Sunday | March 02, 2003
A number of people have chided me for not offering a plausible alternative to the hawks' case for invading Iraq. What would I do in their place?
It's a fair question. The problem is that many of things I would do are things that should have been done over the decades since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. We're pretty far down in the quagmire in the Middle East. Getting out would be painful. Less painful, ultimately, than sinking deeper, but maybe more painful in the short term.
I could talk about what I think is needed to at least stop the downward spiral in the Middle East that is feeding terrorism. I know the status quo is becoming intolerable. But sometimes the intolerable simply has to be endured, because the solutions are unacceptable to too many people.
What US Congress, for example, is going to pressure Israel into a settlement freeze, raise gas taxes enough to reduce oil consumption, or appropriate billions in development aid for the Middle East? What Israeli government is going to begin dismantling Jewish settlements in the West Bank? What Arab regime is going to overhaul its economy, or force its secret police to respect human rights, or challenge the cultural oppression of women?
So I'm not going to go there. I'm just going to talk about Iraq, and make the question simple: Do we invade, or don't we? And if we don't invade, what do we do?
Short form: We don't invade. The benefits in terms of eliminating Saddam's existing or potential WMD capabilities are not high enough to justify the costs. An invasion for any other reason -- regime change, democratization, energy security --would be both stupid and illegal.
I don't discount the WMD threat. Saddam may still have bioweapons, such as anthrax spores, that could be used against the United States. After all, we've already know anthax attacks can be delivered by the U.S. Postal Service. And Sarin can be released in the Tokyo subway system. These are real risks, even if the most plausible attacks are on a scale roughly comparable to what one lunatic just did in the Seoul subway system with a can of gasoline.
These threats won't be eliminated by invading Iraq. A world in which religious cults have nerve gas, and hate mailers have anthrax, will not be significantly safer because Saddam's WMD stocks have been secured. That''s assuming they would be secured by an invasion, rather than scattered to the winds (or the terrorists).
I believe an aggressive inspection regime backed by the threat of military force, combined with a "smart sanctions" regime like the one proposed by Colin Powell before 9/11, is still the best -- or rather the least worse -- solution.
But then there's the possibility Saddam might, at some future point, acquire enough fissionable material to build one or more bombs. Reasonable people can differ over how dire this threat is. In The Threatening Storm, Kenneth Pollack offered the most detailed brief for the prosecution, and I don't dismiss it lightly. But I don't find it persuasive enough to justify an invasion now.
Iraq doesn't have the capability to produce fissionable material, and isn't likely to build it without being detected well in advance of actual production. Any facility probably could be destroyed with an air strike -- as the Israelis did in 1981 -- or in a limited ground operation.
This leaves the risk Saddam might buy enough plutonium or enriched uranium on the black market to build a couple of small bombs. This will always be a threat, just as the chance of Al Quada or Khadafi or the Syrians or Castro -- or any other US enemy -- getting their hands on fissionable material will always be a threat. If we're going to invade Iraq because Saddam might get his hands on some plutonium, invading countries could become an annual event for the US, like the Super Bowl. Are we ready for that?
Having a bomb, Saddam would need a way to deliver it. Without a functioning air force or (soon) functioning SRBMs, it would need to be small enough to smuggle to its target -- unless, like Bush, you think he might fly it somewhere in a model airplane. But building a miniaturized "suitcase" bomb is currently beyond Saddam's ability, and, assuming the UN inspectors stay in country, should stay that way.
But if prevention failed, could a nuclear Saddam be deterred? I think so, but I wouldn't want to find out. What US President would want to order the obliteration of Baghdad in retaliation for a strike by Saddam? If the evidence suggested Saddam was on the verge of acquiring a functioning, deliverable nuclear weapon, invasion really would be the lesser of two evils. But we're not there yet.
I could be wrong about some of these things, but I don't think I'm wrong about all of them, or even most of them. The risks of a Saddam armed with nuclear weapons are real and I don't deny them, but so are the risks of war -- and the postwar plans of the neocons. Those risks are enormous, and rising.
One final argument is that we must invade because Bush has already gone too far. Backing down now would be an enormous foreign policy fiasco (true), with no corresponding gain (false.) The fiasco is obvious enough, but so is the gain: We would avoid setting the Middle East on fire. We would also show our allies we can see reason, and give our clients in the Arab world a little more breathing room in the struggle against Al Quada.
Finally, we would block the increasingly desperate attempts of the necons and their Likud allies to break the Palestinian intifada by widening the war. This would at least preserve the possibility of a genuine peace process, once Ariel Sharon, George W. Bush and Yassar Arafat have left the stage.
So, what would I do?
1.) Negotiate a new resolution with the other permanent members of the Security Council, providing for extended inspections and the toughest language we can get on the consequences of Iraqi noncompliance. Keep waving the stick at Saddam.
2.) Give the UN inspectors whatever information we have on the Iraqi WMD sites we know about or suspect, and do whatever we can to help find them. Demand the Iraqis destroy what's found. Keep waving the stick at Saddam.
3.) After the inspectors find as much as they can reasonably be expected to find, and Saddam has destroyed as much as he's willing to destroy, declare we've seen enough progress to permit a more extended period of inspections. But insist they have to be armed inspections. See how much of an intrusive military presence we can coerce Saddam into accepting.
4.) Gradually draw down the U.S. deployment in the Gulf, while leaving a larger, more heavily armored force than before in Kuwait and Bahrain to enforce the inspection regime.
5.) Declare victory. Continue to explore every means for fomenting a coup or an assassination of Saddam. Think about how to deal with a post-Saddam Iraq.
Is this ideal? Obviously not. A price has to be paid for going so far out on a limb and having to climb back down. Our Arab allies in the Gulf would be furious. Saddam might feel emboldened to defy the inspection regime. In a worse case, we might have to do the invasion drill all over again, this time with better diplomacy and more international support.
Those are bitter pills. But less bitter, I believe, than the years of suffering and bloodshed we will have to endure to pacify not just Iraq, but the entire Arab world, if we go ahead with this invasion.