I do not know what we should do about Iraq. But to reach the right answer, we should focus on the right question: What approach seems the best bet to reduce the very large risk that a thermonuclear explosion-whether engineered by Iraq, Al Qaeda, or someone else-will obliterate Washington, New York, or another American city (or cities) at some point during the next two or three decades?
That risk dwarfs anything that Saddam Hussein could do with chemical or biological weapons. And even if he drops dead tomorrow, it is quite probable that we will experience such a catastrophe within 20 years – if not 20 months – unless we do two things that are barely on the national radar screen and that go against the grain of Republican unilateralism.
The first is to spend whatever it takes to secure the vast Russian nuclear stockpile and other nuclear installations around the world. They are far more dangerous than Saddam because there is no doubt that Al Qaeda (and perhaps other terrorists) will use any unsecured weapons or fissile (bomb-making) materials against us if they can get ahold of them. The second is to get much, much more serious about stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons, which is a huge threat to civilization itself.
A push to end nuclear proliferation could work only if enforced by the threat or use of pre-emptive military action-not only in Iraq but also in Iran, North Korea, Libya, and perhaps others of the more than 60 nations capable of building nuclear weapons-either on our own or through an international coalition. Doing this on our own, as Bush administration hawks prefer, could mean launching bloody invasion after invasion, at enormous cost in lives, treasure, and international standing, if rogue states call our bluff. Rallying a potent and determined coalition seems possible only if we stop thumbing our nose at world opinion, offer to scrap the bulk of our own arsenal, and renounce first use of nuclear weapons in exchange for similar concessions by others.
The truth is, no matter what we do about Iraq, if we don’t stop proliferation, another five or 10 potentially unstable nations may go nuclear before long, making it ever more likely that one or more bombs will be set off anonymously on our soil by terrorists or a terrorist government. Even an airtight missile defense would be useless against a nuke hidden in a truck, a shipping container, or a boat.
As to Iraq, unless we can get U.N. Security Council support for whatever we decide to do (on which, more below), either a go-it-alone U.S.-British invasion or a Bush backdown from the beating of war drums would carry incalculable risks.
An invasion would, of course, end Saddam’s quest for nuclear weapons and probably Saddam himself. So far, so good. But some hawks greatly underestimate the costs and risks, claiming that an easy victory in Iraq will lead to a flowering of democracy that will inspire the rest of the Arab world to follow suit, destroy the appeal of militant Islam, pave the way for Israeli-Palestinian peace, and make us all safer. This is a fantasy. Unless Saddam is overthrown from within, we would have to take Baghdad in house-to-house fighting, with many thousands of casualties. The task of pacifying and democratizing a nation that has never known freedom and hates our ally Israel would be at least as difficult as bringing peace and democracy to Afghanistan. And the administration has not made a very credible beginning there.
The effects of a unilateral invasion on our national security would extend far beyond Iraq. Viewed optimistically, it might also-if accompanied by a credible threat to launch a succession of pre-emptive wars-convince Iran, Libya, North Korea, and other potential threats that we would do the same to them if they persist in developing nuclear weapons. But then again, rogue nations might react by hiding, rather than ending, their bomb-building programs. And as the cost of a policy of pre-emptive wars without end becomes apparent, American voters might balk.
A U.S.-British invasion would also divert resources from the war against Al Qaeda, especially in Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda is already regrouping. It would alienate Russia and others whose cooperation we need in the vital project of securing fissile materials. It would thereby increase the danger of a nuclear attack by Al Qaeda or others. By enraging hundreds of millions of Muslims worldwide, it would swell the ranks of terrorist groups-perhaps making it easier for them to recruit nuclear engineers as well as suicide bombers-and risk a militant Islamist takeover of nuclear-armed Pakistan. Years or even decades of sometimes-bloody occupation could keep the hate-America pot boiling. With Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south demanding independence, we would have to choose between crushing those movements and alienating Turkey, a vital ally with a region of restive Kurds bordering Iraq. Many in Europe and elsewhere would see the Bush administration as less interested in democratizing Iraq than in controlling the region’s oil and in achieving world domination. All of this international ill will could doom any hope for support in fighting nuclear proliferation.
Does all of this mean that a unilateral invasion should be ruled out as complete folly? Not necessarily. The dangers of backing down are also grave. It is foolish for doves to scoff at the risk that a nuclear-armed Saddam could or would launch what they say would be a "suicidal" attack on the United States. He seems entirely capable of smuggling a bomb into one of our cities, perhaps in league with Al Qaeda, and setting it off anonymously in the hope of escaping retaliation. If we stand aside while Saddam builds or buys nuclear weapons, and if at some point thereafter a bomb takes out Washington or New York, how could we be sure that Saddam was involved? The culprits might be terrorists connected, not to Iraq, but perhaps to Pakistan, North Korea, Iran, or Libya. Against whom would we retaliate?
Doves also seem disingenuous in ruling out an invasion unless and until we can produce irrefutable evidence that Saddam presents an imminent nuclear threat. Most would be no less dovish after seeing such proof than they are now. After all, once Iraq has nuclear arms, an invasion would be far more perilous. So a decision not to invade now is a decision not to invade ever-not, at least, until Saddam has actually used nuclear or biological weapons or repeated his use of chemical weapons. And a Bush backdown now would surely embolden other rogue states to accelerate their nuclear programs.
In short, the future will be extremely dangerous no matter what we do about Iraq. The best way out would be to use the threat of a unilateral invasion to push the U.N. Security Council to demand that Iraq submit to unconditional, unrestricted arms inspections, as proposed by President Chirac of France, followed by military action if Saddam balks or cheats or it becomes clear that inspections cannot be effective. France and Russia might go along, suggests a former Clinton administration official, if that were the only way to get a piece of the post-invasion protectorate over the world’s second-largest oil supply.
We should not become so fixated on Iraq that we ignore the greater dangers: Al Qaeda, loose nuclear materials in Russia and elsewhere, and nuclear proliferation. House Republicans have idiotically refused to provide adequate funding to secure nuclear stockpiles abroad. They and the Bush administration have greatly damaged the effectiveness of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty by spurning the closely related Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, without which more and more nations will be tempted to seek nuclear weapons.
Unless we get serious about stopping proliferation, we are headed for "a world filled with nuclear-weapons states, where every crisis threatens to go nuclear," where "the survival of civilization truly is in question from day to day," and where "it would be impossible to keep these weapons out of the hands of terrorists, religious cults, and criminal organizations." So writes Ambassador Thomas Graham Jr., a moderate Republican who served as a career arms-controller under six presidents and led the successful Clinton administration effort to extend the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The only way to avoid such a grim future, he suggests in his memoir, Disarmament Sketches, is for the United States to lead an international coalition against proliferation by showing an unprecedented willingness to give up the vast majority of our own nuclear weapons, excepting only those necessary to deter nuclear attack by others.
The Bush administration has done far more to foreclose this option than to keep it open. And even if the United States reverses course, a lot of things would have to go right to avoid nuclear catastrophe. But can we afford not to try?