Here's the state of play in the Baghdad War Before the War, as President Bush seeks congressional authority to use the military against Iraq.
On September 12, President Bush attempts and largely succeeds in an act of political alchemy at the UN. In one forcefully delivered address about Saddam Hussein's perfidy, Bush repositions himself domestically against his critics in Congress, seeks to redefine the U.S. role in any future action against Baghdad, and even tries to recast his administration's moral stance by capturing the UN as a means to further his administration's policies.
If the U.S. were to take military action in the future, Bush indicates, it would do so because the UN was too irresolute to achieve its own high-minded ends. Bush thus transforms himself in a single speech from a unilateralist cowboy to a world leader seeking international consensus for military action. If one believes the papers, just such a consensus begins to form.
On Monday the 16th, however, Saddam returns fire. In a short letter to Secretary General Kofi Annan, Iraq's foreign minister says he has the honor of capitulation. Iraq will allow the return of weapons inspectors "without conditions." Saddam thus transforms himself from a nutcase to a supposed realist.
By September 17th, Bush's global consensus begins to deflate, thus demonstrating the UN's resoluteness. U.S. officials start scrambling to redefine the redefinitions of the previous week. The line they settle on: the Iraqi issue was never inspections, it was disarmament.
It's a startling spectacle. Iraq's letter is surely an act of deception, but then Bush's own concern about the sanctity of UN resolutions doesn't appear to have been sincere, either. All these efforts are aimed at capturing a moral high ground supposedly occupied by the UN, a moral stature that is entirely a matter of convenience and make-believe. Up to now, all the parties have been acting with palpable contempt toward the institution. Despite the air of earnestness, it's unlikely that anyone involved takes anybody else's position at face value, or that they mean much of what they say.
In the case of the U.S., there may be a good reason for that. The U.S.' actual intentions in Iraq may have very little—perhaps nothing—to do with the reasons that have been offered by the administration, either before the UN or in the domestic debate. The U.S. may actually be pursuing a strategy it is unwilling to articulate in public.
Critics of the White House's Iraq strategy have been arguing that it makes no sense. Among other things, they assert that Saddam's Iraq is actually less well armed than such states as Syria, has neither nuclear weapons nor the means to deliver any, poses no imminent military threat to its neighbors or the West, has no known link to the terrorist attacks of last September, and is less involved in state-sponsored terror networks than is Iran or Syria.
A major objection to moving against Saddam involves timing. According to this argument, we are already engaged in a long-range War Against Terrorism. Why engage in a simultaneous and potentially very expensive war against Saddam that may tie the U.S. down and divert vital resources from the real war against such enemies as Al Qaeda?
Despite the fact that many of these objections have been raised by high-ranking members of past Republican and Democratic administrations, and despite the fact that many traditional American allies have been cool to the case advanced by Washington, the administration has been notably diffident in its various responses. The reason may be that a regime change in Iraq is not a distraction from the U.S. response to terror attack, but rather its centerpiece. That is, the administration may be less concerned with Saddam's arsenal than it suggests, and more concerned with forcing profound, long-range change in the Middle East. For reasons involving both geography and oil, Iraq might be the key to such change.
It is apparent that in the wake of 9/11, the U.S. approach to the region has taken a dramatic turn. For example, efforts to resolve the painful Israeli-Palestinian issue along the lines of the Oslo "peace process" seem to be at an end. Yasser Arafat, whose notable staying power was based on his pose as the indispensable negotiating partner, is finished as far as this administration is concerned. Resolving the issue obviously remains vital, but the U.S. is asserting its power to dictate the means.
Similarly, the benefits of "containing" Saddam rather than removing him have disappeared. The post-Gulf War containment of Saddam, like the futile negotiations with Arafat, were both based on a desire to maintain the region's brittle stability, or at least to avoid taking risks that might threaten that apparent stability. But the incentive to pursue such policies is gone: The U.S. has no interest in the "stability" of a region that incubated the attacks on New York City and Washington and the murder of 3,000 citizens.
