Foreign Policy

Avoid Tenuous Reasoning

Arm-waving and dubious propositions


It may be useful to parse the argument for a preventive war against Iraq as developed by Brink Lindsey into two considerations: the military threat Iraq presents or is likely to present, and the connection of the regime to international terrorism.

The notion that Iraq presents an international military threat seems to be based on three propositions. 1. Iraq will have a small supply of atomic arms in a few years. 2. Once it gets these arms, Saddam Hussein will be incapable of preventing himself from engaging in extremely provocative acts such as ordering a military invasion against a neighbor or lobbing weaponry against nuclear-armed Israel, acts which are extremely likely to trigger a concerted multi-lateral military attack upon him and his regime. 3. If Saddam issues such a patently suicidal order, his military—which he himself distrusts—will dutifully carry it out, presumably with more efficiency, effectiveness, and élan than it demonstrated in the Gulf War.

I will leave it to those more expert in the field to assess the first proposition. At worst we have a window of a few years before the regime is able to acquire atomic arms. Some experts, however, seem to think it could be much longer while others question whether Saddam's regime will ever be able to gather or make the required fissile material. Obviously, if effective weapons inspections are instituted in Iraq, they will reduce this concern.

The second proposition rests on an enormous respect for what I have called Saddam's "daffiness" in decision-making. I share at least part of this respect. Saddam does sometimes act on caprice, and he often appears to be out of touch—messengers bringing him bad news rarely, it seems, get the opportunity to do so twice. At the same time, however, he has shown himself capable of pragmatism. When his invasion of Iran went awry, he called for retreat to the prewar status quo; it was the Iranian regime that kept the war going. After he invaded Kuwait in 1990, he quickly moved to settle residual issues left over from the Iran-Iraq War so that he had only one enemy to deal with.

Above all, he seems to be entirely non-suicidal and is primarily devoted to preserving his regime and his own personal existence. His brutal killing (and gassing) of Kurds was carried out because they were in open rebellion against him and in effective or actual complicity with invading Iranians during the Iran-Iraq War. Much of his obstruction of arms inspectors seems to arise from his fear that agents among them will be used fatally to triangulate his whereabouts—a suspicion that press reports suggest was not exaggerated. If Saddam does acquire nuclear arms, accordingly, it seems most likely that he will use them as all others have since 1945-to deter an invasion rather than to trigger one.

The third proposition is rarely considered in discussions of the war, but it is important. One can't at once maintain, it seems to me, that Iraq's military forces will readily defect and can easily be walked over—something of a premise for our war-makers—and also that this same pathetic military presents a coherent international threat.

The argument connecting Iraq to terrorism is mostly based on arm-waving. As Lindsey notes, international terrorists are based all over the world—in fact just about everywhere except Iraq. Their efforts are hardly likely to be deflated if Iraq's regime is defeated. Indeed, it seems likely that an attack will supply them with new recruits, inspire them to even more effort, and provide them with inviting new targets in the foreign military and civilian forces that occupy a defeated, chaotic Iraq. He suggests that a war is required in order make it "extremely clear that the United States means business in dealing with terrorism." I would have thought that this was already extremely clear.

Terrorism, like crime, has always existed and always will. It cannot be "crushed," but its incidence and impact can be reduced, and some of its perpetrators can be put out of business. But this is likely to come about through patient, diligent, and persistent international police work rather than through costly wars based on tenuous reasoning.