Proceed With Caution

Proceed With Caution

James Fallows argues that before getting ourselves into a war with Iraq, we must think long and hard about its possible consequences

On Monday night in his speech to the nation, President Bush laid out his case against Saddam Hussein, in the process nudging Congress toward authorizing the use of military force in Iraq. Only at the end of his speech did Bush allude to the burden the United States could be taking on if it were in fact to unseat Saddam. Bush said, "If military action is necessary, the United States and our allies will help the Iraqi people rebuild their economy, and create the institutions of liberty in a unified Iraq at peace with its neighbors." But what would rebuilding Iraq's economy and creating institutions of liberty really entail for the U.S.? Shouldn't questions about how extensively we might be involved in postwar Iraq be an integral part of the debate about whether to go to war? In "The Fifty-first State," The Atlantic's November cover story, James Fallows starts with the assumptions that we will go to war with Iraq and that we will win, and he follows with the question, What then?

Fallows, who spent the summer interviewing various experts on Iraq—from oil-company officials to diplomats to soldiers—distills their thoughts into a detailed prediction of what the defeat of Iraq would entail for the U.S. in the days, weeks, months, and years after the war. If the U.S. were to lead an attack against Iraq and depose Saddam, it would be predominantly responsible, in a country ravaged by war and potentially riven by ethnic strife, for everything from providing humanitarian aid and rebuilding infrastructure to keeping the peace, protecting Iraq's borders, and perhaps even helping to run the country. In other words, Fallows argues, "the claims on American resources and attention would be comparable to those of any U.S. state." Some believe that our involvement should extend even further. For many in the "war party"&mdashDonald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, et al.—part of the logic for overthrowing Saddam is that it could eventually lead to a liberal democratic regime in Iraq. But the effort and oversight required to achieve such a vision, if it's even possible, would be enormous.

The President said in his speech that "Some worry that a change of leadership in Iraq could create instability and make the situation worse. The situation could hardly get worse, for world security and for the people of Iraq." Bush could very well be right, but as Fallows points out, it is impossible to know what sort of events a war will set in motion.

No one who had accurately foreseen what World War I would bring could have rationally decided to let combat begin. The war meant the collapse of three empires, the Ottoman, the Austro-Hungarian, and the Russian; the cresting of another, the British; the eventual rise of Hitler in Germany and Mussolini in Italy; and the drawing of strange new borders from the eastern Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf, which now define the battlegrounds of the Middle East.

Fallows is not necessarily arguing against war with Iraq. But he emphasizes that if we do go to war, it should only be after all other options have been exhausted—and after deep, careful thought has been given to what we might be taking on.

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. We corresponded by e-mail.

—Katie Bacon

I was struck by the fact that a majority of the Iraq experts you asked—Arabists, oil-company officials, diplomats, scholars, policy experts, and many active-duty and retired soldiers—were against a pre-emptive war against Iraq. Also, among general citizens there seems to be a strong current of discontent about a possible war, not to mention the negative opinions in other parts of the world. Yet the Bush Administration seems to have created a sort of aura of inevitability about this. Why hasn't there been more vocal protest within the U.S.? In public-relations terms, how would you say the Administration has done in terms of maneuvering toward an attack?

The whole situation is changing so quickly that I should probably put a date-stamp on my answers to your questions. I'm writing on the day after President Bush's speech in Cincinnati, laying out the latest—and most careful—version of his case for action in Iraq. I almost wrote "laying out his case for war"—but this latest formulation was much less explicitly a call to arms than what we'd previously heard. This time, the President was making the case for a congressional resolution authorizing an attack. And part of his argument was, paradoxically, that the authorization would not mean that war itself was either "imminent or unavoidable." We have traveled quite a distance from the mood that prevailed earlier this year, in the spring and early summer. Until recently each step has taken us away from a sense of inevitability about the war. The strangest period was the "phony war" of the spring. That was when specific war plans were being leaked every couple of days to the newspapers. The news would be full of quite-detailed discussions of the merits of a preliminary bombing campaign, versus a big tank operation through the desert, versus an "inside-out" approach of parachuting troops right into Baghdad—but there was little or no political discussion about why and whether we should go to war. Then there was the equally strange "war within the party" phase, when the only serious discussion about the grounds for war occurred within the Republican Party. The Bush Administration had to deal with questions from its Sunbelt-conservative wing, as embodied by Dick Armey, and its respectable-establishmentarian wing, embodied by Brent Scowcroft. About this time, a few columnists and editorial writers also entered the fray—leaving out only the normal opposition party, the Democrats. Until about Labor Day, there was no reason to assume that the Administration would consult the United Nations about an attack—nor even, necessarily, that it would expose itself to a congressional debate over whether to authorize a pre-emptive strike. (Until recently, the Administration claimed with a straight face that any steps it took were covered by the votes in 1990 authorizing the Gulf War. There were specific truce terms Iraq was supposed to obey after that war; it was violating them; QED.) Whatever happens from now on, I think the country is far better off because the Administration has been forced to consult and make a case. The Administration will be better off in the long run, too. The biggest fear of the military officials I interviewed was that the U.S. would undertake this operation "naked," with no allied countries except, perhaps, Britain. By going to the United Nations, the U.S. practically guarantees that there will be some international cover for whatever it ends up doing. (Why? Because the UN will end up recommending something that at least some other countries can go along with.) And by going to Congress, the Administration honors the letter and spirit of the Constitution—and provides itself tremendous political cover. This war cannot be as neat and tidy as the wars the U.S. has fought since Vietnam, and the Administration will be grateful to have gotten Democratic compliance.

