December 7, 2002

Why we can't afford to avoid a confrontation with Iraq

By: Daniel Kennelly

We can all agree, of course, that war is bad. This point has never been in question in the discussions over what to do about Iraq. Libertarians can point to the tendency of government to bloat during war; conservatives can decry social and economic disruption; liberals can bemoan that war diverts spending from worthy and vital domestic programs. All of these concerns, justified when used to counterweigh competing concerns, can actually work considerable mischief when treated as if they were absolute goods, hermetically sealed from response. This is unfortunately what has befallen most of what passes for antiwar rhetoric lately, and the damage done has not only been to the dovish argument, but to the hawk’s cause as well, which has been able to get by on arguments just sophisticated enough to show up the other side.

Take for instance the common refrain offered by neo-isolationists of the right (represented most prominently by the new weekly magazine, The American Conservative), that a nuclear-armed Saddam does not pose a direct threat to American lives or vital interests on American soil. This is perhaps true, but almost certainly irrelevant, as will be made clear later. Yet it has not helped matters that the Bush administration continually finds it necessary to call to mind the gruesome images of 9/11 in order to underscore the insecurity of our contemporary place in the world. By responding to this argument, the administration lends credence to the principle that only an attack on American soil or “vital interests” meets the threshold for war.

Another common argument for taking the force option off the table is the charge of double standards. Why attack only Iraq, it is argued, when a number of other nations, some of whose regimes are just as unsavory, are developing or have developed nuclear weapons? This line of thinking exemplifies a cardinal vice in international politics–that is, to mistake it for a science. The cardinal virtue of a great power in foreign policy is precisely its ability to make such distinctions. One should not attack Pakistan for its nuclear program without first considering how that will affect its relations with India, its level of co-operation in the war on terrorism, the history of its relations with the United States, and a host of other sticking points. In this case, the situations in Pakistan, India, North Korea, and Iran call for widely different courses of action, though each of those courses aims at the same goal: nuclear nonproliferation.

One of the most persuasive antiwar arguments is that which argues for the containment of Iraq. Even if the Ba’ath regime possesses nuclear weapons or a program to develop them, the nuclear deterrent forces of the United States are enough to prevent their use by Iraq. And on the conventional level, the no-fly zones and U.S. troops already in the theater have been enough to keep Saddam inside his “box” for the past decade. Why not trust those same measures for the next ten years?

The reason that this third argument for a policy of containment is most persuasive points up the reason why the other two are not persuasive at all. Option number three, for containment, has been put forward by Bush I advisors such as Brent Scowcroft and company, who attempt to chart U.S. policy while viewing the world through the prism of realist thinking. The first (and second) rule of this club is that you do not talk about universally applicable principles. As Nikolas K. Gvosdev points out in the National Interest (, realists “believe policy should be evaluated by its likely results, not by the motives or intentions of its framers.” Policies charted from pragmatic assessment as well as first principles therefore mark the safest course for a nation. So, armed with principles and pragmatism, what are the likely scenarios resulting from action or inaction with regard to Iraq?

Weighing the Alternatives

Though the fog of war can lead to outcomes impossible to predict, let us assume in this scenario that a U.S.-led international coalition undertakes military action to disarm Iraq and unseat the Ba’ath regime, and that this coalition is as successful as that of the first Persian Gulf War. Let us further assume that, far from the grand visions of democratization and an Iraqi Marshall Plan, a parsimonious and botched reconstruction plan follows in the wake of war, exacerbating anti-American sentiment in Muslim countries and the world at large. The United States also faces major diplomatic blowback and a subsequent loss of international cooperation, hobbling the war on terror. Other than outright defeat, this is the scenario that antiwar conservatives and dovish realists fear the most. Yet even in this nightmarish outcome, some good remains. The Ba’ath regime is unseated, and though its replacement may in the end be just as repressive, and more chaotic to boot, Iraq’s nuclear weapons capability will have been eliminated for a long time to come. Furthermore, a message will have been delivered to regimes undertaking or considering nuclear weapons programs–that the United States is willing and able to administer the death sentence to regimes attempting to arm themselves with weapons of mass destruction. The diplomatic costs of nuclear weapons will subsequently skyrocket in these regimes’ calculations.

Now that we have imagined one of the worst scenarios resulting from military action, let us imagine a likely scenario resulting from military inaction: Relenting to external pressure, the Bush administration quietly takes the force option off the table, trusting to the U.N-mandated weapons inspections to discover and disarm Iraq’s weaponry. Using the history of weapons inspections in the 1990s as a guide, the inspections regime slowly collapses after finding inconclusive evidence and meeting increasing resistance from Iraqi officials. Having been lulled by years of uneventfulness, the governments and publics of the world shrug their shoulders indifferently. As far as anyone knows, Ba’ath Iraq will have again commenced in earnest a nuclear weapons program. U.S. policymakers will find that nuclear deterrence works both ways: they will begin to feel the weight of possible Iraqi WMD constraining their diplomatic options in the region, and the Ba’ath regime will subsequently gain greater freedom of action both inside and outside Iraq’s borders. Moreover, the possible presence of nuclear weapons in Iraq will put pressure on neighboring states, such as Iran, to arm with WMD, creating, in a cascading effect, an arms race akin to that of the age of dreadnoughts at the turn of the 20th century, only this time with weapons of a much more terrible power.

Or worse: picture the sudden collapse of the Ba’ath regime in a nuclear-armed Iraq. Such an outcome cannot be discounted. The Soviet empire collapsed suddenly, after all, despite the fact that many otherwise intelligent people thought it would last for decades to come. A sudden Iraqi implosion poses perhaps an even greater threat than if Saddam and the Ba’ath regime remained in power for some time. There is no guarantee that the United States or any other state would be able to act quickly enough to fill the vast power vacuum an Iraqi collapse would create, even with the support of a broad international coalition. Or worse Iraq’s neighbors, Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, would be tempted to interfere as well. The presence of nuclear weapons in such a situation would simply add more gasoline to a chaotic fire.

The common theme running through all of the scenarios regarding Iraq is the presence of nuclear weapons, and, from the U.S. point of view, each scenario in which Iraq does not possess them is vastly more preferable to the rosiest scenario in which it does. Saddam Hussein has made these same calculations, which explains the obfuscation and cat-and-mouse games from 1991 to 1998, as well the 13,000-page denial issued by Iraq last Saturday. This in turn means that–barring a coup d’etat, a sudden change of heart, or some such other unlikely miracle–there will be war. It ought not be accounted a good, but it is indeed the lesser of evils.