The mother of all terrorism battles

A growing chorus is calling for Saddam Hussein's head. But experts disagree on whether a U.S. assault on Baghdad is worth the high risks.

Published November 30, 2001 12:01AM (EST)

Will Saddam Hussein's regime be the next military target in the Bush administration's war on terrorism? "That's the question on everybody's lips: What comes after Afghanistan?" says Thomas Donnelly, deputy director of the Project for the New American Century, a conservative foreign-policy think tank.

The drumbeat for another U.S. war with Iraq -- to finish the senior Bush's incomplete mission in the Persian Gulf War -- has been growing louder each day, in media circles as well as within the administration. The pro-war bandwagon includes hawkish officials like Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, as well as Iraqi dissidents, former United Nations arms control officials who tried unsuccessfully to stop Saddam's weapons buildup, conservative pundits and members of the Israel lobby. Even Secretary of State Colin Powell, who has been the administration's leading voice of caution, has begun rattling sabers, warning that Saddam should take very seriously President Bush's demand to let arms inspectors back into his country or suffer the consequences. The Iraqi leader "should see [Bush's statement] as a very sober, chilling message," Powell told CNN's Larry King on Tuesday.

Veteran foreign-policy watchers have trouble recalling anything quite like today's rising clamor for war. "I can't really think of a contemporary situation where there's been quite so much excitement," says Paul Saunders, director of the Nixon Center, a foreign-policy think tank in Washington.

Coupled with the president's ambitious rhetoric about wiping out terrorism and its sponsors throughout the world, the anti-Saddam fervor gives President Bush little choice but to turn up the heat on the Iraqi dictatorship. To ignore Baghdad, says Donnelly, would be a costly error in judgment. "He's a bad guy and getting worse. He's trying desperately to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Once he does, the opportunity to change the regime in Iraq becomes much more dodgy."

Donnelly and other hawks tick off Saddam's crimes: He plotted to assassinate former President George Bush, invaded neighboring countries, sponsored terrorism in the region and very likely against the U.S., gassed Iranian troops as well as Kurds and Shiites in his own country, relentlessly pursued the development of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and refuses to let in United Nations arms inspectors. "One can go on and on listing the reasons," says Donnelly. "It's almost hard to think of any defense."

There is no proof at this point that Saddam was behind the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the U.S., but Donnelly says that doesn't matter. "Even if you eliminate Sept. 11 from the calculus, the case against Iraq is pretty overwhelming."

But critics say the calls for Saddam's head, without either hard evidence of involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks or support from an international coalition, border on warmongering.

"I don't think there's any other way to describe it," says Scott Ritter, a former Marine major and one of the most gung-ho U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq. "I'm concerned as an American. I don't like what I'm seeing."

Experts suggest the president will have to make a decision about Iraq in a matter of weeks, in order to begin making his case publicly and to give the military time to plan its attack. It could be the most important choice of Bush's political career, according to former Republican presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan. "The decision he's going to make will define his presidency," Buchanan recently told the Fox News Channel.

The stakes couldn't be higher. Proponents envision a successful mission which would overthrow a bellicose and blood-spattered tyrant, liberate the Iraqi people, eliminate a grave threat to neighboring countries as well as to American security, and open up a largely untapped oil reserve to Western trade. A new Baghdad regime "could change the peace process and all kinds of things in the region. It's worth taking some risks for," says Charles Duelfer, former deputy chairman of the United Nations Special Commission, created in 1991 to insure that Iraq's chemical, nuclear and biological weapons were destroyed. "But the question," adds Duelfer, "is how much risk?"

So far, war proponents have not offered a satisfying reply to this question. Any military strike aimed at eliminating the Iraqi regime is certain to have costs that are higher than the Persian Gulf War. A cornered Saddam would likely use any doomsday weapons at his disposal, including the biological and chemical arms he has managed to secretly stockpile. Casualties among invading troops and Iraq's population are likely to be significant. And the political repercussions in the Arab world from the second U.S. assault in a row on an Islamic country could be severe, with unfortunate consequences for our allies in the region.

