"The dictator of Iraq is a student of Stalin," President Bush
said in his prime-time speech the other day. He described how Saddam Hussein
uses "murder as a tool of terror and control within his own cabinet, within
his own army, and even within his own family." Under Saddam's orders,
"opponents have been decapitated, wives and mothers of political opponents
have been systematically raped as a method of intimidation, and political
prisoners have been forced to watch their own children being tortured."
All this is appalling, but it has nothing to do with the case
for war against Iraq, the ostensible topic of the president's speech. Nor
does "the oppression of Kurds, Assyrians, Turkomans, Shi'a, Sunnis, and
others." Likewise, it's irrelevant that "the lives of Iraqi citizens would
improve dramatically if Saddam Hussein were no longer in power."
Unless the U.S. has embarked on a military campaign to replace
all of the world's brutal dictators with democratically elected,
constitutionally constrained tribunes of the people, Saddam's cruelty is not
the issue. The fact that the Bush administration keeps bringing it up
suggests the weakness of its argument that attacking Iraq would enhance U.S.
The president's comparison between Saddam and Stalin raises the
question of why the United States never launched a pre-emptive strike on the
Soviet Union. The U.S. chose containment and deterrence over direct
confrontation because the risks of war were considered unacceptable.
Iraq's military might, of course, is minuscule compared to that
of a nuclear superpower. But if the administration is as worried about
Saddam's chemical and biological weapons as it claims to be, why does it
seem intent on giving him a motive to use them?
"An Iraqi regime faced with its own demise may attempt cruel and
desperate measures," Bush conceded. In other words, a U.S. attack is apt to
trigger the very threat it is supposed to neutralize, encouraging Saddam to
unleash the "horrible poisons and diseases and gases" the president wants to
"Baghdad for now appears to be drawing a line short of
conducting terrorist attacks with conventional or (chemical and biological
weapons) against the United States," a recently declassified CIA assessment
advises. "Should Saddam conclude that a U.S.-led attack could no longer be
deterred, he probably would become much less constrained in adopting
If so, the CIA says, "Saddam might decide that the extreme step
of assisting Islamist terrorists in conducting a (weapon of mass
destruction) attack against the United States would be his last chance to
exact vengeance by taking a large number of victims with him." That prospect
suggests that a desperate, cornered Saddam is a greater danger to the United
States than a Saddam confident of remaining in power.
Explaining the urgency of acting against Iraq now, after 11
years of "defiance, deception, and bad faith" by a regime determined to keep
weapons it promised to give up, Bush emphasized the danger brought home by
the September 11 attacks. "Iraq could decide on any given day to provide a
biological or chemical weapon to a terrorist group or individual
terrorists," he said.
Yet the administration has no evidence that Iraq is cooperating
with al Qaeda or is likely to do so. The most plausible scenario in which
Saddam would take such a risk is the one outlined by the CIA: as a response
to military action that threatens to topple him.
Nor is this the only way in which war with Iraq would promote
terrorism. Osama bin Laden's chief grievance against the United States was
the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, which he saw as an occupation
of holy territory by infidels. The thought of how his murderous followers
will react to the occupation of another Arab country by American forces
should give pause to the Bush administration's hawks.
The U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia, a continuing source of
outrage to Muslim fanatics, lingers on more than a decade after our last war
with Iraq, in which America came to the defense of despots only somewhat
less odious than Saddam. American troops may have to stay even longer this
time, since the president promises to ensure that Iraq is not only disarmed
but transformed into a liberal democracy.
"The first and greatest benefit" of deposing Saddam, the
president said, "will come to Iraqi men, women, and children." Maybe, but at
what cost to American men, women, and children?