In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration has articulated a new foreign policy for the United States. The "containment" of hostile states has been replaced by a policy of military "pre-emption" and "defensive intervention," which sanctions U.S. military action even against states that are not imminent threats. War with Iraq may be the first major expression of this new policy (as of press time, no shooting had yet begun).
Is such a preventive war justified? In late October, we asked John Mueller and Brink Lindsey to argue the issue on reason online. Mueller, who makes the case against war, holds the Woody Hayes Chair of National Security Studies at Ohio State University. He is the author of Policy and Opinion in the Gulf War (1994), Quiet Cataclysm: Reflections on the Recent Transformation of World Politics (1997), and Retreat from Doomsday: The Obsolescence of Major War (1989). reason Contributing Editor Brink Lindsey makes the case for war. He's a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and author of Against the Dead Hand: The Uncertain Struggle for Global Capitalism (2002). He also publishes www.brinklindsey.com.
The debate unfolded over the week of October 28-November 1, with each participant responding within hours of the other's posting. Readers interested in more information can visit reason.com/debate/ai-debate1.shtml, which includes links to reader responses and reason's archive of 9/11-related coverage.
What's the Rush?
The devil du jour is a feeble tyrant.
In preparing for a war against Iraq, military planners seem to anticipate a walkover. The Iraqi military performed badly in the Gulf War of 1991: Saddam Hussein promised the mother of all battles, but his troops delivered instead the mother of all bugouts. And the planners note that Iraq is even weaker now.
Moreover, the regime appears to enjoy very little support. Saddam Hussein lives in such fear of his own military forces that he keeps them out of Baghdad. It is generally anticipated that most of the military will not fight for him—indeed, that there may be substantial defections to the invaders even among the comparatively coddled Republican Guard.
In addition, the regime really controls only a shard of the country. The Kurds have established a semi-independent entity in the north, and the hostility toward Saddam's rule is so great in the Shiite south that government officials often consider the region hostile territory.
Advocates of a war with Iraq insist such a venture is necessary because Iraq's feeble, wretched tyranny is somehow a dire and gathering threat to the entire area and even to the United States. Saddam's inept, ill-led, exhausted, and thoroughly demoralized military force, it is repeatedly argued, will inevitably be used by its leader for blackmail and regional dominance, particularly if it acquires an atomic bomb or two.
Exactly how this might come about is not spelled out. The notion that Israel, with a substantial nuclear arsenal and a superb and highly effective military force, could be intimidated out of existence by the actions or fulminations of this pathetic dictator can hardly be taken seriously. And the process by which Saddam could come to dominate the oil-producing states in the Middle East is equally mysterious and fanciful. Apparently, he would rattle a rocket or two, and everyone would dutifully jack up the oil price to $90 a barrel.
Saddam's capacity for making daffy decisions is, it is true, considerable. But he seems mostly concerned with self-preservation—indeed, that is about the only thing he is good at. And he is likely to realize that any aggressive military act in the region is almost certain to provoke a concerted, truly multilateral counterstrike that would topple his regime and remove him from existence. Even if he ordered some sort of patently suicidal adventure, his military might very well disobey, or simply neglect to carry out, the command. His initial orders in the Gulf War, after all, were to stand and fight the Americans to the last man. When push came to shove, his forces treated that absurd order with the contempt it so richly deserved.
During the last half-century American policy makers have become hysterical over a number of Third World dictators, among them Egypt's Nasser, Indonesia's Sukarno, Cuba's Castro, Libya's Qaddafi, and Iran's Khomeini. In all cases, the threat these devils du jour posed to American interests proved to be highly exaggerated. Nasser and Sukarno are footnotes, Castro a joke, and Qaddafi a mellowed irrelevance, while Khomeini's Iran has become just about the only place in the Middle East where Americans are treated with popular admiration and respect.
Significantly, Iran is also just about the only place in the area where the United States has been unable to meddle during the last 20 years. And it is possible there is a lesson here.
With characteristic self-infatuation, American leaders like to declare their country to be "the world's only remaining superpower" or "the indispensable nation." But this self-proclaimed status doesn't mean that it is obligatory or possible or wise for the United States to seek to run the world.
Or even the Middle East. American interests there are limited. There is a romantic and sentimental attachment to Israel, of course, but that country seems fully capable of taking care of itself. In time, perhaps, and probably after a change of leadership on both sides, mediation efforts between Israel and the Palestinians can become productive again. But for now at least the conflict is so deep that there is little any outsider (even an "indispensable" one) can do about it.
