction. We know that the regime lacks the reliable means for using any weapons it might have. Of the 819 Scud missiles that Saddam once possessed, all but two were accounted for before the inspections ended. The regime has some short-range missiles, and it is suspected of working on longer-range missiles, but since none have been tested they therefore would be of highly questionable reliability. Even if Saddam had been able to hide away one or two longer-range missiles, it is not clear what he would hope to gain from irrational and ultimately suicidal attacks on Israel or his other neighbors.
The Administration seems to recognize the weakness of its case and has begun to shift the rationale for a pre-emptive strike to the danger that Saddam may pass weapons of mass destruction on to terrorist groups that threaten the United States. Again, there is no evidence that Saddam has cooperated with Al Qaeda or other "terrorist groups with global reach," in the Administration’s words. In fact, according to the State Department’s own report, Iraq’s support for terrorist activities is modest compared with that attributed to some of the other states on its list. As the State Department said earlier this year, Saddam has not been involved in any terrorist plots against the West since his attempt to target Bush Senior during his 1993 visit to Kuwait. Nor is there any reason for the Iraqi leader to aid the apocalyptic goals of Islamic fanatics, who are seen to threaten his secular regime and his bid for leadership in the Arab world.
Even the Administration’s zealous supporters on Iraq, like the ubiquitous R. James Woolsey, have not been able to come up with any evidence of Iraqi collusion with these terrorist organizations. The accusation that Mohammed Atta met with an Iraqi diplomat in Prague before the September 11 attack appears to have no basis in fact. And the wild claim that Iraq was the most likely source of the anthrax sent to Senator Daschle and others has been contradicted by the Administration’s own investigation.
So the case for the pre-emptive use of force seems to boil down to conjecture at best. Certainly our European allies, who have access to much the same intelligence, are not convinced that Saddam poses a threat. Nor, seemingly, is the security-conscious Israeli government, which chose to derail the Administration’s timetable on Iraq by pursuing its aggressive strategy in the West Bank.
Even if there were more evidence that Iraq possesses or is about to possess weapons of mass destruction, members of Congress should challenge the notion that pre-emptive force is the best way to deal with this problem or to bring about a change in the Iraqi regime. Given that Saddam’s first goal is self-preservation and his second is leadership in the Arab world, it is highly unlikely that he would use these weapons in a premeditated way. In fact, the real danger of the use of chemical or biological weapons arises not from a calculated Iraqi attack but from a US intervention that forces Saddam’s hand, as Pentagon officials acknowledge. Similarly, the greatest danger–that Iraqi materials would fall into the hands of terrorists–comes not from Saddam’s collusion with Islamic terrorists but from the chaos that would result from a US invasion. The Administration cannot guarantee that US forces will secure whatever nuclear or biological materials exist before some rogue Iraqi general whisks them away to secure his fortune on the black market. Thus, pre-emptive action against Iraq born of fear of its insubstantial weapons of mass destruction program may only hasten those weapons’ use and proliferation.
Nor has the Administration yet publicly shown how the United States could overthrow Saddam without destabilizing the entire region. Even with smart weapons, a successful campaign against Saddam would require the further destruction of Iraq’s urban centers and a loss of civilian lives not seen either in Afghanistan or the former Yugoslavia. And unlike the Gulf War, the destruction of Baghdad would be witnessed firsthand not just on CNN but on Al Jazeera and other TV and Internet outlets by millions of already angry Arabs.
The eruption of the "Arab street," which for a number of reasons never materialized during the Gulf War, may surprise even the pessimists this time, especially if Israel continues its brutal incursions into the West Bank.
Unlike in the former Yugoslavia or even Afghanistan, there is no leadership waiting in the wings to help insure stability and to offer the beginnings of democratic rule. And the international community is already stretched thin with nation-building in Afghanistan, East Timor and the Balkans. To establish order quickly, the United States would require the active support and participation of the European Union, Russia and other neighboring countries. But these countries are adamantly opposed to US pre-emptive action. Thus, if the United States proceeds alone or with only tacit support from others, Iraq’s collapse into anarchy cannot be ruled out.
There is an alternative to pre-emptive and unilateral force that could bring about democratic change in Iraq. This strategy would entail years of pressure and engagement–and the concerted cooperation of other Security Council members, especially Russia and the EU.
For all their failings and harmful impact on Iraq’s people, the UN inspections and financial controls worked reasonably well to diminish the Iraqi threat. The UN’s continuing control over Iraq’s oil revenues is a good starting point for a new international strategy toward Iraq. The "smart sanctions" regime approved by the Security Council in May should be further refined to reduce any harm to civilians and to offer hope to Iraqis for economic development. At the same time, the Security Council should be willing to cut a deal with Iraq on a new inspections regime that falls short of current US and British demands, especially in light of the fact that Washington abused the earlier inspections regime for its own policy of pursuing Saddam’s overthrow. An inspections regime does not have to be perfect to serve its purpose of constraining Iraqi weapons programs. The strategy must be to get more international personnel on the ground in Iraq–not only to be the international community’s eyes and ears but to begin to engage the Iraqi people.
Finally, this international strategy must recognize that containment is not enough. It must also lay the groundwork for a democratic alternative to Saddam’s regime. Paradoxically, that will require more engagement with Iraq in the short term. The EU and Russia should get the green light to expand their diplomatic and economic dealings with Iraq and to introduce civil society programs aimed at opening space in Iraqi society. France and other countries have urged that limited foreign investment be permitted as a necessary step to rebuild Iraq’s shattered economy. Such measures should be seen not as propping up Saddam but as developing a civilian alternative. This work should have started a decade ago and thus is even more urgent today.
A Security Council-coordinated containment and engagement strategy–involving international inspectors and targeted sanctions backed up by the threat of international force–would be an important precedent for world order and a much better guarantee of security than a pre-emptive war whose outcome is fraught with dangerous uncertainties. Democrats and Republicans, and all citizens with civic courage, must challenge a policy that poses a clear and present danger to international and American interests.