WASHINGTON—With the United Nations set to begin debating the use of military power against Iraq, the arguments for and against war essentially come down to a single proposition: Is Saddam Hussein contained?
The conviction that the Iraqi leader is not, that he could try to dominate the oil-rich Persian Gulf with a nuclear weapon or slip chemical and biological arms to terrorists to attack America, seems to drive President Bush's conviction that Saddam must disarm or go.
"After September the 11th, the doctrine of containment just doesn't hold any water, as far as I'm concerned," Bush said Friday. Three days earlier in his State of the Union speech, Bush said: "Trusting in the sanity and restraint of Saddam Hussein is not a strategy, and it is not an option."
But many others, from U.S. lawmakers to allied leaders to foreign policy analysts, say that the president and his hawkish aides are misreading or exaggerating the threat from a much-weakened dictator, and making the wrong prescription.
"There's no threat that he's going to attack the United States if we leave him alone," said University of Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer, co-author of a recent article entitled, "An Unnecessary War."
While the United States has an interest in containing Saddam, "he is reasonably easy, if not very easy, to keep in his box," Mearsheimer said.
Those who counsel caution say a pre-emptive attack on Iraq to bring down Saddam's 35-year-old regime could precipitate numerous calamities, including the one Bush says he fears: new terrorist attacks with unconventional weapons.
Proponents of action acknowledge such dangers, but say they are exaggerated, and waiting will only make them worse.
Just as there were many false predictions before the 1991 Persian Gulf War, if there is a new war this spring, one camp could turn out to be very wrong.
THE CASE AGAINST WAR:
Those opposed to war advance many arguments—moral, humanitarian, legal and practical. But perhaps most of all, those in the "con" camp say Saddam is already hemmed in by sanctions, U.N. weapons inspections and American military power, and is unlikely to strike outside his borders unless attacked first.
There is no evidence Iraq is close to having a nuclear weapon (the "pro" camp's ultimate fear) and, even if it does, Saddam's regime can be deterred, they say.
"There's no question that he will eventually get nuclear weapons. The question is, can he acquire those weapons and get out of his box?" Mearsheimer said. The United States contained the Soviet Union for 40 years "and can't contain Saddam Hussein?"
A CIA report released last year said it could take Iraq until the second half of the decade to acquire a nuclear weapon, unless it were able to buy highly enriched uranium or plutonium on the black market.
International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei said on Monday that his inspectors "have to date found no evidence that Iraq has revived its nuclear weapon program since the elimination of the program in the 1990s."
Those who favor sticking with containment argue that a U.S.-led invasion aimed at ousting Saddam is the one thing that could cause him to break the constraints now on him.
With nothing to lose, the Iraqi dictator could strike first, firing missiles tipped with chemical or biological weapons at U.S. troops and port facilities in the Persian Gulf, or at Israel, trying to draw it into the conflict.
Or he might hand off such weapons to terrorists to exact vengeance on the United States after he's gone.
The CIA's own formal assessment gives credence to these fears.
"Should Saddam conclude that a U.S.-led attack could no longer be deterred, he probably would become much less constrained in adopting terrorist action," CIA director George Tenet told Congress in October.
Other nations seeking weapons of mass destruction, rather than being intimidated, might accelerate their programs to deter the United States from attacking them. They could look to nuclear-armed North Korea as an example.
In Iraq itself, U.S. intelligence officials say they see signs that Saddam is preparing a "scorched earth" strategy of blowing up oil fields and other infrastructure. The results would be blamed on the United States.
"Unless Saddam proves to be an utterly witless opponent, his strategy will be to do what he can to make the war messy, complicated and painful for the United States and its supporters," Harvard scholar Steven E. Miller wrote in a November study by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS).
War with Iraq, particularly one that drags on for months, would burden the U.S. taxpayer and the struggling world economy.
