The suspicion will not die that the Bush administration turned to Iraq for relief from a sharp decline in its domestic political prospects. The news had been dominated for months by corporate scandals and the fall of the stock market, and the November elections were shaping up as a referendum on the Republicans' handling of domestic social and economic issues. Investigative reporters had turned their attention to Dick Cheney's role at Halliburton and George W. Bush's sale of his Harken Energy shares just before the stock collapsed.
Then, like magic, these questions disappeared from the headlines as the administration refocused the nation's attention on war with Iraq. No new information about Saddam Hussein's efforts to acquire nuclear weapons and no actions taken by Iraq seem to have precipitated this shift. The Iraqi regime has not changed since early in the Bush administration, when its great priority was building a missile defense shield, nor even since the 2000 election, when Bush said he would emphasize "humility" in foreign policy and opposed nation building.
Nor has evidence been disclosed that ties Iraq to al-Qaeda or to the events of September 11. Indeed, war with Iraq is as likely to aggravate the problem of terrorism as it is to reduce it: It threatens to deflect our efforts from the struggle against terrorism, jeopardize cooperation from our allies, intensify hostility in the Arab world, and entangle us in further conflicts in the region.
Nonetheless, just as the administration has political incentives to accelerate a confrontation with Iraq, so the great majority of Democrats in Congress have short-term incentives to avoid a confrontation with Bush. Bipartisanship on Iraq is a way to minimize the impact of national security on the fall elections and to allow Americans to vote on the basis of domestic issues. By going to the United Nations and asking for congressional consent, Bush has already done what many critics were demanding. And by calling for congressional action immediately, Bush has put skeptical Democrats in an impossible position: If they vote against Bush, they can be accused of undercutting his demand for a new UN resolution and encouraging Iraqi resistance to inspections. So both parties will almost certainly join together in giving the president broad authority for war.
As we go to press in the fourth week of September, there are still many uncertainties about how the efforts of the United Nations and other such undertakings will play out. But the administration has made clear its determination to remove the Iraqi regime and has issued a new statement of strategic doctrine that calls for preemptive strikes against hostile regimes. With military plans drawn up and combat preparations under way, there is every reason to believe that America will go to war with Iraq in the new year, if not before. Driven by short-term political interests, the United States may well commit itself not just to a second war in the Persian Gulf but to a radically changed relationship with the world without a full debate about the long-run implications of what we are doing.
The Sands of Iraq
The most eager advocates of war have suggested that the road to Baghdad will be easy: The superiority of American forces will be overwhelming, much of the Iraqi army may not fight and the Iraqi people will welcome liberation from a tyrant. Let us hope that they are right. If the deed is to be done, 'twere better done quickly: Let the fighting be mercifully brief, the casualties few and the American victory complete.
But it may not work out so well. The strange thing about this "preemptive" war is that a surprise attack it is not. The press has carried extensive reports about war plans, disclosed in interviews by high military officials. Perhaps they are so confident of Iraq's weakness and Hussein's stupidity that they are willing, in a sporting way, to warn the Iraqis of what to expect. But the risks remain: With his back to the wall, Hussein may use the weapons of mass destruction we fear he possesses; he may strike Israel, which has indicated it will retaliate; and the Iraqi regime's most loyal troops may move into urban areas to use civilian populations as shields and to force America to make excruciating ethical choices.
No doubt American forces will prevail; that is not the question. Unlike the Gulf War, however, the United States is going into this conflict with little international legitimacy or support. The Arab world is already on edge because of Israel. So a great deal will depend on how the war proceeds. If U.S. forces can decapitate the Iraqi government without inflicting mass suffering or setting off a Middle East cataclysm, the aftermath in Iraq will be a lot more manageable. But if the fighting turns ugly and there are large numbers of civilian casualties -- if we have to level the very cities we say we are liberating -- American legitimacy in the eyes of the world and of the Iraqi people will be shot. In making war against Iraq, Bush is risking not just American lives but America's good name. His high-handed attitude toward our allies has already earned the United States unnecessary ill will. International law seems to count for nothing in this administration's view of the world. It is all well and good to say that we are invading Iraq to liberate it, but that is not the way it looks to people elsewhere. If we run into trouble, there will be little sympathy for us.
When the United States entered the war in Kosovo, Bill Clinton's Republican critics demanded to know what our "exit strategy" was. It's a fair question now. Once American forces defeat Hussein's army and his Baath party, we will have eliminated the Iraqi state's capacity to maintain control of the country and defend itself (against, for example, Iran). Because effective state authority cannot be manufactured overnight, the American military will have to supply it. We will have to install and defend a new government and, in the process, we are likely to enmesh ourselves in Iraq's ethnic and religious conflicts. Even groups that don't like Hussein, such as the Shiites in the south, may not accept the regime we establish.
All this will be happening next door to Iran, another designated member of the "axis of evil," whose forces will be staring at ours across the terrain where Iran and Iraq fought a long and terrible war not that many years ago. Threatened by the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq as well as in Afghanistan, Iran may accelerate its own nuclear-arms program in the belief that those are just the weapons it needs to deter a future American attack. And what will we do then -- move on from Baghdad to Tehran in another preemptive war?
From Deterrence to Preemption
"Given the goals of rogue states and terrorists, the United States can no longer solely rely on a reactive posture as we have in the past," the Bush administration's new "National Security Strategy" states. "The inability to deter a potential attacker, the immediacy of today's threats and the magnitude of potential harm that could be caused by our adversaries' choice of weapons do not permit that option. We cannot let our enemies strike first."
Striking first against terrorists is plain common sense, but that is mostly a matter for intelligence agencies and police work, not the military. Preemptive war against the vaguely defined category of "rogue states" is another matter. Not only does preemption violate the UN Charter and set a dangerous precedent for other countries, it also risks triggering wars we might otherwise avoid. According to The Washington Post, the senior official who briefed reporters about the new national security strategy interpreted the document as saying, "We will not allow an adversarial military power to rise." What nation in history has long been able to do that? Trying to nip every adversarial power in the bud is hopeless.
Bush is reversing a half-century of strategic doctrine on the grounds that the new enemies America faces are not like the risk-averse Soviet Union. But at the time George Kennan and others formulated the theory of deterrence, the Soviet ruler had long been Joseph Stalin, not known for being risk-averse. There is no evidence that any of the countries in Bush's axis of evil -- Iraq, Iran and North Korea -- are not deterrable according to the same logic that worked with the Soviets.
The reactive posture of deterrence that Bush says is obsolete reduced the chances of disaster. Preemption increases the "nervousness" of weapons, the risk that they will be fired off before diplomacy has had a chance to work. In a crisis, knowing our strategic doctrine, any adversary with weapons of mass destruction might be inclined to use them first rather than suffer their destruction.
As Congress debates war with Iraq and the new Bush doctrine, it must look beyond November and beyond Baghdad and ask if the direction the administration wants to take America in actually will bring us the security Bush promises. The administration's unilateral determination to overthrow Hussein is already taking us down a dangerous path. Overthrowing the system of international law and security that has worked for the past half-century is more dangerous still. If Al Gore, who voted for Operation Desert Storm in 1991, can raise his voice against a new war with Iraq, so can others. The members of Congress who feel they are being stampeded into a rush toward war can still separate themselves from the herd.