All Writings
August 28, 2002

As War Becomes Imminent

It is becoming increasingly apparent that a war to oust Saddam Hussein from power is now only a matter of time. Vice President Cheney, in a speech in Nashville to the convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, showed–obviously with the President's approval– that he has, in fact, ruled out any other option as ineffective and time consuming, a luxury that he feels neither the United States nor our allies can afford. Now that the administration has virtually settled on war, a number of legitimate questions arise which the Bush administration may still not have fully considered in connection with our preparation for it and the possible consequences of such a path.

First, the all too familiar question: Do we have an exit strategy? Although the answer depends on what sort of preparations we have made inside and outside Iraq, one thing is certain even at this point: We must not stay there one day more than is needed; this said, do we have a clear idea about the type of internal and external security apparatus that must be established under the most and the least favorable scenarios that such a war could produce? There is a growing speculation that many Iraqi Army units may defect rather than fight and much talk about how demoralized Saddam's military possibly is. But there is no hard evidence about what we, actually, can expect to happen–how stiff Saddam's resistence will be, how quickly we can put in place internal security forces to keep law and order, and, finally, how deeply we will have to be involved– economically, politically, and in terms of security– in helping to run Iraq once the war is over? Without some clear answers to these questions, no exit strategy can be fashioned.

The second question is: Will the Iraqi people be better off if we intervene militarily to oust Saddam? Based on everything we know, the majority will be better off without him. His ouster, after all, must be one of the key objectives of the war. But, how much collateral damage can the Iraqi people sustain before the war on Saddam becomes untenable? To be sure, once the violence ends and he is out of the picture, the United States has a moral obligation to see to it that Iraqi society is transformed from one of the most repressive to one in which democratic institutions flourish. Not only should democracy and human rights become the law of the land, but we will have to help establish democratic institutions that can sustain reform. To achieve this, we must be prepared to invest time, resources, and know-how. Moreover, regardless of Iraq's natural wealth, there has been rampant economic dislocation that must be addressed. Do we have in place some kind of economic plan that can restore economic health to a country whose resources have been squandered during Saddam's reign.?

The third troubling question is: will the Iraqi opposition be ready to assume power? It is true that various dissident groups (collectively, the Iraqi National Congress) have been meeting with U.S. officials and have demonstrated a unity of purpose, but I remain extremely skeptical about their ability to function as a cohesive entity once Saddam is removed from power. The Iraqi opposition is weak and will remain so as long as we do not prepare them for leadership by giving them the support they need to earn the respect of the Iraqi populace. We must, therefore, start to work closely with these groups, exerting pressure when necessary while training them to ensure that they not only show a unified political front but act as if they were one. In addition, before gaining power, the opposition must form an Iraqi government in exile, representing all of Iraq's main constituencies–the Kurds in the North, the Sunni in the center, and the Shiites in the South. The better prepared the opposition is, the more confident the Iraqi people will feel, and thus the more some of the military units will be encouraged to defect.

The fourth question is: How will Iraq's immediate neighbors fare during and after the war? Iraq's neighbors have opposed the war not only for public consumption but they have also strongly rejected such a strategy in private and on principle, viewing it as a serious destabilizing event that could cause regional havoc. Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Yemen, in particular, have sounded the alarm, cautioning the United States against war. From their perspective, an attack on Iraq will (1) add fuel to the already inflamed Israeli-Palestinian conflict and (2) undermine Arab unity, especially in the wake of their March 27th pledge to Saddam in return for his support of the Saudi peace initiative in Beirut, which stated that any attack on Iraq would viewed as an attack on all the Arab states. In addition, because a majority of their population is of Palestinian origin, Jordanians support Saddam Hussein and admire his defiance of the United States. The war consequently, may create an extremely volatile situation in Jordan to the point of endangering Hashemite stability. Other countries in the region also have shown their deep concern. Turkey, for example, is fearful of a worsening economic crisis, while Syria, although cooperating with us in the war against terrorism, opposes war out of concern about how the Israeli card might be played should Saddam decide to attack Israel in an attempt to engulf the Arab states in a war against the Israelis.

These concerns lead to the fifth question: What happens if, because of this war, Israel is attacked by scud missiles carrying chemical or biological warheads? Iraq has a sufficient reservoir of knowledge, technology, and equipment to create and deliver WMD. Israeli officials, knowledgeable about the Sharon government's thinking, suggest that this time, if attacked (in contrast to the Gulf War when it was prevented from retaliating), Israel will respond swiftly and decisively. Depending on the nature of the Iraqi attack and its intended or unintended targets and the consequences of such an attack–in terms of the number of casualties and overall collateral damage–the Israelis will not exclude the use of any weapon, including nuclear, in retaliation. Although Israel is preparing for the worst, and strategic cooperation with the United States is ongoing, no scenario has been worked out that takes into account the possible use of WMD on a large scale by either side. How ready are we to effectively deal with such a contingency?

The sixth question is: How will the war affect the price of oil a question on the mind of both suppliers and consumer states. Some speculate that the disruption of the oil supply and the consequent price hikes will be temporary, while others predict that an oil crisis would cripple the already weakened Western economies. Whatever the accuracy of either prediction, there is a general consensus that, under the best of circumstances, the flow of oil will be disrupted and, at a minimum, prices will escalate appreciably. How high prices will increase and for how long will depend on the duration of the war and the extent to which it is contained. There is always the danger that Saddam may target oil fields in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and also other gulf states that might lend support to the war effort. Under such conditions oil shortages will be huge and the effects global and dire.

Finally, how the war against Saddam will affect our war on terrorism remains an open question. In the administration's view, a war to oust Saddam is a continuation of the war on terrorism, and the risk of not acting against him is greater than that of acting. Although many of our European and Middle Eastern allies agree that he is a menace, the majority believe that, considering current Islamic and Arab sentiments, attacking Iraq without provocation is to invite even more terrorism than what he is capable of instigating directly. Although we can go it alone, America will walk the high moral ground if we enlist other powers in support of our strategic and policy objectives. What is critical for the Bush administration to remember is that whether we agree or disagree with our allies, we need to work with them because we simply cannot win the war on terrorism by ourselves in the long term. A genuine effort to resume UN inspections is one way to convince our traditional allies, as well as Russia and China, of the need to attack Iraq. Even if the administration is correct in assuming that inspections will simply not succeed, the failed effort to resume them will give us the license to act and our allies the rationale they need to justify their support of war on Iraq. Providing them with a rationale for supporting us is particularly important because we cannot treat these powers with the simplistic attitude that "you are either with us or against us," or demand they join us on blind faith. The onus is on us to offer them convincing evidence pointing to Saddam's build-up of WMD and his culpability in international terrorism. We must, in sum, clearly demonstrate that the war option is absolutely a last resort.

Dealing with all of these issues, obviously, places a heavy burden on us. Knowing that this will be his last stand, we must not rule out the possibility that Saddam will throw at us everything at his disposal. To reduce the risks involved, not only do we have to work simultaneously on all the fronts discussed but should war become the only remaining option, we need to wage it more like a traditional Israeli type of warâ€"one that is overwhelming, decisive and swift, lasting no more than three weeks, and leaving very little room for surprises. Even with the most optimal outcome, the war will be costly and possibly entail hundreds of casualties (perhaps a few thousand on our side and multiple of that on the Iraqi side), but then, again, both the costs and risks will probably be acceptable to the American people if they are convinced we are doing the right thing. War seems imminent; the case for it, however, has not been quite made by this administration.