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 The "containment" of hostile states has been replaced by a policy of military "pre-emption" and "defensive intervention," which sanctions U.S. military action even against states that are not imminent threats.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.