Quite a bit of oil comes from the Middle East, of course, but discussions of the American interest on that score tend to ignore simple economics. The area already is dominated by an entity, OPEC, which would dearly love to hike the price for the commodity. It is constrained from doing so not by warm and cuddly feelings toward its customers but by the grim economic realization that such a policy would reduce demand, intensify the search for new petroleum sources, and bring about a worldwide inflation that would raise the prices of imported commodities even more than any gains obtained by an increase in the oil price. Whatever happens in the region, this fundamental market reality is likely to mellow and correct incidental distortions.
In the meantime, monarchs in a number of countries may gradually be coming to the realization that they are out of date, rather in the way Latin American militarists more or less voluntarily decided during the last quarter century to relinquish control to democratic forces. If this does happen, however, the process will be impelled, as in Latin America, primarily by domestic forces, not outside ones.
A humanitarian argument could be made for a war against Iraq—to liberate its people from a vicious tyranny and from the debilitating and destructive effects of the sanctions which the United States apparently is incapable of relaxing while Saddam Hussein remains in power. Such a war would have to be kept inexpensive in casualties, and the United States would have to be willing to hang on for quite some time to help rebuild the nation, something experience suggests is unlikely.
But calls for war do not stress this argument. Instead, they raise alarms about vague, imagined international threats that, however improbable, could conceivably emanate from a miserable and pathetic regime. In due course, nature (there have been persistent rumors about cancer) or some other force will remove our devil du jour. The situation calls for patient watchfulness, not hysteria.
No More 9/11s
The case for invading Iraq
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 Ba'athist 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 apparently has staged terrorist attacks of its own directly against the United States. 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 (WMD). 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 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 for 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, even millions, more Americans will die.
Iraq occupies a strategic position in the war against Islamist terror along several 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 carried out with "plausible deniability." Given that more than a year has gone by since last fall's anthrax letter scare and we still have 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 Ba'athist regime from power, we would make it 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) would have newly strengthened incentives to do the right thing. If, on the other hand, 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 be inclined to take 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, 3,000 Americans were dead.
We can't let that happen again.
Betting on Saddam's recklessness
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 regime's connection 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 weapons in a few years.
2) Once it gets these arms, Saddam Hussein won't be able to stop himself from engaging in extremely provocative acts such as ordering the military invasion of a neighbor or lobbing missiles at nuclear-armed Israel—acts that are likely to trigger a concerted multilateral 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 Persian 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 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. Effective weapons inspections, of course, would 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, Saddam seems to be entirely nonsuicidal 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 other leaders possessing such weapons have since 1945: to deter an invasion.
The third proposition is rarely considered in discussions of the war, but it is important. One can't simultaneously maintain that Iraq's military forces will readily defect and can easily be walked over—a common assumption among our war makers—and also that this same pathetic military presents a serious 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 more effort, and provide them with inviting new targets in the foreign military and civilian forces that occupy a defeated, chaotic Iraq. Lindsey suggests that a war is required to make it "clear that the United States means business in dealing with terrorism." I would have thought 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 costly wars based on tenuous reasoning.
Evading them won't make us safe.
John Mueller sees correctly that the Iraq problem has two aspects: 1) regional security and 2) global terrorism. Unfortunately, he fails to grasp the nasty realities of either.
Mueller's assessment of the regional threat posed by a nuclear Iraq is nothing short of fantastic. He pooh-poohs the possibility that Iraq might invade one or more of its neighbors and argues that Saddam Hussein "is primarily devoted to preserving his regime and his own personal existence." Huh? Try telling that to Iran and Kuwait.
Mueller needs to read Mark Bowden's superb, chilling profile of Saddam in the May 2002 issue of The Atlantic. Bowden makes clear that Saddam sees himself as a world-historical figure, a man destined to lead pan-Arabia back to greatness. Perversely, every brush with disaster and death "has strengthened his conviction that his path is divinely inspired and that greatness is his destiny." Why on earth should we suppose that a nuclear arsenal—built in reckless defiance of the United States and the world—would temper rather than inflame Saddam's raging megalomania?
Mueller blithely assumes that any future Iraqi aggression would be "likely to trigger a concerted multilateral military attack upon him and his regime" and thus "patently suicidal." Excuse me, but there was no multilateral response to Iraq's attack on Iran, and the world would have been all too happy to acquiesce in Kuwait's disappearance had the first President Bush not stepped in and forced the issue. What makes Mueller think the world would rush in to confront a nuclear-armed Iraq? That task, inevitably, would fall to the United States. Mueller's counsel boils down to this: The United States should avoid war with a relatively weak Iraq today so that it can tangle with a nuclear adversary tomorrow.