The bill? Anywhere from $99 billion for a short campaign where events break the Bush administration's way to $1.9 trillion for a difficult, protracted campaign, Yale economics professor William Nordhaus wrote in the AAAS study.
(The White House has not offered a precise cost estimate, but officials suggest the military campaign could cost $50 billion to $60 billion).
Nordhaus' tab includes actual military expenditures, the costs of peacekeeping, reconstruction and humanitarian aid, and the war's impact on oil markets and U.S. economic production.
"If the war goes badly . . . the dangers of tipping into recession are real" for the U.S. economy, he wrote.
U.S. troops could get bogged down in urban combat in Baghdad or other large cities. Iraq's Sunni and Shiite Muslims and ethnic Kurds could succumb to internecine fighting. Turkey, with its own large Kurdish population, might invade if Iraq's Kurds move toward independence. Iraq could become chaotic and radicalized like Afghanistan in the 1990s.
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Juan Cole, a University of Michigan authority on Islam, does not dispute that the situation with Iraq is bad. Bush's dilemma, Cole said, is that he has no guarantee that if he tries to change things, the outcome "will be more amenable to the United States."
THE CASE FOR WAR:
Proponents of military action argue the opposite—that nothing could be worse than waiting until Saddam is stronger, perhaps armed with an atomic weapon with which he could threaten the entire Middle East.
Richard Perle, one of the leading pro-war voices in Washington, acknowledged that attacking Saddam could cause him to try to use what horrible weapons he already has.
"But the danger that springs from his capabilities will only grow as he expands his arsenal," Perle, a top Defense Department consultant, wrote recently. "A pre-emptive strike against Hitler at the time of Munich would have meant an immediate war, as opposed to one that came later. Later was much worse."
The popular picture of Saddam trapped "in his box" in Baghdad is a dangerous delusion, said Kenneth Pollack, an Iraq expert who worked at the CIA and the White House.
"Containment is eroding," Pollack said.
Iraq's proceeds from smuggled oil have soared to $3 billion annually and its neighbors are scrambling to increase trade with Baghdad, giving it more political power, he said. Syria allows weapons and spare parts to flow across its territory to Iraq.
Pollack and other advocates of "regime change" in Baghdad say that Saddam has never abandoned his decades-long quest for a nuclear arsenal and other weapons of mass destruction. Neither a war with a U.S.-led coalition in 1991 nor sanctions that have cost Iraq's economy billions of dollars nor the current U.S. threat to destroy his regime have deterred him.
Secretary of State Colin Powell is due to present to the United Nations on Wednesday U.S. evidence that Saddam has manipulated the current U.N. weapons inspections.
Saddam is so devoted to acquiring and keeping weapons of mass destruction because they form the core of his power and bolster his boundless ambition to dominate the Middle East, those in the "pro" camp say.
They put no faith in U.N. inspections and, on the question of nuclear weapons, note that the IAEA gave Saddam a clean bill of health in the 1980s. It was not until after the Gulf War that the world realized Baghdad was trying five separate covert routes to develop nuclear arms, and was close to succeeding.
Once he has the bomb, Saddam might not be deterred by the U.S. nuclear arsenal because he has a penchant for risk-taking and misreading the outside world, Pollack says in his recent book, "The Threatening Storm."
Powell also is expected to present proof that that the Iraqi regime maintains ties with terrorists, including al-Qaida.
While the strength of those links is much in dispute, after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Bush and his team say they can't afford to take the risk that Saddam might share his deadly weapons.
The "pro" camp acknowledges a war could be costly in lives and money, although some of its members predict that Saddam's unpopular regime will fall quickly.
A successful multi-ethnic democracy in Iraq, backed by the United States, could serve as a model for political reform in other Arab nations and take the edge off arguments that Washington cares only about the region's oil.
That is not the principal reason for going to war, said Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. But, he said, "this factor magnifies the importance of doing it well."
Clawson also noted that Bush has pledged repeatedly to disarm Iraq one way or another, and to back down now would mean a loss of American prestige.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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