John Mueller tries to make light of Iraq. "Feeble," "inept," "pathetic," and "daffy" are some of the adjectives he uses to describe the blood-soaked, predatory regime now in power there. The implication is that only the paranoid could find in Saddam Hussein's buffoonery any cause for serious concern.
Well, I beg to differ. Iraq is no joke: The crimes that the Baathist regime there has committed and may intend to commit in the future are deadly serious business. Under the reign of Saddam Hussein, Iraq has invaded two of its neighbors, lobbed missiles at two other countries in the region, systematically defied U.N. resolutions that demand its disarmament, fired on U.S. and coalition aircraft thousands of times over the past decade, and committed atrocious human rights abuses against its own citizens—including the waging of genocidal chemical warfare against Iraqi Kurds. In short, this is a regime that is responsible for hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of deaths.
Meanwhile, Iraq has a long record of active support for international terrorist groups. Indeed, it has apparently staged terrorist attacks of its own directly against the United States—here I am speaking of Iraq's likely involvement in the attempted assassination of former President Bush in Kuwait in 1993.
Most ominously, Iraq has been engaged for many years in the monomaniacal pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. It reportedly has significant stockpiles of biological weapons, and its aggressive, large-scale nuclear program is thought to be at most a few years away from success. The fact that Iraq has been willing to endure ongoing sanctions—and thus the loss of hundreds of billions of dollars in oil revenue—rather than dismantle its WMD programs shows the ferocity of its commitment to maximizing its destructive capabilities.
In light of the above, I would support military action against Iraq even if 9/11 had never happened and there were no such thing as Al Qaeda. After all, I supported the Gulf War back in 1991 in the hope of toppling Saddam Hussein's regime before it fulfilled its nuclear ambitions. Unfortunately, quagmire was plucked from the jaws of victory in that earlier conflict, and so today we are faced with concluding its unfinished business. In my view, standing by with "patient watchfulness" while predatory, anti-Western terror states become nuclear powers is irresponsible and dangerous folly.
As to the headline question, "What's the rush?," my reply is: North Korea. In 1994 President Clinton, with the help of former President Carter, swept the Korean threat under the rug and trusted that "nature," or something, would deal with that "devil du jour." Now North Korea's psychopathic regime informs us that it has nuclear weapons—a fact that vastly complicates any efforts to prevent the situation from getting even worse. We can look forward to similar complications with Iraq unless we act soon.
The case for action against Iraq is further strengthened by the unfortunate facts that 9/11 did happen and Al Qaeda does exist. Here is the grim reality: Radical Islamism is in arms against the West, and its fanatical followers have pledged their lives to killing as many of the infidel as they possibly can. American office workers in New York and Washington, French seamen in Yemen, Australian tourists in Bali, Russian theatergoers in Moscow—nobody is safe. However exactly this conflict arose, it is now in full flame. And let there be no mistake: This is a fight to the death. Either we crush radical Islamism's global jihad, or thousands—or even millions—more Americans will die.
Iraq occupies a strategic position in the war against Islamist terror along a number of different dimensions. First, Iraq's WMD programs threaten to stock the armory of Al Qaeda & Company. Saddam Hussein's regime has a long and inglorious history of reckless aggression and grievous miscalculation. The decision to use terrorist intermediaries to unleash, say, Iraqi bioweapons against the United States strikes me as an entirely plausible scenario—assuming that Iraq's leadership can convince itself that the attack could be made with "plausible deniability." Given that more than a year has gone by since last fall's anthrax letter scare and we still have absolutely no idea who was responsible, the threat posed by Iraq's WMD programs is far from idle. It is, in fact, intolerable.
Second, the resolution—one way or another—of our longstanding conflict with Iraq will have vitally important repercussions in the larger war against terror. If we proceeded to remove the Baathist regime from power, we would make it extremely clear that the United States means business in dealing with terrorism and its sponsors. All those countries that continue, more than a year after 9/11, to demonstrate their incapacity or unwillingness to root out the terrorists in their midst (e.g., Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, etc.) would have newly strengthened incentives to do the right thing. On the other hand, if all the tough talk against Iraq turned out to have been hot air, U.S. credibility would sustain a major blow. Al Qaeda would be emboldened by perceived American weakness, and countries that have to balance fear of the United States against fear of Islamists at home would all take a big shift toward taking U.S. displeasure less seriously.
Finally, regime change in Iraq offers the opportunity to attack radical Islamism at its roots: the dismal prevalence of political repression and economic stagnation throughout the Muslim world. The establishment of a reasonably liberal and democratic Iraq could serve as a model for positive change throughout the region. Of course, the successful rebuilding of Iraq will not be easy, but we cannot shrink from necessary tasks simply because they are hard. And we cannot simply assume that "nature" will bring freedom to a region that has never known it on a time scale consistent with safeguarding American lives.
Mueller's "What, me worry?" attitude captures perfectly the prevailing opinion about Afghanistan circa September 10, 2001. The Taliban were more a punch line than a serious foreign-policy issue; only the most fevered imagination could see any threat to us in that miserable, dilapidated country. The next day, three thousand Americans were dead.
We can't let that happen again.