No Choice but War?

I should be among the supporters of an invasion of Iraq. A decade ago, after Iraq seized Kuwait, I agreed with the decision to go to war and wrote in The New Republic, at the start of the conflict, that allied forces should go all the way to Baghdad. My view was that Saddam Hussein had forfeited the legitimacy of his regime, and, having resolved not to let his aggression stand, we ought to deny him any chance for revenge. When the first President Bush called off our attack, I was bitterly disappointed.

Eleven years later, I have no doubt that Saddam is a menace, but the circumstances are different today. Then, Iraq violated the sovereignty of another state, and our response affirmed the framework of international law and security. Now, we would be violating Iraq's sovereignty without clear provocation, undertaking a preemptive war that is itself a destabilizing threat to international security.

Then, we had overwhelming international support; now, we face overwhelming opposition. Then, the Iraqi army was exposed and vulnerable in the desert and, after the air phase of the war, could offer no effective resistance. Now, the Iraqi military has had plenty of advance warning, will likely hole up in cities and may employ civilians as shields while using chemical and biological weapons against our troops (as well as Israel).

Now, engaged in a struggle against terrorist networks, we have an urgent need for cooperation in the Middle East and Europe and risk losing more in our new battle than we gain from finishing our old one.

Still, if some things were different, I could imagine supporting a war on Iraq -- and so, I suspect, could a good many other liberals.

If the Bush administration had proceeded differently -- if it had established a legal basis for military action, perhaps by working through the United Nations; if it had built allied support; if it had genuinely pursued alternatives to forcible "regime change" -- war might have emerged, by general agreement here and abroad, as a necessary final resort.

The administration is belatedly trying to do some of these things, but its unseemly haste to reach a foreordained result raises doubts about its bona fides. By prematurely declaring an intent to remove Saddam by force, George W. Bush has undercut the credibility of his claim that there is no other option.

But there are at least two others. One is to renew UN inspections and sanctions, under threat of force, to thwart Iraq's potential for weapons and war. An Iraqi refusal to comply would change the picture.

The second alternative is to revert to the strategy that worked under similar circumstances before. After World War II, some in the United States argued in favor of a preemptive war against the Soviet Union before it could acquire nuclear weapons. We can only imagine the casualties such a war would have produced if wiser heads had not successfully argued for deterrence.

Deterrence was never an easy theory to accept because it entailed enormous risk in the event of miscalculation. Sooner or later, however, we are going to face another adversary with nuclear weapons -- if not Saddam's Iraq tomorrow, then another regime the day after tomorrow. Preemptive war in all such cases would exhaust even so great a power as the United States.

A war in Iraq will have fateful consequences. Americans will have to do the fighting and then occupy and govern Iraq, perhaps for years to come. We may hope it is an isolated case. But once we opt for preemptive war, we could find ourselves entangled in a new phase of colonialism aimed at liquidating potential threats to us even in the most remote corners of the world. We ought to do everything possible to avoid getting into that position.

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