Don't Attack Saddam
It would undermine our antiterror efforts.
BY BRENT SCOWCROFT
OpinionJournal from The Wall Street Journal (Editorial Page)
Thursday, August 15, 2002 12:01 a.m. EDT
Our nation is presently engaged in a debate about whether to launch a
war against Iraq. Leaks of various strategies for an attack on Iraq
appear with regularity. The Bush administration vows regime change,
but states that no decision has been made whether, much less when, to
launch an invasion.
It is beyond dispute that Saddam Hussein is a menace. He terrorizes
and brutalizes his own people. He has launched war on two of his
neighbors. He devotes enormous effort to rebuilding his military
forces and equipping them with weapons of mass destruction. We will
all be better off when he is gone.
That said, we need to think through this issue very carefully. We need
to analyze the relationship between Iraq and our other pressing
priorities--notably the war on terrorism--as well as the best strategy
and tactics available were we to move to change the regime in Baghdad.
Saddam's strategic objective appears to be to dominate the Persian
Gulf, to control oil from the region, or both.
That clearly poses a real threat to key U.S. interests. But there is
scant evidence to tie Saddam to terrorist organizations, and even less
to the Sept. 11 attacks. Indeed Saddam's goals have little in common
with the terrorists who threaten us, and there is little incentive for
him to make common cause with them.
He is unlikely to risk his investment in weapons of mass destruction,
much less his country, by handing such weapons to terrorists who would
use them for their own purposes and leave Baghdad as the return
address. Threatening to use these weapons for blackmail--much less
their actual use--would open him and his entire regime to a
devastating response by the U.S. While Saddam is thoroughly evil, he
is above all a power-hungry survivor.
Saddam is a familiar dictatorial aggressor, with traditional goals for
his aggression. There is little evidence to indicate that the United
States itself is an object of his aggression. Rather, Saddam's problem
with the U.S. appears to be that we stand in the way of his ambitions.
He seeks weapons of mass destruction not to arm terrorists, but to
deter us from intervening to block his aggressive designs.
Given Saddam's aggressive regional ambitions, as well as his
ruthlessness and unpredictability, it may at some point be wise to
remove him from power. Whether and when that point should come ought
to depend on overall U.S. national security priorities. Our pre-eminent
security priority--underscored repeatedly by the president--is the war
on terrorism. An attack on Iraq at this time would seriously
jeopardize, if not destroy, the global counterterrorist campaign we
The United States could certainly defeat the Iraqi military and
destroy Saddam's regime. But it would not be a cakewalk. On the
contrary, it undoubtedly would be very expensive--with serious
consequences for the U.S. and global economy--and could as well be
bloody. In fact, Saddam would be likely to conclude he had nothing
left to lose, leading him to unleash whatever weapons of mass
destruction he possesses.
Israel would have to expect to be the first casualty, as in 1991 when
Saddam sought to bring Israel into the Gulf conflict. This time, using
weapons of mass destruction, he might succeed, provoking Israel to
respond, perhaps with nuclear weapons, unleashing an Armageddon in the
Middle East. Finally, if we are to achieve our strategic objectives in
Iraq, a military campaign very likely would have to be followed by a
large-scale, long-term military occupation.
But the central point is that any campaign against Iraq, whatever the
strategy, cost and risks, is certain to divert us for some indefinite
period from our war on terrorism. Worse, there is a virtual consensus
in the world against an attack on Iraq at this time. So long as that
sentiment persists, it would require the U.S. to pursue a virtual go-it-alone
strategy against Iraq, making any military operations correspondingly
more difficult and expensive. The most serious cost, however, would be
to the war on terrorism. Ignoring that clear sentiment would result in
a serious degradation in international cooperation with us against
terrorism. And make no mistake, we simply cannot win that war without
enthusiastic international cooperation, especially on intelligence.
Possibly the most dire consequences would be the effect in the region.
The shared view in the region is that Iraq is principally an obsession
of the U.S. The obsession of the region, however, is the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict. If we were seen to be turning our backs on that bitter
conflict--which the region, rightly or wrongly, perceives to be
clearly within our power to resolve--in order to go after Iraq, there
would be an explosion of outrage against us. We would be seen as
ignoring a key interest of the Muslim world in order to satisfy what
is seen to be a narrow American interest.
Even without Israeli involvement, the results could well destabilize
Arab regimes in the region, ironically facilitating one of Saddam's
strategic objectives. At a minimum, it would stifle any cooperation on
terrorism, and could even swell the ranks of the terrorists.
Conversely, the more progress we make in the war on terrorism, and the
more we are seen to be committed to resolving the Israel-Palestinian
issue, the greater will be the international support for going after
If we are truly serious about the war on terrorism, it must remain our
top priority. However, should Saddam Hussein be found to be clearly
implicated in the events of Sept. 11, that could make him a key
counterterrorist target, rather than a competing priority, and
significantly shift world opinion toward support for regime change.
In any event, we should be pressing the United Nations Security
Council to insist on an effective no-notice inspection regime for Iraq--any
time, anywhere, no permission required. On this point, senior
administration officials have opined that Saddam Hussein would never
agree to such an inspection regime. But if he did, inspections would
serve to keep him off balance and under close observation, even if all
his weapons of mass destruction capabilities were not uncovered. And
if he refused, his rejection could provide the persuasive casus belli
which many claim we do not now have. Compelling evidence that Saddam
had acquired nuclear-weapons capability could have a similar effect.
In sum, if we will act in full awareness of the intimate
interrelationship of the key issues in the region, keeping
counterterrorism as our foremost priority, there is much potential for
success across the entire range of our security interests--including
Iraq. If we reject a comprehensive perspective, however, we put at
risk our campaign against terrorism as well as stability and security
in a vital region of the world.
Mr. Scowcroft, national security adviser under President Gerald Ford
and George H.W. Bush, is founder and president of the Forum for