Is war with Iraq practical?

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These are dangerous times. While most of us have been celebrating the achievements of contemporary technology, it is becoming apparent there is a downside to it which is absolutely frightening. Bombs are easy to assemble from common ingredients. Almost everyone can imagine things that can be done which would do great harm.

It would be a very good thing were the United States to act in practical ways in dealing with these threats. To be honest, it has not always done so. Mistakes were made dealing with threats in the past. During World War II, for example, the United States rounded up thousands of people of Japanese descent, many U.S. citizens, and put them in internment camps. It was later realized that this did practically nothing to advance the security of the country and eventually the survivors received an apology and were even compensated for the mistake. There was another time, known as the McCarthy era, when the FBI and Congress conducted witch-hunts and ruined the careers of screenwriters and other professionals suspected as Communists. The effort damaged peoples' lives and did little harm to the real Communists. Then there was the time the FBI shadowed and played dirty tricks on perceived dissenters, even Martin Luther King. This use of the FBI as political police is now also seen as doing more harm than good. In each case, some well-established principle was abandoned because of the unproven urgency of the threat. The United States abandoned practicality and was rewarded with undesirable results.

President Bush has announced a first-strike principle against terrorists like Osama bin Laden because they are stateless people bent on attacking civilian populations with weapons of mass destruction and, because they are stateless and loosely organized, deterrence will not work against them. Since deterrence won't work, the U.S. will attack them on sight.

Having made this distinction, he then announced (and announced and announced) he is determined to see a "regime change" in Iraq using this first-strike principle. This is code talk for a determination to kill Saddam. The principle is that preemptive use of force is necessary to prevent a rogue state headed by a madman from using a weapon of mass destruction. The question is, is this a good (meaning practical) idea? Or will this first-strike principle make this an even more dangerous world? Does every nation whose president thinks he sees a madman in the head of an enemy state have the right to attack first? Saddam is a head of state who has targetable assets. That should make him a prime candidate for deterrence.

Good intelligence is hard to get. In recent years, it has not been forthcoming from the primary agency responsible for it. The CIA played a big role in several gaffes, including the missile attack on a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan and "accidentally" blowing up a Chinese embassy, and it underestimated al Qaeda. It has had problems with enemy spies in-house it couldn't find for a long time. During the Gulf War, it was never able to pinpoint Saddam so he could be (incidentally) eliminated, although it tried and tried. Given this background, a surgical strike, if such is a good idea, would be unlikely to work, making it a bad idea.

At the end of the Gulf War, the American-led forces drove Iraqi forces to Baghdad but stopped short of a final invasion. They hoped the defeat in Kuwait would inspire the Iraqi people to overthrow Saddam, but when the Shi'ite fighters in the south and the Kurds in the north did rise up, the United States wouldn't support them because Shi'ites are related to Iran and Kurds might stir up things in Turkey. They waited confidently for the palace guard to overthrow Saddam and it never happened. Following that, sanctions were supposed to bring Iraq to its knees and a coup to Saddam. That didn't happen either.

A current nonfiction book on Iraq urges that nothing is holding that country together except Saddam. Destroy him, says Sandra Mackey ("The Reckoning: Iraq and the Legacy of Saddam Hussein"), and Iraq will disintegrate into several territories characterized by anarchy. Just the kind of place to breed more terrorists, according to current thinking. If Afghanistan is our guide, it is easier to bomb places than it is to stitch them back together.

To arrive at the conclusion that it is necessary to attack Saddam before he can do harm, the administration must provide compelling evidence that such harm is imminent. That evidence should persuade Congress, which, unless the Constitution is suspended, has the power to declare war. The Bush administration has not provided reliable information about the dangers posed by Saddam which is better than that available to any interested party willing to do even casual research.

Given the recent history of intelligence failures, the posture of authority ? "we know things you don't know" ? is not very credible in this case. We all know Saddam is a dangerous man; we all know he is trying to get weapons; we should know that if he is attacked and feels himself in danger he will use whatever he has. And the government and we don't really know what he has. What we do know is that a war with Iraq is likely to be different from a war against the Taliban. There are 23 million Iraqis and a real military and getting to Saddam will require 200,000 troops and massive bombing attacks followed by ground forces.

The alternative is containment, which has been working pretty well so far. Even if he has weapons, does it really matter if he can't deliver them and do harm or is deterred by the threat of overwhelming retaliation if he does use them? Is containment a more realistic approach than war, which will result, in all probability, in the use of such weapons? Winning the war means removing Saddam but will probably create problems even more daunting than putting up with him. And what are the consequences if we lose, in any sense, the war?

John C. Mohawk, Ph.D., columnist for Indian Country Today, is an author and professor in the Center for the Americas at the State University at Buffalo, N.Y.