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?
-The Federation of American Scientists reports that Iraq possesses the equipment, the know-how, and the materials to produce "350 liters of weapons-grade anthrax" a week. In the five years before Desert Storm, Iraq produced 8,500 liters of anthrax and managed to place 6,500 liters in various munitions. We can only imagine how much anthrax Saddam Hussein may have at his disposal today.
NOR IS THERE any doubt that, after September 11, Saddam's weapons of mass destruction pose a kind of danger to us that we hadn't fully grasped before. In the 1990s, much of the complacency about Saddam, both in Washington and in Europe, rested on the assumption that he could be deterred. Saddam was not a madman, the theory went, and would not commit suicide by actually using the weapons he was so desperately trying to obtain. Some of us, it's true, had our doubts about this logic. The issue seemed to us not so much whether we could deter Saddam, but whether he could deter us: If Saddam had had nuclear weapons in 1991, would we have gone to war to drive him from Kuwait?
But after September 11, we have all been forced to consider another scenario. What if Saddam provides some of his anthrax, or his VX, or a nuclear device to a terrorist group like al Qaeda? Saddam could help a terrorist inflict a horrific attack on the United States or its allies, while hoping to shroud his role in the secrecy of cutouts and middlemen. How in the world do we deter that? To this day we don't know who provided the anthrax for the post-September 11 attacks. We may never know for sure.
What we do know is that Saddam is an ally to the world's terrorists and always has been. He has provided safe haven to the infamous Abu Nidal. Reliable reports from defectors and former U.N. weapons inspectors have confirmed the existence of a terrorist training camp in Iraq, complete with a Boeing 707 for practicing hijackings, and filled with non-Iraqi radical Muslims. We know, too, that Mohamed Atta, the ringleader of September11, went out of his way to meet with an Iraqi intelligence official a few months before he flew a plane into the World Trade Center. As Leon Fuerth understates, "There may well have been interaction between Mr. Hussein's intelligence apparatus and various terrorist networks, including that of Osama bin Laden."
SO THERE IS no debate about the facts. No one doubts the nature of the threat Saddam poses. Most even agree that, as former national security adviser Samuel R. Berger says, "the goal . . . should be getting rid of Saddam Hussein." Leon Fuerth recently wrote that Saddam "and his government must be ripped out of Iraq if we are ever to be secure and if the sufferings of the Iraqi people are ever to abate."
Tough talk from a Clintonista. But when it comes to actually doing something about Saddam, suddenly it's a different story. Fuerth, Berger, Madeleine Albright, and Tom Daschle and a host of other Democrats (with the increasingly notable and honorable exception of Joseph Lieberman) insist over and over again that no matter how much of a threat Saddam may pose, no matter how necessary it may be to "rip" him out of Iraq--nevertheless we should not do it.
Here is Daschle, in late December: "A strike against Iraq would be a mistake. It would complicate Middle Eastern diplomacy. . . . I think we have to keep the pressure on Iraq in a collective way, with our Arab allies. Unilateralism is a very dangerous concept. I don't think we should ever act unilaterally." What's more, the Iraq doves claim, removing Saddam would be a diversion from the war against al Qaeda, and the cure would be worse than the disease.
This is nonsense. It is almost impossible to imagine any outcome for the world both plausible and worse than the disease of Saddam with weapons of mass destruction. A fractured Iraq? An unsettled Kurdish situation? A difficult transition in Baghdad? These may be problems, but they are far preferable to leaving Saddam in power with his nukes, VX, and anthrax. As for the other arguments, the effort to remove Saddam from power would no more be a "diversion" from the war on al Qaeda than the fight against Hitler was a "diversion" from the fight against Japan. Can it really be that this great American superpower, much more powerful than in 1941, cannot fight on two fronts at the same time against dangerous but second-rate enemies?
And as for the issue of unilateral versus multilateral action, we would prefer that the United States act together with friends and allies in any attack on Iraq. We believe others will indeed join us if we demonstrate our serious intention to oust Saddam--the British and some other Europeans, as well as Turkey and other states in the Middle East. But whether they join us or not, there is too much at stake for us to be deterred by the pro forma objections of, say, Saudi Arabia or France.
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.