The Iraq Debate: Is War Worth the Price?

The Iraq Debate: Is War Worth the Price?

December 11, 2002 4:19 pm (EST)

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Iraq War

In the January/February 2003 Issue of Foreign Affairs.....


Yes, says Fouad Ajami—so long as the ultimate goal of war in Iraq is the modernization of the Arab world. Ajami, of the School for Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, argues that the task will be daunting. America should harbor no illusions about winning Arab “hearts and minds,” and no public diplomacy will convince the Arab world that the superpower is waging a just war. But that is no reason to walk up to the edge of war and then step back.:

Excerpt: Above and beyond toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein and dismantling its deadly weapons, the driving motivation of a new American endeavor in Iraq and in neighboring Arab lands should be modernizing the Arab world. . . Thus far, the United States has been simultaneously an agent of political reaction and a promoter of social revolution in the Arab-Muslim world. Its example has been nothing short of revolutionary, but from one end of the Arab world to the other, its power has invariably been on the side of political reaction and a stagnant status quo. A new war should come with the promise that the United States is now on the side of reform.

No, says Richard Betts-—not if the price is an attack on the U.S. homeland with weapons of mass destruction that will dwarf in its immensity even the tragedy of September 11. Betts, Director of the Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University and Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, warns that such an attack will become a real danger if the United States forces Saddam’s back against the wall. The risk of retaliation far outweighs the remote possibility of unprovoked attack by Iraq in the future:

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Iraq War

Excerpt: Many Americans still take for granted that a war to topple Saddam Hussein can be fought as it was in 1991: on American terms. Even when they recognize that the blood price may prove greater than the optimists hope, most still assume it will be paid by the U.S. military or by people in the region. Until very late in the game, few Americans focused on the chance that the battlefield could extend back to their own homeland. Yet if a U.S. invasion succeeds, Saddam will have no reason to withhold his best parting shot—which could be the use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) inside the United States. Such an Iraqi attack on U.S. civilians could make the death toll from September 11 look small. But Washington has done little to prepare the country for this possibility and seems to have forgotten Bismarck’s characterization of preventive war as “suicide from fear of death.”


Many critics of the Bush administration’s campaign against Iraq believe that U.S. policies in Palestine are the real source of Arab rage against the United States, and that achieving a breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should thus be America’s top priority. Michael Scott Doran, of Princeton University and the Council on Foreign Relations, argues provocatively that such thinking turns the problem upside down. Palestine is far more central to the symbolism of Arab politics, he asserts, than to its substance:

Excerpt: What the Bush administration seems to understand better than its critics is that the influence of the United States in the Arab-Israeli arena derives, to no small extent, from its status as the dominant power in the region as a whole—and that this status, in turn, hinges on maintaining an unassailable American predominance in the Persian Gulf. It is worth remembering that Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 came on the heels of the first Palestinian intifada, which also provoked much Arab hostility toward the United States. It was Saddam’s defeat that cleared a space for the Madrid Conference and eventually the Oslo peace process. Then as now, defeating Saddam would offer the United States a golden opportunity to show the Arab and Muslim worlds that Arab aspirations are best achieved by working in cooperation with Washington. If an American road to a calmer situation in Palestine does in fact exist, it runs through Baghdad.


What should we make of the George W. Bush’s split personality when it comes to foreign policy? asks Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. On the one hand, Bush the realist seeks rapprochement with friendly tyrants who may prove useful in the war on terrorism. On the other hand, Bush the neo-Reaganite seeks to foster democracy in the Middle East as the only true solution to terror. Bush is not the first President to confront this dilemma, but how he chooses to resolve it will have a lasting impact both on U.S. foreign policy and America’s image abroad.

Excerpt: Although the war on terrorism has greatly raised the profile of democracy as a policy matter, it has hardly clarified the issue. The United States faces two contradictory imperatives: on the one hand, the fight against al Qaeda tempts Washington to put aside its democratic scruples and seek closer ties with autocracies throughout the Middle East and Asia. On the other hand, U.S. officials and policy experts have increasingly come to believe that it is precisely the lack of democracy in many of these countries that helps breed Islamic extremism.


Jahangir Amuzegar tells the real story unfolding in Iran: a simmering discontent among the country’s youth, the generation born after 1979. When its frustration comes to a boil, this “Third Force” will topple the regime.


John Waterbury, President of the American University of Beirut, argues that although U.S. foreign policies continue to breed resentment in the Arab world, the education that American institutions in the region provide is both respected and coveted. These schools thus provide underexploited opportunities in the current crisis.

Also in the January/February Issue:

· Saving the Atlantic Marriage

Are the United States and its European allies heading for an ugly divorce? Many observers seem to think so. Yet there’s still hope, according to the Brookings Institution’s Philip H. Gordon. If the United States acts on the false premise that it no longer needs allies or will find better ones than the Europeans elsewhere, it will only make transatlantic divorce a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Excerpt: The “Americans are from Mars, Europeans are from Venus” thesis accurately identifies some real differences and problems in transatlantic relations. Structural and cultural gaps that have existed for a long time have been widened by the terrorist attacks on the United States and the crisis in the Middle East; if these differences are mishandled the result could be a transatlantic divide deeper than any seen in more than 50 years. Yet structure is not destiny, and it would be as wrong to exaggerate the gaps between Americans and Europeans as it would be to ignore them. For all the differences over policy in the “war on terrorism,” American and European values and interests in the world remain highly similar.

