Comment: The Unconvincing Case for War

Recently, the Prospect sponsored a debate on Iraq. Interestingly, both teams were ostensibly liberal Democrats. Arguing for a U.S. invasion were Jonathan Chait, a Prospect alumnus and author of a recent New Republic cover piece on the liberal case for war, and Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA analyst, National Security Council staffer under Clinton and author of The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq. Opposing invasion were Bill Galston, a former Clinton and Gore adviser and a leading theorist of the Democratic Leadership Council (which this page often criticizes), and Ben Barber, author of the best-selling Jihad vs. McWorld. Both Barber and Galston have written cover pieces for this magazine opposing the Bush policy on Iraq.

Pollack is as good as the hawks have. His core argument is that Saddam Hussein will acquire nuclear weapons and will not hesitate to use them, either for blackmail or in actual warfare. Therefore, it logically follows that we should have the war sooner rather than later. Pollack, however, sets the bar fairly high. The United States should not go it alone; it should have a clear plan for the reconstruction of Iraq, and the war should be about geopolitical security, not about oil.

But as Galston observed, both respectfully and devastatingly, what we are facing in Iraq will be "George Bush's war, not Ken Pollack's war." Bush is willing to invade, with or without allied and United Nations support. At this writing, Kofi Annan and our allies are challenging the view that air combat in the "no-fly zone" (an American invention, not a UN condition) constitutes a material breach of the cease-fire and UN resolution. Nor is there a reassuring U.S. plan for occupation and reconstruction. And Iraqi oil could well be seen as war booty.

But the mother of all issues here is whether Saddam Hussein really would use nuclear weapons. On this point, Pollack makes dire assumptions but doesn't prove his case. On the contrary, he concedes in his book that in the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam Hussein was deterred from using weapons of mass destruction and notes, "As long as some form of sanctions remains on Iraq, Baghdad's ability to use any of its weapons of mass destruction as elements of Iraq's foreign policy will be constrained. ... If Saddam believes his regime is threatened, of course, all bets are off." In other words, all this war talk makes an insane action by Baghdad more likely, not less.

The hawks are also very sanguine about the damage to the fabric of international law, the danger of increased terrorism, the diversion of resources away from the war on terrorism, and the Pandora's box opened by the U.S. embrace of unilateral and preemptive war. If we can have a preemptive war, why can't India? Or Pakistan? Chait argued that a country as large and rich as the United States was perfectly capable of fighting wars on Iraq and terrorism at once. But the CIA has been complaining that its resources are stretched thin. And as Galston reminded the debaters, it was George W. Bush himself who admitted that we can't really deal with North Korea just now because we are too busy with Iraq.

What is distressing about this impending war is how little thoughtful discussion America is having. These issues are as complex as they are consequential. The facts and stakes need to be understood and debated by a free and engaged citizenry. We will be posting a transcription of our debate on our Web site. In the meantime, readers can find our archive of past Iraq articles at We also recommend Chait's piece, and Pollack's thoughtful but ultimately unconvincing book.

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