Daniel A. Lindley is an assistant professor specializing in international relations, foreign policy and security studies at the University of Notre Dame
As the Bush administration makes its case at the UN, are we witnessing one of history’s most deftly choreographed diplomatic and military dances culminating in tough UN inspections?
Or is this administration bent on war, having reluctantly figured out that the bitter pill of force goes down better at home and abroad when taken with UN authorization?
The Bush administration seems bent on war.
They were gunning for war many months before going to the UN. They have always dismissed the UN, and President Bush’s UN speech and diplomatic campaign seem like a hastily prepared afterthought.
At the UN, the administration now pursues votes by arguing that regime change in Iraq may happen peacefully. But inside the Washington Beltway, policymakers scoff and say that is nearly impossible.
Saddam Hussein is a determined advocate of weapons of mass destruction who has started two wars and has the blood of hundreds of thousands of his citizens on his hands. This alone does not justify a preventive war on Iraq because there are too many ways the costs of war could exceed the benefits.
All wars are bets, and while this war could turn out well, there are many risks that the Bush administration either ignores or brushes off. Strategy is the art of prioritizing, of weighing costs and benefits.
The threat from Iraq is outweighed by other threats, and an Iraq war will hurt more important U.S. priorities.
First, instability in Pakistan dwarfs the threat from Iraq. Unlike Iraq, Pakistan has nuclear weapons—some 24 to 48 of them. Unlike Iraq, Pakistan is filled with Muslim extremists, and Al Qaeda and Taliban sympathizers.
Unlike Iraq, Pakistan has a weak central government. The recent elections underscore these points. An extremist takeover would mean a nuclear-armed Taliban-like government with strong ties to Al Qaeda and determined to dramatically escalate trouble in Kashmir.
These dangers might provoke pre-emptive strikes from India and/or the United States, and trouble in Kashmir risks nuclear war.
If a war with Iraq stirred up extremism, the consequences would be gravest in Pakistan but would also threaten gulf oil. The “Arab street” was relatively quiet as the U.S. and its allies toppled the Taliban. But a war against Iraq is harder to justify, and more bloodshed would be televised.
The Afghanistan campaign played out on the periphery of the Middle East, while an Iraq war would bring U.S. troops and conflict right into the heart of the region. Thus, fears of instability resulting from an Iraq war should be higher.
_ Fuel for extremist fire _
Many things may serve to add fuel to the extremist fire and make it hard for the U.S. to control the consequences of this war.
Hezbollah militants, backed by Syria and Iran, have stockpiled thousands of surface-to-surface missiles in southern Lebanon. The most likely aim is to provoke an Israeli backlash, perhaps reimposition of a security buffer zone in Lebanon.
This would inflame Arab public opinion against the U.S. and Israel on the eve of an Iraq war.
Iran and Syria are highly motivated to try to stop a large U.S. presence in Iraq, as both would end up encircled by the U.S. and its allies. If a U.S. attack on Iraq did not destabilize Pakistan, the addition of an Israeli re-entry into Lebanon might.
Second, proponents of a war against Iraq argue that a main objective is to prevent Hussein from getting nuclear weapons. While he is years away from that capability today, he could build them within months if he obtained nuclear materials.
Thus, a key priority is preventing Hussein from getting enriched uranium or plutonium.
The most likely place to get fissile materials is the crumbling nuclear infrastructure of Russia, where only 50 percent of the materials are adequately safeguarded. Al Qaeda, Aum Shinri Kyo, Iraq, Iran and other proliferators have sought nuclear materials in Russia, and the “loose nukes” problem is a national security threat of supreme order.
Yet the U.S. is spending only $1 billion a year to secure Russian fissile materials under the Nunn-Lugar programs, and materials will not be fully secure until 2018. While we can afford both a vastly expanded Nunn-Lugar program and a $60 billion to $100 billion (plus rebuilding) war with Iraq, the picture painted here is one of lopsided priorities and threat assessments.
A third risk to U.S. priorities is that a war against Iraq may harm the war against Al Qaeda.
The Iraq war will highlight U.S. power, breeding resentment. As the campaign against terrorism shifts away from the use of force in Afghanistan and depends more on shared intelligence, arrests and cooperative use of force around the globe, anger against the U.S. may hurt efforts against terrorism.
Countries that wish us harm, such as Iran, can easily stir up trouble for postwar Afghanistan or Iraq by shipping in arms, supporting extremists, harboring fugitives and so forth.
Fourth, the CIA believes a war against Iraq is the mostly likely catalyst for Hussein to use his stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. This war may cause what we are trying to prevent. What will we do if our troops or Israel are attacked with biological weapons?
If we are fighting for the noble and just cause of saving lives, what if this war ends with an Israeli nuclear attack on Iraq?
_ Resources not limitless _
Finally, all these risks are compounded by the limits of U.S. resources.
There are only so many special operations forces, satellites and other intelligence assets, and hours in the administration and military planners’ time pies. A war with Iraq would divert these resources from missions against Al Qaeda, tracking nuclear materials, or planning to seize Pakistani weapons in the event of a coup.
There have been hundreds of instances of nuclear theft and trafficking in the past decade alone. How many problems will sink on the agendas of the U.S. administration, intelligence services and military in the event of a war with Iraq?
Turning to political risks, even a modest blood price in the several hundreds will leave a bitter taste and make the war politically unpopular. Consider that in the necessary war in Afghanistan, we did not risk our soldiers’ lives to encircle and capture or kill Taliban and Al Qaeda forces at Tora Bora or at Shah-e-Kot.
We let the enemy escape, perhaps even Osama bin Laden. This enemy attacked the U.S. and caused 3,000 U.S. deaths.
In contrast, Iraq did not attack the U.S., and nobody will ever know if they ever would. Because of this uncertainty, this war will be relatively thankless. How many U.S. soldiers are we willing to lose in an optional preventive war?
Based on our failures in Afghanistan, not many.
Hussein and his army know this, and this is a reason they may fight, not run.
They will lose, but if they drive up the body count, so will Bush. With Hussein fighting for his life, he will try every trick to cause outrage against the U.S. He will place civilians at some targets and scatter bodies at othersgruesome pictures for the world press.
When the U.S. killed hundreds of civilians at Al Firdos bunker in the Persian Gulf war, it damaged our reputation and shook up our bombing strategy. Do we, should we, have the guts to see these scenes replayed in an optional war?
Because there has been so little debate about the war, hard questions remain unanswered.
Why are we focusing on Iraq at the risk of hurting the campaign against terrorism and downplaying more pressing threats in Russia and Pakistan?
Bush has been allowed to assert, but has not been pressed to show, that tradeoffs and dangers are being taken into account, and that there are serious plans to rebuild Iraq.
While there is a lot he can do to improve the odds of his bet, the administration is only now coming up with thin ties to Al Qaeda and making sketchy plans for rebuilding Iraq.
Coming months after they began to campaign, this appears to be an ill-considered rush to war, a poorly covered bet.