· Borders Beyond Control

International migration lies at the center of global problems, says Jagdish Bhagwati of Columbia University and the Council on Foreign Relations, and curbing it is not a viable option. What is desperately needed instead is a mechanism to manage migration to everyone’s benefit.

· Which Way Will Lula Go?

Lula’s new administration in Brazil faces tough choices ahead, explains John Williamson of the Institute for International Economics. Will he confirm financial markets’ fears or embrace prudent policies that will set the country back on track. And will the markets even give him a chance? Stay tuned.

· Japan’s Rise From the Ashes

Despite widespread pessimistic forecasts, Japan has turned a new leaf and is ready to embark on the path to economic recovery, claims Richard Katz, Senior Editor of The Oriental Economist Report. Reform may come at a snail pace, but come it will.

January/February 2003 Issue


Middle East Countdown:

Iraq and the Arabs’ Future Fouad Ajami

The driving motivation behind a new U.S. endeavor in Iraq should be modernizing the Arab world. Most Arabs will see such an expedition as an imperial reach into their world. But in this case a reforming foreign power’s guidelines offer a better way than the region’s age-old prohibitions, defects, and phobias. No apologies ought to be made for America’s "unilateralism."

Palestine, Iraq, and American Strategy Michael Scott Doran

Many critics argue that the Bush administration should put off a showdown with Saddam Hussein and focus instead on achieving a breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But they fail to understand that although Palestine is central to the symbolism of Arab politics, it is actually marginal to its substance. Now, as in 1991, if a road to a calmer situation in Palestine does in fact exist, it runs through Baghdad.

Suicide From Fear of Death? Richard K. Betts

President Bush’s case for war on Iraq overlooks a very real danger: if pushed to the wall, Saddam Hussein may resort to using weapons of mass destruction against the United States. Such a strike may not be likely, or may not succeed, but attacking Saddam is the best way to guarantee that it will happen. And Washington has done far too little to prepare for it.

Iran’s Crumbling Revolution Jahangir Amuzegar

Nearly a quarter-century after the revolution, economic failure and a bankrupt ideology have discredited the Islamic Republic. Despite the attention paid to a clash between "reformers" and "conservatives" in the government, the real story in Iran is the growing discontent among the generation born after 1979. This "Third Force" will eventually topple the regime, and the United States should just watch and wait.

Hate Your Policies, Love Your Institutions John Waterbury

Although U.S. foreign policies are often deeply unpopular in the Arab world, American educational institutions in the region enjoy widespread respect. Not only do they encourage open debate and the cultivation of a skeptical attitude toward received wisdom, they also train leaders in all walks of life. These schools present an underexploited way of dealing with the current crisis.

Essays Bridging the Atlantic Divide Philip H. Gordon

In recent months, many observers have concluded that the United States and Europe are on divergent paths and that the transatlantic alliance is crumbling. In spite of some real differences, however, American and European attitudes remain remarkably similar on most key issues. Basing policy on the false assumption of transatlantic divorce would only make it a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Promoting Democracy and Fighting Terror Thomas Carothers

During the war on terrorism, George W. Bush has shown a split personality on the promotion of democracy abroad. Bush the realist seeks warm ties with dictators who may help in the fight against al Qaeda, while Bush the neo-Reaganite proclaims that democracy is the only true solution to terror. How the administration resolves this tension will define the future of U.S. foreign policy.

Borders Beyond Control Jagdish Bhagwati

Migration lies at the center of global problems today. Rich countries are trying to attract skilled immigrants and keep unskilled ones out; poor countries are trying to keep skilled labor at home. Both sides are doomed to fail. Governments must stop trying to curtail migration and start managing it to seek benefits for all.

Lula’s Brazil John Williamson

In the run-up to the October presidential election in Brazil, financial markets panicked at the prospect of a left-wing administration that might want to repudiate national debts. Now that Lula has taken office, will he confirm these fears or embrace prudent policies that will advance the modernization of Brazil? And will the markets even give him a chance?

Japan’s Phoenix Economy Richard Katz

It is hard to be optimistic about Japan’s economy, given that Tokyo has already frittered away a decade. But a corner has been turned. The Japanese people increasingly realize that without reform the situation will only get worse. This new awareness was the force behind Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s election in 2001. The bad news is that it may take another decade to get the economy back on track.

The WTO on Trial Susan Esserman and Robert Howse

The World Trade Organization represents a dramatic innovation in international law: binding dispute resolution between sovereign countries. But have the WTO’s judges gone too far and exceeded their unprecedented authority? Although the truth turns out to be more complex than the organization’s many critics insist, the fact remains that the WTO’s courts still leave plenty of room for improvement.

Reviews & ResponsesWhile America Slept Ellen Laipson

The Age of Sacred Terror vividly recounts how al Qaeda emerged and how America responded. This sobering history reveals the true difficulty of the war on terror.

The War to End All Wars? Hew Strachan

Two new books examine World War I’s role in shaping the twentieth century and place current foreign policy dilemmas in historical perspective.

Recent Books on International Relations

Including Lawrence D. Freedman on El Alamein; Kenneth Maxwell on The Real Odessa; and Lucian W. Pye on China’s New Rulers.

Letters to the Editor

Arthur C. Helton joins the humanitarian intervention debate; Martin I. Bresler and John J. Pikarski, Jr., laud progress in Poland; and others.

Lurie’s Foreign Affairs

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Full text will be available until February 27, 2003


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