What about the nexus between Iraq and terrorism, which Mueller dismisses as so much "arm waving"? Allow me to quote Bowden's article once more, this time from a scene in which Saddam is addressing Iraqi military leaders who run terrorist training camps: "He told [them] that they were the best men in the nation, the most trusted and able. That was why they had been selected to meet with him, and to work at the terrorist camps where warriors were being trained to strike back at America. The United States, he said, because of its reckless treatment of Arab nations and the Arab people, was a necessary target for revenge and destruction. American aggression must be stopped in order for Iraq to rebuild and to resume leadership of the Arab world."
This meeting occurred back in 1996—before the recent heating up of the conflict. So much for Saddam's live-and-let-live foreign policy.
Bellicose rhetoric is one thing; the ability to back it up is something altogether more serious. Here is the ultimate threat, the one that Mueller can't even bring himself to discuss: Iraqi biological or nuclear weapons might someday be put in the hands of terrorist groups. If that were to happen, America could experience horrors that would dwarf those unleashed on September 11.
Opponents of action against Iraq argue that we can rely on deterrence to protect us from such atrocities: No country, not even one as rash as Iraq, would dare to use weapons of mass destruction against the United States because of the threat of overwhelming retaliation. That argument has considerable force with respect to a direct attack by Iraq, but it fails completely to confront the possibility that Iraq could use terrorist intermediaries to do its dirty work while masking its own involvement. How is deterrence supposed to work when WMD lack a return address?
Recall, again, last year's anthrax attacks. We still don't know who was responsible, or whether there was any foreign state involvement. Just this week, a Washington Post article cast considerable doubt on the FBI's favored theory that the murders were the work of a disgruntled American scientist—and suggested that an Iraqi role remains a live possibility.
Go back a few more years, to the 1993 plot to assassinate former President Bush in Kuwait. It appears that the attack was an Iraqi operation, but as Seymour Hersh showed in a 1993 New Yorker article in which he reviewed the less-than-airtight case in depth, the fact is we're not really sure.
Welcome to the shadowy world in which we now live. A world in which deterrence no longer suffices. A world in which the judicious use of American power to pre-empt looming threats may be all that stands between us and catastrophe.
Here is what we know about the current Iraqi regime: It has weapons of mass destruction and is actively seeking to add to its arsenal. It is rabidly hostile to the United States. It has an established track record of predatory conduct and a demonstrated willingness to take extreme risks in pursuing its predatory ambitions. There is not another country on earth that matches Iraq's combination of destructive capacity, anti-American animus, and recklessness in projecting power. In a shadowy world, this much is clear: We are not safe while the present regime rules Iraq.
Deterring the Egomaniac Dictator
War is not necessary to keep a street thug in check.
Brink Lindsey wants to argue that Saddam Hussein is reckless, but even he concedes that "no country, not even one as rash as Iraq, would dare to use weapons of mass destruction against the United States because of the threat of overwhelming retaliation." That is, it is entirely possible to deter Iraq. This deterrent would surely hold for an attack on Israel, which has an enormous retaliatory capacity and an even greater incentive to respond than the U.S. I would suggest that it holds as well for just about any substantial military provocation that Saddam might consider.
It is true that much of the world managed to contain its outrage when Iraq invaded Iran in 1980. But that was because the attack was directed against Khomeini's seemingly expansionary theocracy, which was seen to be a bigger threat at the time. It is simply not true that "the world" was "all too happy to acquiesce in Kuwait's disappearance" when Iraq invaded it in 1990. There was almost universal condemnation of the attack, even from Iraq's erstwhile friend and ally, the Soviet Union, and the debate was over tactics: whether to use war immediately to push back the aggression or to wait to see if sanctions could do the trick.
Reaction to a third Saddam adventure would surely follow the Kuwait pattern, except that the troops would now go all the way to Baghdad. Moreover, as I've suggested, Saddam's army, which even he finds unreliable, would be unlikely to carry out patently suicidal orders even if they were issued—as it showed in the Gulf War of 1991.
Lindsey's appreciation for Saddam's egomania is fully justified. It's just that egomania is standard equipment for your average Third World tyrant. Indonesia's Sukarno haughtily withdrew from the United Nations and set up his own competing operation in Djakarta (only China joined); Egypt's Nasser (Saddam's sometime inspiration), who planned to unite and dominate the Arab world, died quietly in bed after being humiliated by Israeli arms; Khomeini's global revolution has essentially been voted out even in its Iranian homeland; and Cuba's Castro probably still hopes to become the new Simón Bolívar of Latin America. Self-important street thugs like Saddam Hussein love to flail and fume in the company of sycophants, but that doesn't make them any less pathetic.
