|Will we be safer if we invade?|
Iraq War: The First Question
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
The New York Times
January 28, 2003
A new book about Iraq by Con Coughlin describes Saddam's younger son, Qusay, giving a speech last year in an underground bunker before his father and top officials: "With a simple sign from you, we can make America's people sleepless and frightened to go out in the streets. I only ask you, sir, to give me a small sign [to] turn their night into day and their day into a living hell."
The older son, Uday, told Iraqi journalists last week: "If [the Americans] come, what they wept for on Sept. 11 and what they view as a major event, it will appear as a picnic for them."
That Baghdad bonhomie comes to mind now that the U.N. reports have been issued and the debate about invading Iraq moves to center stage. The starting point to justify an invasion, it seems to me, has to be an affirmative answer to the question: Will we be safer if we invade?
The real answer is that we don't know. But it's quite plausible that an invasion will increase the danger to us, not lessen it. As a C.I.A. assessment said last October: "Baghdad for now appears to be drawing a line short of conducting terrorist attacks [in the U.S.]. Should Saddam conclude that a U.S.-led attack could no longer be deterred, he probably would become much less constrained in adopting terrorist actions." It added that Saddam might order attacks with weapons of mass destruction as "his last chance to exact vengeance by taking a large number of victims with him."
Frankly, it seems a bad idea to sacrifice our troops' lives — along with billions of dollars — in a way that may add to our vulnerability.
No doubt this seems craven, and I admit there are so many high-minded American hawks and doves that I'm embarrassed that on this issue I'm unprincipled. To me there is no principle involved here; it's just a matter of assessing costs and benefits.
It would be nice to weigh only lofty principles. But the greatest failure in foreign relations in the last half-century has been blindness to practical, on-the-ground dangers, like those that mired us in Vietnam. And it's only sensible to weigh them before leaping into Iraq.
There's no moral tenet that makes me oppose invasion. If we were confident that we could oust Saddam with minimal casualties and quickly establish a democratic Iraq, then that would be fine — and such a happy scenario is conceivable. But it's a mistake to invade countries based on best-case scenarios.
A dismal scenario is just as plausible: We could see bloody street-to-street fighting, outraging the Muslim world, igniting anti-American riots and helping Al Qaeda recruit terrorists. The first regime change we see could be in Jordan and Pakistan, where pro-Western governments have a fragile hold on angry populations. If Pakistan topples, Al Qaeda might gain nuclear weapons.
Moreover, President Bush has undermined the hawk position by the very success of his campaign against Iraq. To his credit, Mr. Bush has revived U.N. inspections, boxed Saddam into a corner and increased the chance that Saddam will be assassinated or overthrown. If Mr. Bush stops where he is now, he will have defanged Saddam at minimal cost.
As the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace put it in a new report on Iraq, the U.S. goal of preventing any attack by Iraq has already been achieved.
"Saddam Hussein is effectively incarcerated and under watch by a force that could respond immediately and devastatingly to any aggression," the report noted. "Inside Iraq, the inspection teams preclude any significant advance in [weapons of mass destruction] capabilities. The status quo is safe for the American people."
Hawks can fairly complain that the status quo may not be sustainable. If we let this chance to invade slip by, will Saddam outfox us and emerge in a year's time with nukes?
No, very unlikely. Inspections were maintained from 1991 to 1998, in which period the U.N. destroyed far more Iraqi weaponry than the U.S. had during the gulf war. Saddam will be forced to remain on his best behavior, and in any case he is 65 and an actuarial nightmare. If we just get intelligence on where he's going to spend one night, then my guess is that we'll respond to Iraqi antiaircraft fire by striking that particular building.
Will an invasion make us safer? That's the central question, and while none of us know the answer, there is clearly a significant risk that it will do just the opposite.