It seems like the left, both within Congress and outside it, has not been terribly successful in formulating a case against attacking Iraq. Why do you think this is?

This has been a very bad period for the Democratic Party, in my view. I say that as one who has swung to a cautious view about the war, as I'll explain further in a moment. But my point is not just that I wish the opposition party had pressed the Administration harder on the basic wisdom of its course. I think we've seen something like a political market failure during the war "debate," which I would explain this way: Many Democratic politicians are personally skeptical about the need for, or the wisdom of, a pre-emptive strike on Iraq. (What's my evidence? Apart from interviews, it would be the fact that virtually none of them were recommending this course before the Administration started pushing it.) But until late September, when Al Gore made his controversial speech in California, virtually no mainstream Democratic politician frontally debated the premises of war policy. Why were the Democrats quiet? Two reasons, in my view. First, they are chronically afraid of being called weak on defense, or unpatriotic, so opposing Iraq seemed like a dangerous stand to make. Second, the mid-term elections are coming up. Those elections will make an enormous difference, especially the eight or ten close races that will determine control of the Senate. The economy is in bad shape; the Democrats believe that pointing out economic problems is a better campaign strategy than opposing the war; and so they wanted to get the war out of the headlines by passing a resolution with minimal delay. Their campaign strategists are quite open in talking about this approach. It makes tactical sense for the party, and there is a certain strategic wisdom to it—if you grant that control of the Senate is almost as important as matters of war and peace. Still, to me it's almost as important—not actually as important. And the Democrats' strategy has denied the country a chance to have as serious a debate as it should before making this kind of decision. The latest polls I've seen suggest that public support for the war is much, much thinner than support from Democrats in Congress. Maybe this means the people in Congress are privy to all sorts of secret information. But maybe not. What is your take on how the press has been covering this story? (There's been a bit of a furor over whether The New York Times's coverage has been slanted left.)

I don't buy the complaints about The Times. The complaints seem to me a skillful application of the political tactic of "Mau-mauing." That is, if you know you're vulnerable on an issue, you pre-emptively make fun of your opponent for stressing that predictable issue. This was what Reagan did with his famous "there he goes again!" line about Jimmy Carter in their debate in 1980. It is what the Clinton "war room" did in 1992, saying how "pathetic" and "desperate" it was when the elder George Bush's campaign criticized Clinton's draft record. If James Carville were working for the current Administration, he'd probably be knocking The Times, too.

You note that the military veterans you spoke with were "generally doves." Isn't it usually the case that the military is against the idea of invading, and has to be pushed into it by the Administration? Do you sense a greater reluctance on the military's part now than in the case of, say, Kosovo, Haiti, or the Gulf War?

There are some fascinating and also troubling currents swirling around here. They all involve the fact that the uniformed military constitutes the largest source of institutional skepticism about any attack. This is certainly different from, say, General William Westmoreland during Vietnam, or General Curtis LeMay during the 1950s, when he advocated pre-emptive nuclear strikes against the Soviet Union. I think there are three similar-sounding but different things going on here. The first, and least relevant, is the overhang of the "Powell doctrine." The U.S. military considered itself the real victim of the Vietnam War. Soldiers whose formative experience was in that war—Norman Schwarzkopf, Colin Powell—came out of it with a clear "never again!" determination. "Again," in this sense, meant being sent into difficult circumstances without a clear idea of how to get out. Before the Army would go to war again, it would want be sure that the political leadership would take the heat for the decision, that the odds were on our side, and that you could see a clear path to decisive victory. Obviously this wouldn't apply in a war of survival, after another Pearl Harbor. But in contingencies short of that, the Powell doctrine indicated a kind of institutional caution. There is almost no one left in the military with first-hand memory of Vietnam. The Powell doctrine, therefore, is not as acute a memory or as compelling an issue as it was during the Gulf War—when, again, the senior commanders had all been young officers in Vietnam. But members of the "war party" have been suggesting that something similar to, but worse than, the Powell doctrine lies behind the evident caution in the military. You could think of this as "McClellanism"—after the Union Army's General George McClellan, whose notorious caution in engaging the Confederate Army so frustrated Abraham Lincoln. This is the significance of the frequent references by pro-war writers to the book Supreme Command by Eliot Cohen, of Johns Hopkins. That book is a history of the cases in which political leaders viewed military officials the way Lincoln did McClellan: as hyper-cautious officials whose prudence had become passivity, and who never saw an enemy they wanted to fight. No politician can publicly say that a general is a Nervous Nellie, but that's the implication of a number of recent pro-war columns and articles. If the generals don't want to fight, that's because they just want to have the troops rather than use them. I think that second view is unfair to most of the military. The officials I interviewed were hesitant about the war mainly because they, unlike the civilians, were obliged to think through the consequences. A columnist could write about a "lightning strike" or "quick regime change with precision weapons." The military commander would have to think: okay, how exactly do we get these people across the border? How exposed are our supply lines? How many people will we have killed through "collateral damage" in taking Baghdad? What do we do with them? And on through a thousand other questions that a politician need not be bothered with. This is also why it makes so much difference to the U.S. military whether they have allies in this fight. Everything becomes easier if there is someone else to do the work—not so much the work of fighting, where the U.S. excels, but the tedious (and at the same time dangerous) policing afterwards. At the simplest level, if there is any allied Arabic country to do the policing, they will have a vastly easier time dealing with an Arab-speaking, Islamic population in Iraq than would the (mainly) non-Islamic, (almost totally) non-Arabic-speaking American Army.

