Winning the Battle--Without Losing the War

September 9, 2002 Topic: Security Tags: Al-Qaeda In Iraq

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.

The United States can meet this test by demonstrating that it is a resolute but humble superpower through efforts to build international support. As a first step, the Bush Administration should quietly approach key allies, as well as Russia and China, to explain that Washington views Saddam Hussein as a grave danger to its interests and that he must be denied access to weapons of mass destruction. We, in turn, would be willing to address the problem through the United Nations if and only if they are prepared to support (or at least acquiesce in) a resolution authorizing all necessary means to ensure immediate and meaningful inspections.

If British and French leaders are told that this is America's best and final offer-and that the alternative is a unilateral U.S. attack-they are likely to support the measure, if only to avoid being left on the sidelines. Presented with the same choice, plus assurances that the interests of Russian oil companies and creditors would be taken into account, the Russian government would probably be prepared to abstain, which is all that is required. China does not aspire to be Saddam's sole defender among permanent Security Council members and would likely take a similar position, particularly if President Bush engaged in creative personal diplomacy during his forthcoming meetings with Jiang Zemin in Crawford, Texas. The rest of the world will be much more comfortable with the notion of America assertively defending itself against a perceived threat than with the idea that the attack may be the first step in a U.S. crusade for freedom that appoints Washington judge, jury and executioner. The administration already seems to have adjusted its rhetoric somewhat, using language that emphasizes Iraq's threat to America rather than the need to wage a semi-religious war between good and evil.

Even if an attempt to win UN backing were unsuccessful, other nations would more fully understand American concerns and appreciate U.S. attention to their own perspectives. And Washington need not fear losing in the Security Council-if victory could not be assured through advance negotiations (which may now be underway)-the Bush Administration need not go to the body at all.

Of course, Vice President Dick Cheney is quite right that inspections cannot guarantee the total cessation of Iraq's weapons programs and that inspections could be a dangerous diversion if they become a substitute for effective action. But chances are slim that Saddam Hussein would actually allow rapid, aggressive, and intrusive inspections that would presumably lead to the destruction of his most potent weapons. The Iraqi dictator is a cunning survivor and surely understands the potential implications of being exposed as a liar-and humiliated-both inside and outside Iraq. Nevertheless, should Saddam to everyone's surprise permit a significant inspection regime, his capability for mischief, and his ability to maintain absolute power, will be reduced dramatically.

It is more likely, however, that Saddam will either refuse inspections or offer unacceptable conditions. This would clearly facilitate an American attack, possibly with some British support, and the destruction of both Saddam's regime and Iraq's WMD programs at a lower cost to broader American goals.

The point is not to pursue the backing of the UN Security Council for its own sake or because Washington needs anyone's permission when America is in danger. But diplomacy can make the job easier and can minimize international opposition and its potential consequences for other American interests. It is similarly useful in managing the aftermath of a successful U.S. intervention.

So what is the argument against at least trying to win the approval of the UN Security Council before attacking Iraq? In fact, the principal argument against going to the UN seems to have less to do with Iraq than with an instinctive preference for unilateral action and an instinctive fear that asking for others' consent-even when it is granted-would unacceptably constrain the United States in forcibly reforming other repressive regimes in the region. But such sweeping plans would needlessly alienate many nations-including Iraq's neighbors, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, whose help (or at least resigned acceptance) the U.S. needs first to invade and later to stabilize Iraq. While some champions of promoting American values by force may think this is a sad comment on the world of the 21st century, it is the nevertheless the world in which we live. The American people understand this-they are too moderate and too pragmatic to support a global crusade, even in the name of democracy.