A fundamental response to 9/11 has been the reconsideration of American power. Critics of the U.S. charge that the attacks were "blowback" for the misuse of American might in pursuit of unjust aims. But others argue that the attacks were the result of an often overcautious, frequently ineffectual application of power (lobbing missiles into Lebanon following the bloody attack on the Marine barracks, throwing missiles at empty training camps or aspirin factories in response to murderous attacks on U.S. embassies) that led enemies to conclude that the U.S. was decadent, weak, and stupid.
The administration obviously inclines toward the view that U.S. power has been ineffectually used, and now appears ready to assert the nation's immense power in the Middle East—not, perhaps, to bring closure to the Gulf War, but primarily to disrupt and if possible to destroy those elements in the region that present a continuing threat to the West.
Getting rid of Saddam and installing a friendly government in his place would have immediate consequences, because it would give the U.S. a number of strategic options it currently lacks. For one thing, the U.S. could count on access to Iraq's immense oil resources. To some critics on the left, Iraq's oil is the whole purpose behind Bush's bellicosity, because he wants to distribute it among his oil-industry cronies. But there is another possibility: Access to Iraqi oil would profoundly alter the U.S. role in the region, because it would alter the nation's relationship with Saudi Arabia.
The U.S. and Saudi Arabia have long been trapped in a relationship that neither party much likes. But because America needs lots of oil, and because the Saudis need security, the two nations have tried to find a way to deal with each other. The terror attacks have shaken this relationship of interdependence. Most of the hijackers on 9/11 came from Saudi Arabia, and much of the money being funneled into global terrorist networks reportedly originates from there as well. If the U.S. seeks ultimately to choke off the finances of Al Qaeda and groups like it, it must first do something about its dependence on Saudi oil. In that sense, the road to Riyadh runs through Baghdad.
So, perhaps, does the road to Tehran. According to numerous accounts, the mullahs' control of Iran has been crumbling for months. Many Iranians have had enough of their failed revolution and their economic stagnation. They've had enough of being arrested for listening to music on the radio, and of being jailed for attending private gatherings where both men and women are present. Iran's revolution is now reportedly so shaky that it may collapse even if the U.S. does nothing in the region. Were the U.S. to succeed in establishing a regime in adjacent Iraq that exhibited at least some democratic values and allowed greater personal freedoms, the fate of Iran's ruling mullahs would probably be sealed, and the future of any future democratic government there bolstered.
A region that features at least relatively democratic regimes in both Iraq and Iran, a Saudi Arabia whose leverage on the West is greatly reduced, and, as Bush put it at the UN, "an independent and democratic Palestine," however that might be achieved, would be a region where modern political values are advancing and retrograde dictatorship and theocracy are declining.
In his UN address, Bush hinted at the outlines of "a very different future" for the Middle East. As he put it, "The people of Iraq can shake off their captivity. They can one day join a democratic Afghanistan and a democratic Palestine, inspiring reforms throughout the Muslim world. These nations can show by their example that honest government, and respect for women, and the great Islamic tradition of learning can triumph in the Middle East and beyond."
This is an optimistic scenario, of course, and none of it may happen even if the U.S. successfully overthrows Saddam. The Middle East is a notoriously complicated and unpredictable place, and intervention in Baghdad also risks a series of potentially disastrous consequences.
Iraq could fall apart under pressure from Shi'ites in the south (where much of the oil is) or Kurds in the north. A region-wide conflict could develop, especially if Israel is attacked, that the U.S. might be unable to contain. The Saudis and Iranians might respond to developments by raising the price of oil, seriously jolting the world economy. A taste for democracy in the region may translate not into the Turkish model, which has so far absorbed an increase in Islamist political clout. It could lead to something resembling the unending nightmare of Algeria, where the military has taken control to prevent Islamists from assuming power, and Islamists have responded with a campaign of mass murder. "Managing" the region politically might prove far more difficult than conquering any portion of it, and the U.S. could find itself mired in regional conflicts and problems from which it might find it difficult to extricate itself.
The White House appears willing to risk such consequences. Its public reasons for doing so—Saddam's arsenal and his perfidy—haven't convinced everyone that the risks are worth taking. Perhaps it has other reasons.