In The Atlantic's October 2001 cover story, William Langewiesche wrote about the enormous strain placed on the U.S. military by deploying merely 4,000 troops to Bosnia every six months. Estimates of how many peacekeepers would be needed in Iraq range from 50,000 to 75,000. How worried is the military about the potential for long-term involvement in Iraq? What about those who are outside the military but familiar with the level of strain it can handle?

The U.S. military is simultaneously capable of anything, and terribly over-committed and over-stressed. The weapons can deal with any foe, but there are not enough people to go around, at least not the way they're organized and deployed now. If the U.S. wants to make a serious long-term commitment to Iraq, the people are going to have to come from somewhere—either current deployments in Germany or Japan, or some new way of attracting recruits. (I view a draft as a political impossibility.)

You write that since Vietnam, the military has moved "toward a definition of its role in strictly martial terms," and that officers often describe their mission as "killing people and blowing things up." But aren't they aggressively defining themselves as strictly warriors specifically because they've often been asked to take on other tasks in recent years? Would their potential mission in postwar Iraq be different in kind from what they've been asked to do in other countries?

Exactly: they are defining their role more narrowly now, because, from the military's point of view, the broad definitions in the past have often backfired or blown up. The problem is that the United States is moving toward a broader definition of its goals in Iraq. Not simply destroying weapons facilities, and indeed not simply killing or removing Saddam Hussein, but potentially (in the view of many war advocates) helping Iraq become the first liberal democracy of the Arab Islamic world. That's a long-term effort, and not strictly a military one. If the U.S. is to undertake it, someone will have to be in charge of it—and at least in the short term, the military is the one source of power on the scene.

You quote people in the war party as seeing regime change in Iraq as a golden opportunity to create the first democracy in the Arab world, an opportunity akin to when the Soviet Union fell. After a war, when they're faced with the nuts-and-bolts work necessary to establish a democracy, do you think they'll be as enthusiastic as they appear now?

The safe bet is, No. The question is, How far will we be committed by the very nature and momentum of invasion? Certainly our presence in Afghanistan will last longer than most people foresaw a year ago, as the bombing began.

How do you think the idealists in the war party would react to Robert Kaplan's suggestion that our goal in Iraq should be a "transitional secular dictatorship… that may in time, after the rebuilding of institutions and the economy, lead to a democratic alternative"?

In the last month, this theme has become more and more the leitmotif of the war party. It has some latent contradiction with President Bush's most recent arguments. When he says that the weapons problem could conceivably be resolved without war, he is envisioning an alternative in which the U.S. would not end up in control of Iraq's territory and government. It would be hard to make Iraq a laboratory of democracy without first making it an occupied state. But Bush's main logic is that war is necessary, and I think more and more we'll hear the accompanying claim that it can also be beneficial in the idealistic ways that Bob Kaplan described.

As you were working on the article, did you find yourself gravitating toward the viewpoint of one group more than the other on the question of whether we should invade Iraq?

The cast of mind of the cautious military officials is the one that seemed most sensible to me. Showdowns, even wars, are sometimes inevitable. John Kennedy had to draw a line with the Soviet Union in 1962. It may eventually become clear that the U.S. has to draw a line by removing Saddam Hussein from power. My purpose in writing this article was to provide a clear-eyed look at exactly what we could expect in those circumstances. It is implicitly an argument for trying other measures first. And it may even be that if we try other measures, including building an alliance and pressing for more effective inspections, we would be in better shape if the alternatives failed and we finally must attack. In that case, we'd be more likely to do it with allies and international legitimacy, which would make the whole aftermath less difficult.