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What to Do About Iraq

From the January 21, 2002 issue: For the war on terrorism to succeed, Saddam Hussein must be removed.

Jan 21, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 18 • By ROBERT KAGAN and WILLIAM KRISTOL
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WHAT NEXT in the war on terrorism? We hear from many corners that it is still too early to ask this question. If you mention the word Iraq, respectable folks at the State Department and on the New York Times op-ed page get red-faced. After all, the mission in Afghanistan is not over. The destruction of Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda network is not finished. And even when these goals are accomplished, they say, we won't even begin to think about Iraq until we've taken care of Somalia, the Philippines, Yemen, Indonesia--and Antarctica, and the moon.

All this strikes us as an elaborate stratagem for avoiding the hard decision to confront Saddam Hussein. Yes, it is essential to capture bin Laden and destroy al Qaeda. It is necessary to stabilize Afghanistan and back a functioning government there. And, yes, we have to roll up the al Qaeda operations in other troublesome parts of the world.

But none of this precludes dealing with Iraq, or makes the obligation of dealing with Iraq less urgent. The United States can, after all, walk and chew gum at the same time. The Iraqi threat is enormous. It gets bigger with every day that passes. And it can't wait until we finish tying up all the "loose ends." For one thing, those loose ends are not just minor details. If bin Laden has left Central Asia, he'll be hard to find. Who knows how long it may take? Meanwhile, history moves on, and the clock is ticking in Iraq. If too many months go by without a decision to move against Saddam, the risks to the United States may increase exponentially. And after September 11, those risks are no longer abstract. Ultimately, what we do or do not do in the coming months about Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq will decisively affect our future security.

And it will determine more than that. Whether or not we remove Saddam Hussein from power will shape the contours of the emerging world order, perhaps for decades to come. Either it will be a world order conducive to our liberal democratic principles and our safety, or it will be one where brutal, well-armed tyrants are allowed to hold democracy and international security hostage. Not to take on Saddam would ensure that regimes implicated in terror and developing weapons of mass destruction will be a constant--and growing--feature of our world. Destroying Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda is, obviously, very important. Dealing with other sponsors of terrorism--Iran in particular--is crucial. But, in the near-future, Iraq is the threat and the supreme test of whether we as a nation have learned the lesson of September 11.

THE AMAZING THING about the current "debate" over Iraq is that no one disputes the nature of the threat. Everyone agrees that, as Al Gore's former national security adviser Leon Fuerth puts it, "Saddam Hussein is dangerous and likely to become more so," that he "is a permanent menace to his region and to the vital interests of the United States."

No one questions, furthermore, the basic facts about Saddam Hussein's weapons programs:

-According to U.N. weapons inspectors and western intelligence agencies, Iraq possesses the necessary components and technical knowledge to build nuclear bombs in the near future. A report prepared by the German intelligence services in December 2000, based on defectors' reports, satellite imagery, and aerial surveillance, predicted that Iraq will have three nuclear bombs by 2005. But that may be too optimistic. Before the Gulf War no one had a clue how far advanced Saddam's nuclear weapons program was. According to the Federation of American Scientists, even with an intrusive inspections regime, "Iraq might be able to construct a nuclear explosive before it was detected." Today, no one knows how close Saddam is to having a nuclear device. What we do know is that every month that passes brings him closer to the prize.

-The chemical weapon VX is the most toxic poison known to man. Ten milligrams--one drop--can kill a human being. In the mid-1990s, Iraq admitted producing VX in large quantities. When U.N. inspectors left Iraq at the end of 1998, they believed Iraq maintained 41 different sites capable of producing VX in a matter of weeks. They also believed Iraq possessed enough precursor materials to produce over 200 tons of the poison, enough to kill hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people. A year ago, U.S. officials told the New York Times that Iraq had rebuilt "a series of factories that the United States has long suspected of producing chemical and biological weapons." A year later, who knows how many of those factories are operational?