Western in the Hartford Courant on Iraq, "Baghdad or Bust"

Wednesday, September 11, 2002 - 12:00

This op-ed ran in the Hartford Courant on Tuesday, September 10, 2002.

When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990, President Bush and his advisers concluded that although the United States would win a military showdown with Iraq, there was a range of uncertainty associated with war that could quickly and unpredictably escalate the costs.

As a result, the first Bush administration decided that developing a U.S.-led multinational coalition was the best strategy to manage the potential risks. First, the multinational coalition gave the effort full international legitimacy, which greatly aided in constraining and marginalizing opposition to the war - especially in the Arab world. Second, it allowed for greater strategic and tactical flexibility, thereby enabling military planners to minimize the risk not only to coalition forces, but also to Iraqi civilian populations. Finally, the multinational coalition gave the war a legitimacy that helped President Bush secure widespread American public and congressional support.

This administration's planning and posturing on Iraq, however, has taken a decisively different tack. It is motivated by a hard-line unilateralist ideology that is so hyper-focused on Saddam as a threat that it has been unwilling and unable to consider the range of uncertainty or the potential costs of going to war. In this sense, the current war planning is reminiscent of the ideologically motivated wishful thinking that dominated American planning in Vietnam: The administration and the war hawk pundits simply believe this war will be quick, decisive and easy.

This optimism is dangerous. It is largely speculative, and it obscures very real risks.

For example, in response to concerns that an American attack could be destabilizing throughout the Middle East, administration officials proclaim that "Saddam's neighbors want to see him removed more than we do." Vice President Cheney recently suggested that the "Arab street" will be dancing with joy when American forces liberate Baghdad. Not only is the vice president asserting something that no one can predict with any degree of confidence, he and others in the administration are dismissing any consideration of alternative scenarios. If the war becomes difficult, if there are any military setbacks or if Iraqi civilian death counts increase - all unknowns - the risks of broader instability within the "Arab street" could increase exponentially. This instability could pose a threat to regimes throughout the Arab world and create global economic and political turmoil.

In addition, the administration believes that it can fight this war without active participation by others. But if American troops have to pursue Iraqi troops into civilian areas a likely scenario as Saddam fights to defend his regime - American troops could well face opposition from hostile civilian populations. Without allies participating in the fight, video footage of American troops (and only American troops) exchanging gunfire with armed civilians or pictures of dead Iraqi children could dramatically alter the international political balance.

This could have dramatic consequences at home as well. Public opinion polls suggest that Americans generally are supportive of "regime change" in Iraq, but it is clear that the public believes the administration that this war will be relatively cost-free. If hundreds or thousands of American troops are killed, if Iraqi civilians die in large numbers and if the world seems united against us, American public opinion could quickly turn. Worse, like in Vietnam, war in Iraq could rip apart the American public.

Deploying a massive army to fight a war on the other side of the globe is a perilous enterprise that defies absolute predictions. It is dangerous to think otherwise. Planning for war requires strategies for fighting and for managing the potential range of costs. On Iraq, this almost certainly requires enlisting the active support of others.

If this war becomes difficult, we may find ourselves needlessly revisiting much of the Vietnam-era trauma and finding ourselves in a long and bloody fight. That's an awfully big chance to take - especially when there is no immediate imperative in the threat posed by Saddam and plenty of time to develop a more comprehensive strategy.

Jon Western is a professor of international relations at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass. He served as an intelligence analyst at the State Department from 1990 to 1993.