Face-Off in the Gulf: Why Iraq, Why Now?
"To assume this regime's good faith is to bet the
lives of millions and the peace of the world in a
reckless gamble. And this is a risk we must not
President George W. Bush
in an address to the United Nations,
September 12, 2002
"We are preparing for war as if war will break out
in one hour, and we are psychologically ready for
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein,
November 3, 2002
The Case for War
The sense of expectation at United Nations headquarters was palpable. A year and a day after Arab suicide squads crashed hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President George W. Bush was due to deliver a crucial speech that could open a fresh chapter in his war on terror. World leaders in his audience could find themselves "squirming in some of the seats," a senior administration official warned beforehand. Bush would be blunt.
At home and abroad, it had been an anxious few days. The anniversary of September 11 had revived traumatic memories and fears of fresh attacks on America. Vice President Dick Cheney was at a secret location. Heat-seeking anti-aircraft missiles were deployed around Washington in an operation codenamed Noble Eagle. A number of U.S. embassies around the world were closed for security reasons. Airlines slashed their schedules as passengers chose not to fly on September 11, fearing a spectacular new coup by the authors of the original attacks. Chief suspect Osama bin Laden and most of the top lieutenants in his al Qaeda network were believed to be still alive, scattered but elusive, and capable of posing a lethal threat.
But the U.S. president made no mention of bin Laden. In a speech of 2,700 words, he named al Qaeda just once. Instead, Bush devoted almost his entire address to warning the world of what he saw as the threat from one country: Saddam Hussein's Iraq. He painted a detailed picture of a brutal and devious dictator who had defied the international community for 12 years, breaking his promises and defying U.N. resolutions aimed at forcing him to disarm. Saddam, said Bush, was relentlessly pursuing weapons of mass destruction.
"The first time we may be completely certain he has nuclear weapons is when, God forbid, he uses one," Bush said. He outlined a nightmare scenario"our greatest fear"in which an "outlaw regime" like Saddam's might supply doomsday weapons to a terrorist group.
The emphasis on Saddam came as no surprise for those who tracked U.S. policy. Bush and leading figures in his administration had inexorably turned their sights on Iraq as part of a gradual but critically important shift in U.S. security doctrine since September 11, 2001. It was his conscious choice to restore Iraq to the very top of the U.S. agenda and actively seek to bring about "regime change," a U.S. policy first stated under his predecessor Bill Clinton. By a quirk of history, he found himself in a position to complete the unfinished business of his father, President George Bush senior, who routed Saddam's forces in the 1991 Gulf War but left the Iraqi leader in power.
As the younger Bush built up pressure on Saddam, underpinned by the threat of U.S.-led military action, there were parallels with, but also sharp differences from the build-up to his father's war. In 1991, the justification under international law was clear, and the arguments were easier to sell to the Arab world and the wider international community. War had to be fought to reverse an act of aggressionIraq's invasion of Kuwaitand drive the occupying troops out.
More than a decade later, Washington's case is built around the alleged potential for future Iraqi aggression and the argument that such threats must be crushed before they materialize. Opponents see this as morally flawed, in breach of international law and fraught with the danger of destabilizing the whole of the Middle East. Some, including Iraq itself, say America's real agenda is to gain control over Iraq's vast oil reserves.
But Bush, driven by the imperatives of his war on terror, has invested much of his personal credibility in the campaign to remove Saddam. If he is determined to go ahead, there is little to stop him. In the post-Cold War world, the United States enjoys unquestioned military pre-eminence. And since the attacks of September 11, 2001, that domination has been underpinned by a sharper sense of purpose and the willingness to go it alone, when required, to pursue U.S. security interests anywhere in the world.
Many of the risks confronting Bush are the same as those his father chose not to run in 1991U.S. military and Iraqi civilian casualties; massive refugee flows; civil war in Iraq, with its volatile ethnic and religious mix; the export of instability to Turkey, Syria, Iran and beyond; the difficulty of installing a democratic government in Baghdad and the prospect of a costly and open-ended U.S. commitment, both military and financial, to shore it up. Other dangers are potentially even greater now than then. With Arabs already seething over U.S. backing for Israel in its two-year struggle against a Palestinian uprising, war on Iraq could fuel anti-American rage across the region of the very kind that inspired the September 11 attacks. Bush, some fear, could be playing right into bin Laden's hands.
Taken from the roof of the International Press Center in Baghdad, this picture shows Iraqi anti-aircraft guns firing at U.S. and British warplanes carrying out strikes on the city under Operation Desert Fox, December 19, 1998. REUTERS
If the U.S. president is prepared to run such risks, it may be because the dangers of failing to act, as he sees them, are even greaterbut also because the potential rewards are enticing. If "regime change" works in Iraq, some analysts argue, the United States may not stop there. Saddam is not the only Arab leader that Bush wants to see gone. He has called already for the removal of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, whom Israel accuses of failing to rein in suicide bombers, and urged Arafat's people to elect new leaders "not compromised by terror." Others could join Saddam and Arafat on that list. In a vision only hinted at by Bush, but explicitly outlined by some prominent U.S. conservatives, Iraq could be just the first step in a U.S.-led drive to re-engineer the Middle East along democratic, free-market lines and remake a region whose vast oil wealthof huge strategic importance to the United Stateshas been mainly exploited for the benefit of narrow elites.
"Saddam's replacement by a decent Iraqi regime would open the way to a far more stable and peaceful region," Pentagon adviser Richard Perle said in a British newspaper interview. "A democratic Iraq would be a powerful refutation of the patronizing view that Arabs are incapable of democracy."
The stakes could not be higher. A quick, decisive war with Iraq could help vindicate the new, assertive American doctrine of pre-emptive military action and entrench it for decades to come. But if war drags on, Bush risks a wider conflagration that would not only doom his own presidency but could spread turmoil throughout the region and provoke more attacks by extremists, the very opposite of what he is trying to achieve.