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A Dangerous Tyrant, a Hellish Fear: The U.S. Didn't Have an Alternative

March 20, 2003|Kenneth M. Pollack

The war we have just begun is absolutely necessary for the security of the United States, the stability of the world and the good of the Iraqi people.

Saddam Hussein is a brutal and dangerous tyrant, and his behavior during 24 years as president of Iraq gives little reason to believe that he can be deterred in the future, especially after he has acquired nuclear weapons -- a goal to which he remains absolutely committed.

He has been responsible for the deaths of as many as 1 million Iraqis. He has attacked five Middle Eastern states and threatened others. He refuses to comply with 17 U.N. Security Council resolutions. He has openly talked of his desire to turn Iraq into a new superpower and dominate the region by force.

Today, no government doubts that Hussein continues to develop weapons of mass destruction. The only debate is over what to do about it.

What's more, we simply do not have any other realistic options to deal with him. The only reason that Hussein provided even partial cooperation to U.N. inspectors was because 225,000 American troops were massed on his doorstep. Containment has failed.

But war is a complicated and difficult business. The Bush administration's success at reducing the costs and risks of war have been mixed. The war is not ill advised, but the administration has made mistakes that have raised the risk that the U.S. will face serious problems in the years ahead, particularly for our longer-term foreign policy interests in the Middle East and around the world.

First, war with Iraq has proved to be a distraction from the war on terrorism: Intelligence assets, linguists, analysts and special forces teams are all being diverted from Al Qaeda-related missions to Iraq. Moreover, the war on terrorism relies on nations cooperating in a global intelligence and law enforcement campaign. Now that the U.S. has made Iraq its highest priority, key countries are backsliding on those efforts.

The Bush administration's diplomatic moves to fashion a coalition for war with Iraq were generally poor. The administration began on the right foot by trying to win U.N. support but made a terrible tactical mistake by placing all of its eggs in the basket of the inspections. The myth was that either Hussein would not cooperate -- in which case the U.S. would have a clear "smoking gun" and could mount a large coalition for war -- or he would comply and be disarmed. Instead, he hid his weapons successfully.

In addition, the administration came off as arrogant and bullying. That's why Security Council members like Mexico and Chile -- which should have been easy to bring on board -- have resisted Washington's efforts, as much out of pique as principle. The administration also failed to recognize the importance of restarting negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians as it built a coalition, a mistake it has only recently attempted to remedy -- but it's too little, too late.

In other areas, the administration has done a better job. It has handled Turkish-Kurdish differences effectively, by persuading the Kurds not to take unilateral actions to secure a new Kurdish state and simultaneously convincing Ankara to limit its involvement in northern Iraq and to accept limited Kurdish self-determination within a new Iraqi state.

War will create instability in Jordan, and the Bush administration handled this situation well, reportedly securing the agreement of the Gulf Cooperation Council states to make up for lost Iraqi oil and promising to provide Jordan with roughly $1 billion in aid to offset trade disruptions.

On plans for postwar reconstruction, the administration deserves mixed marks. The administration has wisely learned from its experience in Afghanistan and has promised a massive, long-term reconstruction effort in Iraq to build democracy from the grass roots up. But it hasn't yet agreed to place reconstruction efforts under the United Nations, which would help assuage Arab fears that Washington intends to colonize Iraq or install a U.S.-friendly dictator.

Ultimately, if the war and its aftermath are successful -- with low casualties, a grateful Iraqi population, the discovery of hidden weapons and the creation of a stable, prosperous, pluralist Iraq -- all may be forgiven. But if the war goes poorly, the United States could face a very difficult future.


Kenneth M. Pollack, a former Persian Gulf analyst for the CIA, is director of research at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and author of "The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq" (Random House, 2002).

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