The U.S. may well be moving toward launching the first major pre-emptive war in its history. If the U.S. does go to war with Iraq, it will not be because of any recent Iraqi act of aggression, evidence of Iraqi terrorism, or Iraqi conventional military build-up — the U.N. embargo has deprived Iraq of any major arms imports for more than a decade. It will go to war because Iraq is led by a tyrant who is too dangerous to tolerate by containment and because he is covertly building up his capability to deliver chemical and biological weapons, and may be able to acquire nuclear weapons.
Regardless of whether we say so publicly, we will do so because he sits at the center of a region with more than 60 percent of all the world's oil reserves.The choice to go war will be a difficult one. We face a real and steadily worsening threat from Saddam in an area of critical strategic interest to our security and the global economy. At the same time, we should have no comforting illusions. We may be able to intimidate and pressure a critical minimum of regional states to give us basing rights and some support. These include Turkey, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar. We may get access to Saudi airspace. However, we will have only one real military ally — Britain. This time, it will be a coalition of two, not 21.
It will also be a coalition with little regional popular support and great popular anger. We are Israel's closest ally, and we are held broadly responsible for much of the Palestinian suffering in the Second Intifada, throughout the region and the entire Arab world.
A war against Saddam Hussein's regime may prove to be easier than many estimate. Tyrannies do collapse with little resistance and warning. Only fools, however, bet the lives of other men's sons and daughters on an easy war or a "cakewalk." Tyrannies like Nazi Germany and Josef Stalin's Russia fought all too well. The same Iraq that rushed its forces out of Kuwait fought for eight hard years against Iran, and with the support of much of its Kurdish and Shi'ite population. The Iraq opposition may be well intended, but it hasn't had military experience like that of our Afghan allies, it possesses little proven internal support, and seems no more effective than the White Russians of the 1930s.
It may well be possible to succeed by striking quickly at Saddam in Baghdad, Tikrit, and a small number of loyal towns and cities. "Possible," however, is not "certainty," and Iraqi forces are no speed bump. Although Iraq's forces have many serious defects, Iraq remains the most effective military power in the Gulf, despite the Gulf war, and the loss of some 40 percent of its army and air force order of battle.
Iraq still has armed forces with around 424,000 men, and an inventory of some 2,200 main battle tanks, 3,700 other armored vehicles, and 2,400 major artillery weapons. It has more than 300 combat aircraft with potential operational status. There are another 120,000 men in Saddam's various security forces, and he has a massive mix of bodyguards, Special Republican Guards, and heavy Republican Guards divisions from loyal clans and tribes that defend his power base in Baghdad and Tikrit.
We can afford to send some of our forces home unused; we cannot afford to bet the lives of our soldiers and victory on anything but decisive force.Will such a war really be worth the cost? Possibly. No one can predict today whether the butcher's bill for such a war will be astoundingly low or all too high. The only thing that is predictable is that Iraq will become a steadily more dangerous proliferator so long as Saddam is alive.
There is, however, one thing of which we can be certain. There will be no true victory unless we make a firm national commitment to rebuild a moderate Iraq of the kind that Iraqis inside Iraq want, rather than simply defeat Saddam.If we go to war, it will be out of morally ambiguous strategic calculations that involve serious uncertainties. We cannot change this reality. It is clear we can win if we are willing to commit decisive force, and probably with limited U.S., allied and Iraqi losses. However, military victory is not enough. Ultimately, we will be judged and judge ourselves by our commitment to helping the Iraqi people win the peace.
"Nation building" may be a dirty phrase among some Bush advisers, but the war in Afghanistan has shown they simply are terribly wrong. We must not go to war relying on strategic fantasies. Self-appointed opposition leaders, with no clear following inside Iraq, should not be imposed upon its people. Saying that any leader is better than Saddam, and leaving Iraq to its equivalent of Afghan warlords, and/or saddled with a massive debt and wartime reparations bill because of Saddam is an act of moral and ethical cowardice. Doing nothing to ensure nationwide internal security and stability while Iraq's divided Sunnis, Shi'ites, Kurds and Turkmen find a lasting political solution to their divisions and rivalries is simply dishonorable.
This does not mean occupation in the sense of imposing our will. It does mean peacekeeping for as long as it takes for a strong Iraqi government to emerge — even if this takes years. It means showing the Arab and Islam worlds that we will not profiteer in any way from our victory, will provide aid, and will persuade the world to forgive past debts and reparations. It means long diplomatic and advisory efforts — working with as many regional allies as possible — to help the Iraqis find their own solution to democracy, pluralism, human rights and the rule of law. If we fail in this mission, we will have thrown away every life lost in the war, created an even more unstable and dangerous Middle East, and lost our honor as a nation.
• Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He is the author of a recent dynamic net assessment of Iraqi military capabilities, which can be downloaded at www.csis.org, and of "Iraq and the War of Sanctions," Praeger, 1999.
(c) Washington Times