Critics of the administration's war fever are particularly concerned about the White House's apparent obliviousness to international opinion. Even Bush's staunchest ally in the Afghanistan war, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, has warned against extending the conflict to Iraq. Says Ritter, author of "Endgame: Solving the Iraq Problem -- Once and For All," "The administration codified in advance its position regardless of the facts. It's seeking to use the military to pursue ideological objectives, to remove Saddam Hussein without regard to international law. I've never seen anything like it." As a weapons inspector, Ritter was one of Saddam's sharpest critics. But in recent years he's changed his tune, speaking out against the U.N. sanctions and urging a peaceful settlement with Iraq. This flip-flop has earned him the title of "Saddam Hussein's American apologist" from the conservative Weekly Standard.

In addition to Blair, the leaders of Russia, France, Germany, Canada, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, among other allies, have also spoken out recently against a U.S. war on Iraq. But American war lobbyists are undeterred. "It would be great to have as broad a coalition as possible," says Donnelly, who recently penned a call to arms against Iraq in the Weekly Standard and has emerged as a leading advocate for the hawks. "But if these guys don't want to play, then so be it. We have a right to do this in self-defense and they can't physically prevent us from doing it."

But a go-it-alone strategy would be doomed, insists Ritter. "If we go down this path alone we will fail. Even during the Cold War we had NATO. We didn't think about confronting China or North Korea without talking to Japan or South Korea. We always had a foundation of international support. Today, there's no basis of support anywhere around the world for regime-changing in Iraq."

"It seems like international disapproval is being registered clearly," adds Kathy Kelly, co-coordinator of Voices in the Wilderness, an advocacy group that's been fighting to lift the U.N. sanctions against Iraq, which have been in place since the Gulf War.

Even Arab leaders who have no use for Saddam are nonetheless reluctant to have him removed, simply because of the political risks the unknown could bring. They know the Iraqi dictator is an enemy, but they view him as an essentially predictable, containable one. "Everybody's afraid of the territorial integrity of Iraq breaking up," notes Chris Toensing, editor of the Middle East Report. "Turkey, in particular, is nervous about a post-Saddam Iraq because of the Kurdish issue; Turkey doesn't want a Kurdish state on its eastern flank."

Russian opposition to Bush's war plans should be of particular concern, say critics. Russian President Vladimir Putin has been cozying up to Saddam recently, thanks to the billions of dollars to be made in Iraq. Saddam's regime owes Russia $8 billion, which would serve as a welcome shot to the country's sagging economy. But the Soviet-era debts will be difficult to pay back if Iraq is being stormed by American troops and tanks.

In addition, 200 Russian businesses attended a Baghdad International Fair last month, and trade volume between the two countries now stands at $4 billion. To keep ties close, Iraq recently awarded Russia exclusive rights to develop the largest oil fields in the Middle East, once U.N. sanctions are lifted. At the same time, Russia's faltering arms dealers are anxious to do business with Iraq.

"Russia's military industrial complex would be categorically against" an attack on Iraq, says Michael McFaul, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. That opposition is key, since Putin has recently received sharp criticism at home from nationalistic hardliners for his willingness to embrace the West's war on terrorism.

The bottom line, says McFaul, is that while there is no love lost for the Iraqi dictator inside the Kremlin, "nobody in Russia categorizes Saddam Hussein as a terrorist."

Saunders at the Nixon Center agrees: "They know we don't like Saddam Hussein. But the Russians don't really see a particular reason to be launching a new attack on him now."

But hawks like Donnelly insist that Bush should not be dissuaded by our foreign friends, even those who have come to our aid against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. "We should be challenging France and Russia, 'Why are you defending a regime that gassed its own people?'"

Testifying last month before a congressional hearing on Iraq, Gary Milhollin, an expert on Saddam's doomsday arsenal, echoed that sentiment. Ridiculing Russia for "acting as Saddam Hussein's lawyer in the United Nations," he suggested that "we're going to have to put leading officials -- meaning the secretary of state, the president, the vice president -- out in public, and they're going to have to shame countries like Russia and France from the positions they're taking."

