Who should be targeted in "Phase II" of America's war on terrorism? For many, the answer is Iraq. But in their zeal to complete the Gulf War's unfinished business, advocates of unseating Saddam Hussein confuse the desirable with the practical.
No one doubts the world would be better off without Saddam. He brutalizes his own people. He has invaded two neighboring countries. He has used chemical weapons, come close to building a nuclear bomb and stockpiled biological arms.
But the question is not whether we would like Saddam gone. It's whether we can unseat him at an acceptable cost. And there's the rub.
For all of Saddam's villainy, no persuasive evidence links him to Sept. 11 or the anthrax attacks. Our major allies, including Britain, say that without a smoking gun, they will not join us in marching on Baghdad. While many Arab countries privately favor toppling Saddam, they won't publicly support a U.S. attack for fear of antagonizing their citizens.
Waging a war halfway around the world with few allies and only limited access to local military bases would be a logistical nightmare and greatly complicate an already difficult military campaign. Iraqi opposition groups are far weaker than the Northern Alliance, and the Iraqi military is far better equipped and trained than the Taliban. We're unlikely to succeed without committing large numbers of U.S. combat troops.
Attacking Iraq also would fracture the international coalition that President Bush has painstakingly assembled since Sept. 11. The intelligence-sharing and law-enforcement cooperation so essential to winning the broader war on terrorism would be a casualty. Finally, attacking Iraq could trigger what we hope to avoid— the use of chemical or biological weapons. Knowing he is doomed, Saddam could decide to take us down with him. That could mean attacks against U.S. troops on the battlefield. It also could mean giving terrorists biological weapons to use in America.
Deciding against bombing Baghdad should not mean doing nothing. Washington must marshal international support for revitalizing the containment of Iraq. That means better sanctions, the return of United Nations weapons inspectors and an agreement to topple Saddam if Iraq attacks its neighbors or evidence links it to a terrorist attack.
Why should our allies agree to such a strategy? Because if they refuse, they will leave the Bush administration with no choice but to go to war.