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Sunday, February 16, 2003

Worse-case scenarios
Why war against Iraq may be counterproductive

Senior editorial writer

Illustration by Jocelyne Leger
Orange County Register

I would not bet against an American invasion of Iraq in the near future. The Bush administration has invested too much political capital in building the case against Saddam Hussein.

Even so, I refuse to give up hope that a shift in public opinion could, if not stave off war, then at least mitigate some of the more ambitious plans of conquest and reshaping the entire Middle East that drives many of the hawks who seem to have the upper hand in the administration.

Many Americans seem quite comfortable with the notion that the Sole Superpower has the uncontested right to wage a preventive war - not a pre-emptive war, for the threat is potential and speculative rather than anything resembling imminent - whenever it decides to do so.

That this would make the United States the aggressor instead of the defender of sovereignty against an aggressor (as was at least arguably the case with the 1991 gulf war) seems to bother many Americans not at all.

But you might think some would pause to consider the likelihood that waging a war would make many of the problems and uncertainties that have been used to justify an aggressive posture against Saddam Hussein worse rather than better.


We were plunged into the awareness that there is an irregular and aggressive campaign against the West and much of what it used to stand for with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. We are rightly concerned that more terrorist attacks may be in the offing.

But waging war against Iraq - even assuming it can be accomplished as quickly and as easily as the more optimistic hawks believe - is more likely to increase the threat of terrorist attacks than to diminish it.

We saw Osama bin Laden resurface last week, urging faithful Muslims (by his delusive definition) to redouble terrorist and suicide attacks when a war against Iraq begins. Despite administration efforts to spin it that way, bin Laden's diatribe did not demonstrate an alliance between Iraq and al-Qaida; indeed, bin Laden went out of his way to denounce Saddam's regime and declare that it will have to go come the fundamentalist apocalypse.

Instead, it showed that bin Laden is opportunistic, using the likely invasion to recruit followers. Bellicose American statements and a long campaign to develop a believable rationale for the war many American policymakers have wanted since Sept. 12 - and long before that in some cases - gave bin Laden this opportunity. Following through will enhance that opportunity.

Surely most decent Muslims reject bin Laden's extremism, but who doubts that among 1.2 billion Muslims worldwide at least some will be impelled by an American invasion to heed the siren call and take up box cutters or other weapons?

Ahmed Yassin, the Hamas leader in Gaza City, has also called on Muslims to attack U.S. nationals and "threaten Western interests and strike them everywhere" the moment the war begins. CIA Director George Tenet and other government figures have acknowledged that starting a war against Iraq will increase the threat of terrorist attacks.

Although the government has been typically cagey, it is more than possible that the current Orange threat level that has led to a run on duct tape is related to the imminence of war in Iraq among other factors.

So waging war in Iraq, in my view and in the view of many, will increase the threat of terrorism. We will be less safe rather than more safe.


Administration spokespeople have expressed great concern over the likelihood that Saddam Hussein has biological and chemical weapons.

So what would make it more likely that Saddam would actually use such weapons? Again, CIA Director George Tenet in testimony last September confirmed what is commonsensical to anybody who gives it a moment's thought: Saddam would be more likely to use them in the event of war.

Saddam didn't use them in the 1991 gulf war, perhaps in part because he was somewhat deterred by open hints that we would nuke him if he did. But this time we are after "regime change." If he is a goner anyway, what incentive does he have not to take lots of infidels down with him? Given his twisted mentality, might he see it as a glorious way to go down?

So waging war almost certainly would make it more likely chemical and biological weapons would be used against Americans.


We are afraid that Saddam, rather than using nasty weapons himself, would transfer them to terrorist groups. He hasn't done this so far, and the evidence is that there is little love lost between him and the Islamic fundamentalists who are the most conspicuous current terrorists.

But it is at least possible that he might do so in the spirit of a temporary alliance of convenience, even though he knows he would be the first suspect should a chemical or biological weapon be used in a terrorist attack.

How much more likely would he or some of his underlings be to transfer weapons to terrorists if the war were going badly and they knew they were about to lose or die?

Or how much more likely would it be, in the chaos of war, especially war in which the Iraqis are in the midst of being routed, that terrorists or terrorist sympathizers could gain access to chemical or biological weapons that are normally fairly well guarded?

Or how possible might it be that some Iraqi officers, seeing that the war is going badly, would snatch some nasty weapons and head for the remoter parts of the desert either planning to organize guerrilla resistance against U.S. occupation or to hook up later with some terrorist groups and exact revenge?

The assumption behind all these scenarios is that from a strictly military standpoint the war goes rather well for the United States and we gain a relatively swift and decisive military victory.

Yet a strong case can be made that in terms of the kinds of things some Americans seek to fix through war - terrorist attacks, use of nasty weapons, proliferation of such weapons to terrorist groups - the world would be a more dangerous place for America and its interests (however defined) because of the war.


There's also the question of stability in the Middle East, a notably volatile part of the world.

The grand dream of many pundits - see Michael Ledeen, Paul Wolfowitz, Bill Kristol, Fred Barnes, the Weekly Standard magazine, the Wall Street Journal editorial page - is that the United States wins the war with Iraq and imposes or facilitates a relatively democratic and decent regime, paying for it all with future oil revenues.

The best-case scenario is that other countries, inspired by the success of the Iraqi model, follow it through peaceful means and establish benign democracies and a peaceful and prosperous Middle East.

The somewhat less-best-case would be to take Iraq and then look for the next target of opportunity, whether Iran, Syria or Saudi Arabia, that could be pushed toward democracy with only a little military impetus from the Sole Superpower.

Either of these scenarios strikes me as implausible. More plausible would be increased fundamentalist activity in certain regimes and a long period of bloody conflict that might well threaten Israel in ways the current Intifada could never do. And there's the pesky question of whether democracy would yield stable, peaceful pro-Western states or fundamentalist regimes.

A fundamentalist party (though fairly moderate and benign just now) won the recent elections in Turkey. Fundamentalists won in Algeria (leading to invalidating the election) through democratic means a few years ago. It seems at least as possible that genuine democracy (however unlikely) throughout the Middle East would lead to more fundamentalist regimes than to regimes friendly to the United States and eager to live in peace with Israel.

Would a war make everything worse? Perhaps not. But a strong case can be made that it would make almost all the current and potential problems that now serve as psychological and emotional justification for war worse - and by a lot rather than a little.

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