Winning the Battle--Without Losing the War

The danger to Americans from Saddam Hussein's Iraq is intolerable.

The danger to Americans from Saddam Hussein's Iraq is intolerable. Faced with such a threat, the United States has two choices in ending the unstable status quo: reach an accommodation based on mutual renunciation of hostility and tacit acceptance of Saddam's rule-something no American administration could likely undertake-or, alternatively, eliminate the threat by eliminating the regime. Yet, because threat from Baghdad is intimately linked to the worldwide war on terrorism, a campaign against Iraq cannot be considered in isolation. It is therefore essential to integrate our response into a broader design.

In addition to neutralizing Iraq, such a design should include not only destroying Al-Qaeda, but also combating-and preventing-international terrorism. Among other things, this means avoiding, when possible, behavior that will provide new recruits for anti-American terrorist groups or that will create incentives for other states, especially major ones, to reduce their cooperation with the United States or even to look for ways to limit American power. These concerns should not undercut our determination to do whatever it takes to defeat America's enemies, but they certainly should influence how and when we go about it.

Clearly defining and explaining America's strategic objectives in a war against Iraq will also help the Bush Administration to mobilize foreign support, which, in turn, can significantly shape the post-attack international environment to our benefit. In this manner, the nature of U.S. objectives can make the difference between a genuine triumph and a Pyrrhic victory. Those objectives should therefore be a key focus of U.S. debate over Iraq.

It bears repeating that American efforts at regime change in Iraq are fully justified and highly desirable. Regime change is hardly a new idea in U.S. foreign policy; Grenada, Panama, and Haiti are some of the recent cases in which it has been applied.  And Saddam Hussein is not simply a brutal despot: he is also a reckless adventurer whose miscalculations led to a long and bloody war with Iran and necessitated a U.S.-led military campaign to liberate Kuwait. Soon thereafter, he attempted to assassinate former President George Bush in 1993. For the last ten years, his regime has consistently ignored its specific obligations to the international coalition that drove his forces from Kuwait and to the United Nations. Assuming that Saddam is not prepared to fulfill those obligations in a meaningful way, it would be a leap of faith to believe that he will not strike back at America, which is periodically attacking his military forces and consistently supporting groups determined to drive him from power. Such a strike could involve a direct attack or cooperation with Al-Qaeda or any number of Palestinian or other terrorist factions that would need little encouragement to target Americans. Ominously, it could involve chemical, biological, or even nuclear weapons.

Whether or not Iraq was involved significantly in the September 11 attacks, the tragedy was the work of a massive conspiracy that must be understood if it is to be combated. Explaining September 11 as an evil attack on freedom does not tell the whole story. The attack was also the product of a global militant Islamic movement that is now led by-but not limited to-Al-Qaeda. More generally, September 11 was an extreme manifestation of a worldwide backlash against American political, economic, military, and cultural predominance. While most foreigners expressed sympathy after the attacks, it was also apparent that in many countries, populations and even governments had a sense of quiet satisfaction that the United States no longer appeared invincible.

In this environment, and in dealing with Iraq, America's credibility and effectiveness are at stake. Maintaining U.S. credibility requires putting an end to Saddam's defiance not simply of UN Security Council resolutions, but first and foremost of the United States, as a superpower that cannot be provoked with impunity indefinitely. Yet maintaining U.S. effectiveness requires doing so in a manner that does not further fuel an already dangerous backlash against America in the region and around the world.

Enthusiasts of a unilateral U.S. attack on Iraq hope that Saddam's demise will contribute to the collapse of other repressive Arab regimes and the birth of new democracies friendly to the United States and Israel. But this is only a hope: it is at least equally likely that America's removal of Saddam will lead to the emergence of Saladins rather than Sakharovs among Arab leaders. More generally, there is also a risk that the United States would alienate other nations and damage their cooperation in the war on terrorism, including through sharing intelligence, providing bases, facilitating anti-terrorist operations in their (or other) countries, and promoting non-proliferation.

The United States today can certainly prevail in virtually any individual case in which it chooses to do so, including in Iraq. The key question in each specific case, therefore, is not what is possible but the cost both in predictable terms-and in possible unintended consequences. The real test is not whether the United States has the capabilities to remove Saddam Hussein from power, but whether Washington has the will, foresight, and vision to deal with the results.