Arguments for Attack
the most striking thing about the current discussion/ debate/ PR
campaign about the possibility of the United States launching a
pre-emptive strike against Iraq is the weakness of the arguments
in favor of an attack even if one accepts the premise that a pre-emptive
strike is sometimes justified, necessary or desirable. Leaving open
the possibility that the U.S. government really does have information
it hasnít yet shared with the American people and might one day
choose to share, what weíve heard so far doesnít begin to meet even
the criteria advocates of preemption seem to hold out as requiring
such a strike. Iím less inclined to accept most arguments for pre-emptive
strikes than many Americans, but IĎve been trying to understand
what the other side is saying, striving to see if thereís the kind
of potential threat that could justify a major military incursion.
As far as I can see, the argument requires assuming that Saddam
Hussein is suicidally irrational. One can say all sorts of justifiably
negative things about Saddam, of course, but few are able to make
a persuasive case that he has a suicide wish. If anything, most
observers are struck by his well-developed survival instincts and
why this seems the case to me. To date I havenít heard anyone argue
that Saddam has an itch to attack the United States directly well,
he might have an itch, if he thought he could do so with relative
impunity, but so far he hasnít scratched it. A case can be made
that he is a potential threat to his neighbors, although none of
them besides Israel seems to feel so directly threatened as to welcome
or desire a U.S. attack.
should hold open the possibility that neighboring regimes are saying
one thing in public and another in private, but so far there have
been none of the kind of leaks that one might expect if a furious
private campaign urging the U.S. to take out Saddam were underway.
The people Iíve talked to who are in a position to know more than
I though not everything say that Saudi Arabia, for example,
is as concerned about an attack in private as in public.) So. Iraq
is a potential threat to neighbors but only Israel seems to want
a U.S. attack, and even Israel is a bit ambivalent. Is there a threat
to the United States?
closest Iíve heard to an argument for this is the possibility that
if and when Saddam has usable weapons of mass destruction (maybe
now, though U.S. military sources seem to doubt nuclear weapons
even in the near future), he might give them to terrorists or terrorist
organizations who would then be in a position to launch an attack
on the United States that would make 9/11 look like a walk in the
park. Vice President Cheney came pretty close to making this case
in his two speeches last week.
be sure, such an attack, if it came, might well be horrendous. But
just how likely is such a scenario if Saddam Hussein is not suicidally
irrational? For starters, the Iraqi regime is not an Islamist or
fundamentalist regime but a titularly secular regime. It may have
harbored some terrorist groups in the past, and it might be tolerating
some training camps even now, although here again the evidence is
sketchy and has been disputed by relatively authoritative U.S. military
sources. But while Saddam may use Islam in his rhetoric, his history
suggests more a concern with hanging onto and expanding personal
power than with embarking on a crusade for religious reasons. The
Islamist groups know this. There has to be a certain level of distrust
between Saddamís regime and the more fanatical Islamist (or Islamo-fascist,
if you will) organizations. They might work together on specific
campaigns or projects. But theyíre not likely to trust one another
makes it somewhat unlikely that Saddam would simply hand over weapons
of mass destruction to al Qaida operatives or to some other terrorist
faction. Given the criticism his own regime has come under from
Islamist fanatics, given that Iraq fought a 10-year war with the
first Islamicist regime, Iran, and given the presence of a Shia
region in the south that would love to be independent or rid of
Saddam, he could hardly be completely sure that those weapons might
not be used against him.
might happen. But the likelihood factor is not especially high.
At the least, it is far from a sure thing.
thereís the other factor that would simply have to enter his calculations,
assuming he is calculating fairly rationally. If a biological or
chemical weapon were used in an attack in the United States, especially
if it were of a type that U.S. intelligence suspects the Iraqi regime
has been working on, who would be the first suspect? The Bush administration,
egged on by certain policy wonks (most of whom have never been closer
to a war than a textbook) has been itching to attack Iraq since
9/11, even though there is no credible evidence of a direct connection.
How swiftly do you suppose an attack would come if a connection
seemed even reasonably certain? I suspect the Bush administration
would not need proof beyond a reasonable doubt to attack Iraq if
a monstrously destructive chemical or biological weapon were used
in the United States. Preponderance of the evidence or even a sliver
of evidence would do nicely. And I suspect Saddam knows this too.
