Eleven years ago, forty-five Senate Democrats and two Republicans voted against granting President George H. W. Bush authority to wage war against Iraq. For months, as Iraq cemented its stranglehold on Kuwait, witnesses before Senator Sam Nunn's Armed Services Committee had urged caution. Engage Iraq's desert-bred, battle-tested army, and the United States would suffer twenty thousand casualties or more. The "Arab street" would froth over with anti-American vitriol. Israel would get drawn into the conflict, and the alliance would come apart. Better to let the embargo bring Saddam to his knees. Time rewards the patient.
Had that advice convinced four more senators—assuming the president decided to avert a constitutional crisis and comply—Iraq would today dominate the Persian Gulf. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and the other gulf states would be mere vassals; Kuwait, a wholly owned subsidiary. Iraq's arsenal would include nuclear weapons. The threat of a terrorist-inspired catastrophe dwarfing September 11 would be terribly real.
That the critics were wrong a decade ago does not automatically make them wrong today. But their arguments are hauntingly similar.
Those who demand proof that Saddam's threat is real would not see it if it bit them. Weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) have been central to Iraqi military doctrine since the mid-1970s. Saddam lied to UN inspectors about his nuclear, chemical, and biological programs and then kicked them out when their trail got hot. As the British Joint Intelligence Committee recently noted, hundreds of tons of chemical agents and thousands of tons of precursor chemicals were unaccounted for when the inspectors left in 1998. What did Saddam do with those materials, eat them?
The same critics, who see no imminent threat from Iraq's WMDs, purport to see a Stalingrad-type threat from its shrunken, suspect army. Now the Republican Guards have a new tactic, urban warfare: Street to street they will fight to save Saddam. Pure nonsense. Serbia and Afghanistan proved the lethality of the U.S. arsenal of precision weapons. Further, if the U.S. military has paid a fraction of the attention to information warfare its literature suggests, every Iraqi soldier will know before the battle begins that the only threat to his safety and that of his loved ones is Saddam Hussein. Fight for him and die. Get rid of him and the war is over. My guess: Saddam will be out faster than a marine on liberty.
We hear other arguments. Saddam need not be preempted; he can be deterred. Or we must not act without Security Council approval. As for deterrence, it might possibly work, assuming Saddam correctly (for once) interprets U.S. intentions, and assuming further he chooses not to deliver his WMDs through clandestine agents who may be hard to trace.
As for Security Council approval, it would be nice to have the Russians, Chinese, and French endorse U.S. action. Almost as nice as it will be to see democracy begin to transform the Arab world, as those who cherish freedom fervently hope.