We are left with the warning that Saddam will give weapons of mass destruction to shadowy terrorists to deliver for him. Lindsey is unusual in suggesting that Saddam might do this with nuclear weapons (which, of course, he doesn't have and perhaps never will have). Most observers assume he would selfishly keep them himself to help deter an attack on Iraq.
The case is more plausible for chemical or biological weapons—which, however, have proven to be so difficult to deploy effectively that it is questionable whether they should be considered weapons of "mass destruction" at all, as Gregg Easterbrook pointed out in the October 7 issue of The New Republic. But terrorists may be after these weapons anyway, and the question is whether it is worth a war to eliminate one of many potential sources. Moreover, as Daniel Benjamin noted in the October 31 Washington Post, the best CIA assessment is that Saddam and Al Qaeda are most likely to bed together if his regime is imminently threatened by the preventive war (it would be in no reasonable sense an act of pre-emption) that Lindsey so ardently advocates.
Weighing the Risks
There's no invisible hand to protect us.
I argue that Iraq is a serious threat to the surrounding region and to us. John Mueller disagrees. I contend that toppling the current Iraqi regime will aid in the broader campaign against Islamist terrorism. Mueller worries that an invasion of Iraq will backfire.
Risks of action, risks of inaction: Which are greater? Solid facts are few and far between; we're forced to make our way based on hypotheticals and maybes and historical analogies. How can we have any confidence that we are weighing the risks intelligently?
One point in my favor is that I am actually weighing the risks. That's why I support military action against Iraq: I believe the risks of inaction outweigh the risks of action.
I am not a reflexive hawk. I opposed our recent military adventures in Panama, Haiti, Somalia, and the Balkans. I would not support military action against, say, Burma, merely because its government is despicable. Odious as it is, the Burmese regime poses no significant threat to its neighbors or to us. I would not have supported making war on China in the 1960s, even though its rulers were wildly anti-American and seeking to develop a nuclear arsenal. Despite the threat China posed to us, the risks of acting were far too great (especially the possibility of an escalation with the Soviets) and the price of victory against such a formidable and fanatical adversary would have been far too high. In that situation, deterrence and diplomacy (in particular, playing the Chinese and Soviets against each other) were the better options.
So on the general question of preventive war—whether to make war now in order to avoid a worse war later—my position is: It depends on the circumstances. The decision whether to go to war should turn on a pragmatic assessment of relative risks. Sometimes the balance will tilt in favor of action, sometimes not. In the particular case of Iraq in 2002, I believe the balance tilts strongly toward action.
Many who oppose invading Iraq (I won't ascribe this view to Mueller, since he did not spell out his general position clearly) reject the kind of pragmatic assessment that I think is called for. They believe that preventive war is just a bad idea, period—that it's wrong, or at least reckless, to fire the first shot unless you're absolutely sure the other guy is about to squeeze the trigger.
When I'm debating the Iraq question with someone like that, we're talking past each other. I'm explaining the reasons that led me to my conclusion. He's marshaling evidence in support of a predetermined conclusion.
Not that there's anything wrong, in general, with predetermined conclusions—they're called principles. But all principles aren't created equal. Some are sound, some are iffy, and some are downright worthless.
What about the principle of no preventive wars? Specifically, what is the basis for assuming that preventive wars always make matters worse? In economic policy, there are solid grounds for the principle of no government meddling with markets. Market competition has enormous advantages over government action in making use of and coordinating dispersed information, in encouraging innovation, in supplying appropriate incentive structures, and so on. Accordingly, anyone arguing that government intervention in the marketplace can improve economic performance has an extremely difficult case to make.
Many libertarians slide easily from noninterventionism in domestic affairs to noninterventionism abroad, believing they're on equally firm footing with both positions. But they're not, because the fact is that there's no invisible hand in foreign affairs. There are no equilibrating mechanisms or feedback loops in the Hobbesian jungle of predatory dictatorships and fanatical terrorist groups that give us any assurance that, if the United States were only to stand aside, things would go as well for us in the world as they possibly could.
Accordingly, it seems to me that a no-exceptions policy against preventive war rests ultimately on an untenable assumption: that unrousable passivity on the part of the greatest and most powerful country that ever existed will somehow yield the most favorable achievable conditions in the world—that, in an intricately interconnected world, leaving everything outside our physical borders to the wolves will ensure that everything turns out for the best.
I don't buy it. Hostile regimes bent on relentless expansion and pursuing weapons of mass destruction are a threat to global security. Hostile regimes that could put weapons of mass destruction into the hands of terrorists are a direct threat to the lives of Americans. If regimes fitting either of these descriptions don't change their ways, military action against them should be an option.
Iraq's current regime fits both descriptions. It is not going to change its ways. The risks of war are real but manageable. Let's act before it's too late.