To date, however, the Russians have not budged on Iraq and the question might become, Would they actively object to an attack on Baghdad? As part of the post-Sept. 11 Bush-Putin pact, Russia currently allows American fighters to fly over its airspace. If that courtesy ended with regard to Iraq, the ban would likely extend to Uzbekistan as well, which has served as a crucial staging ground for the attacks against Afghanistan.

That may be key because even war proponents concede a strike against Saddam would certainly require assistance from other countries in the region, where troops and air facilities would have to be based. This cooperation is not likely to come from Saudi Arabia or Iran, or even Kuwait.

But anti-Saddam hawks say the U.S. could count on help from inside Iraq. "We'd have to expect larger causalities than we've gotten used to recently," predicts Donnelly, who suggests the actual fighting would last just a few weeks. "But Hussein continues to be hated by a substantial number, if not the majority, of the Iraqi people. There's reason to believe people would sell him out."

Kelly, who agrees the Iraqi people would be better off without Saddam, doubts that scenario. She notes the United States has little credibility among the Iraqi people, thanks to the decade-old sanctions which the Iraqi dictator has successfully manipulated to restrict the supply of food and medicine to his citizens, thereby creating a backlash against the U.S. effort. Many anti-Saddam Iraqis, notes Kelly, also have doubted America's commitment to their cause ever since the aftermath of the Gulf War when President Bush's father failed to support the domestic uprising against the dictator that he had called for, with disastrous consequences for the rebels.

"I don't see any rational reason why the Iraqi people would feel trust towards the United States government," says Kelly. "In fact, there's the possibility that the younger Iraqi generation feels a much more heightened sense of resentment towards the United States because they've grown up under the sanctions."

That resentment has spread throughout the Arab world. "Saddam Hussein has developed a following in the so-called Arab street rivaled only by Osama bin Laden. Who else is standing up to the United States? If you're judged by the size of your enemy, then he's doing pretty good," says Duelfer, currently a visiting scholar in the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

But as with bin Laden, that respect for Saddam may not run very deep among pious Muslims. After all, in an effort to curtail religious displays, the stridently secular dictator even bans beards in his country. "Saddam is not a high priority in the Arab world," says John Voll, professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown University. "The general population doesn't like to have non-Muslims bombing Muslims unless there's a good reason for it. So if the U.S. attacked Iraq, there would be a negative reaction in the streets, but not so negative that it would overthrow any regimes."

Critics suggest that the biggest problem with the hawks' military proposal is that nobody has any idea who would replace Saddam or what Iraq would look like under a new regime.

"There's no viable post-Saddam Hussein alternative," stresses Voll. "The Iraqi opposition that conservatives in America are talking about -- the Iraqi National Congress -- has no basis of support among the Kurds and Shiites," two crucial Iraqi minority groups. "They're an exiled elite with no political organization or troops on the ground at all."

In 1999, Foreign Affairs magazine suggested that arming the Iraqi National Congress was "militarily ludicrous."

And a Rand Institute report on a post-Saddam Iraq prepared this fall by Daniel Byman warned that while eliminating the dictator was clearly "desirable," such a scenario also carried grave risks. If Saddam were replaced by a more presentable crony, the report noted, Iraq could continue to build its doomsday arsenal while not arousing the world's concern. "Saddam's continuation in power has some surprising benefits," noted Byman. "First, Saddam's aggressiveness and outright evil have created a strong and broad consensus that Iraq must be contained to some degree ... Second, Saddam's incompetence as a general is matched only by his ineptitude as a diplomat. Any likely successor, even including those who share his aggressive ambitions, would likely be more skilled."

Donnelly concedes that the challenges might only begin with the dictator's removal. "One should have no illusion about the post-Saddam situation, and the difficulty in reconstructing a functioning and representative Iraqi state. But if our war on terrorism is to mean anything, it ought to include the elimination of Saddam Hussein and his regime from power."

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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Iraq Middle East Terrorism