What to Do About Iraq
From the January 21, 2002 issue: For the war on terrorism to succeed, Saddam Hussein must be removed.
ON ONE POINT, we agree with some of the critics. We doubt that the so-called "Afghanistan model" of airstrikes combined with very limited U.S. ground troops, and dependence on a proxy force, can be counted on as sufficient for Iraq. The United States should support Ahmad Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress--they are essential parts of any solution in Iraq. But we cannot count on the Iraqi opposition to win this war. Nor can we count on precision bombing and U.S. Special Forces alone to do the job. American ground forces in significant number are likely to be required for success in Iraq. At the least, we need to be prepared to use such forces, and for a number of reasons.
First, there is the special problem posed by Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. Any attack on Iraq must succeed quickly. There is no time to repeat the pattern in Afghanistan of trying a little of this and a little of that and seeing what works. In the Afghan war, it was a change of strategy after three weeks that eventually turned the tide against the Taliban. We don't have the luxury of early mistakes in Iraq. As soon as any attack begins, Saddam will be sorely tempted to launch a chemical or biological attack on one of his neighbors, probably Israel. Any U.S. attack will have to move with lightning speed to destroy or secure sites from which such an Iraqi strike could be launched.
But even then, as the Gulf War demonstrated, it is almost impossible to locate every Scud missile in the Iraqi desert before it is fired. A key element of American strategy must therefore aim at affecting the decision-making process of Saddam's top commanders in the field. Whether or not they carry out an order from Saddam to launch a chemical or biological weapon at Israel may depend on their perception of whether Saddam and his regime are likely to survive. If the size and speed of an American invasion make it clear, in the first hours, that Saddam is finished, an Iraqi commander may think twice before making himself an accomplice to Saddam's genocidal plans. We believe it is essential that the effort to remove Saddam not be a drawn-out affair.
American troops on the ground will be important for another reason. The best way to avoid chaos and anarchy in Iraq after Saddam is removed is to have a powerful American occupying force in place, with the clear intention of sticking around for a while. We have already begun to see the price of not having such a force in Afghanistan. In Iraq, even more than in Afghanistan, the task of nation-building will be crucial. We don't want a vacuum of power in Iraq. We don't want Iran playing games in Iraq. We don't want Turkey worried that it will be left alone to deal with the Kurdish question. The United States will have to make a long-term commitment to rebuilding Iraq, and that commitment cannot be fulfilled without U.S. troops on the ground.
Although we hear only about the risks of such action, the benefits could be very substantial. A devastating knockout blow against Saddam Hussein, followed by an American-sponsored effort to rebuild Iraq and put it on a path toward democratic governance, would have a seismic impact on the Arab world--for the better. The Arab world may take a long time coming to terms with the West, but that process will be hastened by the defeat of the leading anti-western Arab tyrant. Once Iraq and Turkey--two of the three most important Middle Eastern powers--are both in the pro-western camp, there is a reasonable chance that smaller powers might decide to jump on the bandwagon.
WE ARE AWARE that many will find all this too much to stomach. Ground forces? Occupation? Nation-building? Democratization and westernization in the Arab world? Can't we just continue to "contain" Saddam? Or can't we just drop some bombs, let the Iraqis fight it out, and then beat it home? The answer is, we can't. And if we haven't learned this much from September 11, then all that we lost on that day will have been lost in vain.
It is past time for the United States to step up and accept the real responsibilities and requirements of global leadership. We've already tried the alternative. During the 1990s, those who argued for limiting American involvement overseas, for avoiding the use of ground troops, for using force in a limited way and only as a last resort, for steering clear of nation-building, for exit strategies and burden-sharing--those who prided themselves on their prudence and realism--won the day. When the World Trade Center was attacked in 1993, when former President Bush was almost assassinated by Saddam Hussein in Kuwait, when bin Laden and al Qaeda bombed U.S. embassies and the USS Cole, the Clinton administration took the cautious approach. A few missile strikes here and there, a few sting operations. But when confronted with the choice of using serious force against al Qaeda, or really helping the Iraqi opposition and moving to drive Saddam Hussein from power, President Clinton and his top advisers flinched. And most Republicans put little sustained pressure on the Clilnton administration to act otherwise. The necessary actions were all deemed too risky. The administration, supported by most of the foreign policy establishment, took the "prudent" course. Only now we know that it was an imprudent course. The failure of the United States to take risks, and to take responsibility, in the 1990s paved the way to September 11.
It is a tough and dangerous decision to send American soldiers to fight and possibly die in Iraq. But it is more horrible to watch men and women leap to their deaths from flaming skyscrapers. If we fail to address the grave threats we know exist, what will we tell the families of future victims? That we were "prudent"?
The problem today is not just that failure to remove Saddam could someday come back to haunt us. At a more fundamental level, the failure to remove Saddam would mean that, despite all that happened on September 11, we as a nation are still unwilling to shoulder the responsibilities of global leadership, even to protect ourselves. If we turn away from the Iraq challenge--because we fear the use of ground troops, because we don't want the job of putting Iraq back together afterwards, because we would prefer not to be deeply involved in a messy part of the world--then we will have made a momentous and fateful decision. We do not expect President Bush to make that choice. We expect the president will courageously decide to destroy Saddam's regime. No step would contribute more toward shaping a world order in which our people and our liberal civilization can survive and flourish.
Robert Kagan is a contributing editor and William Kristol is editor of The Weekly Standard.