And whatever his bluster, he has to know that if the U.S. assembled
the kind of attack force it brought to bear during the Gulf War
(allies or no allies) and used it as ruthlessly as the U.S. is capable
of doing when provoked (or sometimes when not provoked) his chances
of survival would be fairly slim.
should not claim too much certainty about matters that by their
very nature are somewhat hidden from us. Much about Saddam Hussein
and his regime are purposely hidden, and much more is unknown because
of the unremitting hostility with which most Americans view him.
Heís evil. What more do we need to know? What manner of evil and
how expressed? People who would even ask such questions are sometimes
viewed as latent sympathizers.
I canít claim to know just how rational Saddam Hussein is in his
calculations. But I do know he runs an essentially secularist regime
and that he has stayed in power for decades despite fierce and sometimes
unremitting opposition see all the Iraqi opposition groups in
exile, most of which contain people who would have been happy to
slit Saddamís throat if they had had the chance. So it is obvious
that he has worked at surviving in power and has been pretty good
at it. Whatever fantasies of world power or regional domination
may be at work in his fevered brain have not prevented some rational
(and ruthless) calculation and action about how to stay in power.
For him to supply a terrorist group with weapons of mass destruction
or the wherewithal to make them fairly quickly, then, I suspect
he would have to see a pretty big payoff and not much downside risk
for himself. But what kind of attack on the United States could
accomplish that? Even a destructive attack on Washington, DC would
leave much of the US and its military infrastructure intact and
capable of striking back. And Saddam would be a target even if he
hadnít supplied the weapons.
Krauthammer on Fox News over the weekend crept right up to the point
of calling Saddam irrationally suicidal, but held back because he
probably knows enough to know it isnít true. But at some level of
consciousness he had to know that the case for attacking Saddam
pre-emptively rests on the assumption that he is so relentlessly
and well, irrationally hostile to the United States that he
would risk utter destruction in order to do significant damage that
would almost fall short of the utter destruction he might well desire
but is unlikely to be able to accomplish.
he is irrationally suicidal, then Saddam Hussein poses little if
any threat to the United States proper. Even a devastating attack
would be more likely to lead to the destruction of his regime than
to the destruction of the United States. All empires fade eventually,
one supposes, but the American version still has a lot of power
and the ability to use it, however burdened (not quite but almost
to the point of being muscle-bound) by bureaucracy and overspending.
about U.S. interests in the region? Presumably thereís some interest
in keeping relatively inexpensive oil flowing. But itís far from
certain that waging war on Saddam is the best way to do this. If
you were making a strictly economic calculation you might even conclude
that cozying up to Saddam and urging him to provide some healthy
competition for the Saudis would be a more effective way to keep
the oil flowing than undertaking a military attack. The price of
oil almost always rises during military actions whatever the cause
and wherever they are. And if you were really calculating the full
cost of Persian Gulf oil you would have to include all the costs
involved in keeping a military presence in the region (even though
it doesnít always serve the purposes of assuring maximum flow of
oil) so the oil is far from cheap.
we have an interest in deterring the more fanatical versions of
Islamism motivating people around the globe but especially in the
Near East? It would hardly make sense, then, to attack a relatively
secular Arab regime many Islamists would like to see destroyed.
I have had a number of e-mails suggesting that I have overlooked
the Israeli interest in taking out Saddam. Israel and the United
States are so joined at the hip, this argument goes in summary,
that the U.S. will go out of its way to serve Israeli interests
that might or might not coincide with U.S. interests. Thereís something
to be said for this. Certainly the neos at the Weekly Standard
and New Republic sometimes place the interests of Israel
at the forefront of their thinking, as do certain elements of the
religious right in America. These elements are influential and have
representatives in the administration.
suspect the Israeli interest doesnít explain it all, however. There
is also the element of militant moralism that has played a key role
in American foreign policy at least since St. Woodrow Wilson. We
have to oppose evil and evildoers (even if we are a bit selective
in identifying and attacking them), even eschewing rational calculation
sometimes. American policymakers love to convince themselves they
are doing good, rooting out evil, and making holy whatever they
touch. The Bushlet is hardly immune to this peculiarly American
disease indeed, a case can be made that he is a virtual embodiment.
So the great American myth lives on, secure in its righteousness
no matter how many have to die.
520 South Murphy Avenue #202 Sunnyvale, CA 94086
Contribute Via our Secure Server Credit Card Donation Form