The Road Better Not Taken

A war against Iraq could be the most catastrophic blunder in U.S. history

The imminent U.S. attack on Iraq will be the first war in our history in which success is as fearful a prospect as failure. When we "win," our troubles will just begin. How we win will determine their gravity.

According to a recent CBS news report, the Pentagon plans to strike Baghdad with 300 cruise missiles in early March, to be followed twenty-four-hours later by 300 more. American land forces will ring Baghdad, holding it under siege while tank detachments probe into the city to engage Saddam's praetorian guard—this according to informed military analysts. We reserve the right to use nuclear weapons against the Iraqis should they attack our forces with chemical weapons, Andrew Card, the White House chief of staff, recently warned. The Pentagon says it might use nuclear weapons in any case, to blow up deep Iraqi bunkers. These leaks and statements may be a form of "psy-ops," calculated to foment a military coup to topple Saddam Hussein. If they do indicate how we will "win," however, then Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institute may be conservative in estimating that Gulf War II could inflict from several to twenty-five thousand Iraqi civilian casualties and from several hundred to five thousand U.S. casualties. "The nightmare scenario," retired General Joseph Hoar, the former commander in chief of U.S. Central Command, told a Senate committee in September, "is that six Iraqi Republican Guard divisions and six heavy divisions with several hundred artillery pieces defend the city of Baghdad. The result would be high casualties on both sides as well as in the civilian community. U.S. forces would certainly prevail but at what cost ... as the rest of the world watches while we bomb and have artillery rounds go off in densely populated Iraqi neighborhoods?" A leaked UN contingency planning report predicted that as many as 500,000 Iraqi civilians could be injured or have their health impaired by city fighting.

This humanitarian disaster will be incalculably worse if Saddam uses chemical weapons against his own people, either purposely or inadvertently while trying to use them against us. He has used them on his people before and, facing death in the Battle of Baghdad and wanting to raise the political cost of victory for the U.S., some strategists fear he might do so again. If the Arab "street" believes that the Mossad was behind September 11, they will accept the jihadi propaganda that the U.S., not Saddam, gassed Iraqi civilians. The U.S. would share moral responsibility for this infamy, a foreseen result of our attack.

From the archives:

"The Fifty-first State" (November 2002)
Going to war with Iraq would mean shouldering all the responsibilities of an occupying power the moment victory was achieved. These would include running the economy, keeping domestic peace, and protecting Iraq's borders—and doing it all for years, or perhaps decades. Are we ready for this long-term relationship? By James Fallows

The rubble of "victory" will still be smoking when the U.S. taxpayer inherits the burdens of occupation. In a comprehensive analysis of the economic costs of war, William Nordhaus, a Yale economist, gives a range of bad news, starting from $100 billion, if all goes well, to as much as $1.9 trillion if nothing goes well and the occupation drags on. U.S. troops never seem to come home—they remain in Germany and Japan fifty-seven years after the end of World War II and ten years after the end of the Cold War; they remain in Korea fifty years after the end of the Korean War; they remain in Saudi Arabia ten years after the end of the Gulf War; they remain in Bosnia five years after the end of the Yugoslav civil war. And they could remain in Iraq for years, targets of terrorist attack and proof of "U.S. imperialism."

From Atlantic Unbound:

"Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Islam" (December 12, 2001)
Is democracy compatible with Islam? Atlantic contributors from the early to the late twentieth century take up the question.

Pentagon idealists bridle at that characterization. They see the occupation making Iraq the center of democratic contagion in the autocratic Middle East. One commentator has termed this "democratic imperialism." Thomas Friedman of The New York Times imagines the "seeds" of democracy spreading out from Iraq and over time ending the jihadi terrorism against the West produced by the autocratic regimes. The future, then, would seem to be a race between democracy and imperialism. Which will sprout first, Friedman's democratic seeds or the seeds of anti-imperialism? People interpret the present in the light of their past. The Arab Middle East has no experience of democracy but it has more than a hundred years' experience of Western imperialism. Friedman's seeds must push themselves up against the weight of history and memory. "I doubt you could find one person who would agree that the Americans are coming just for the sake of the region and they want to bring democracy," Khaled M. Batarfi, a Saudi Arabian newspaper editor, told The New York Times last week. "We think it's oil. We think it's Israel. We think it's control. They want a police station in Baghdad like they have in Kabul."

While democracy is germinating in Iraq, U.S. forces will be searching for evidence of weapons of mass destruction to retroactively justify our attack. What if they don't find any, or only a remnant decaying supply of no military utility? What if Saddam destroyed them, and his stonewalling of the UN weapons' inspectors was a bluff that backfired—by provoking the U.S. attack that the bluff was meant to deter? What if, as Senator Richard Lugar asked last summer, the successor Iraqi regime wants to preserve Saddam's weapons and hides them from us? Or what if, as the CIA predicted last fall, Saddam, concluding that a U.S. attack was inevitable, gave quantities of chemical and biological weapons to terrorists to attack the United States? In that case George W. Bush will have killed who knows how many human beings for worse than nothing, making his war not only a crime but a blunder, potentially the most catastrophic in American history.