WASHINGTON—The most optimistic scenarios of the Bush administration could prove correct: A war with Iraq could be quick. The financial burden could be manageable. The long-term result could be growth of democracy and stability in the Middle East.
But these are big assumptions, best-case scenarios. If the United States attacks Iraq, it will be taking a momentous step that, in the worst case, could have momentous costs—in thousands of American casualties, in a burst of anti-American terrorism and violence, in political upheaval.
Yale University economist William D. Nordhaus, who participated in a study of the cost of a war in Iraq for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, calls it "a gigantic lottery game."
Even Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, a strong advocate of deposing Saddam Hussein by force, has acknowledged great uncertainty. On his desk, aides have said, he keeps a secret list—a growing list—of things that could go wrong.
"We have no idea how long the war will last," he told reporters Thursday at the Pentagon.
"We don't know to what extent there may or may not be weapons of mass destruction used. We don't know—have any idea—whether or not there would be ethnic strife. We don't know exactly how long it would take to find weapons of mass destruction and destroy them, those sites. There are so many variables that it is not knowable."
On Jan. 22, in Washington, Rumsfeld said war could last "four days or four weeks or four months." On Feb. 7, in Italy, he said, "It could last, you know, six days, six weeks. I doubt six months."
Even if a war did last four to six days, and even if American casualties were low, the United States would face the enormous job of occupying Iraq, providing humanitarian relief and rebuilding the nation.
Anthony H. Cordesman, a war analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, began an appearance before Congress on Feb. 11 by saying: "I support this war."
But then he warned that, rather than stabilize the Middle East, an American takeover of an Arab state could "stimulate" Islamic extremism and terrorism.
He suggested it could cause popular uprisings against Mideast governments that support the United States, and that Middle East allies might question their relationship with a United States that pre-emptively toppled a government of which it didn't approve.
The costs and consequences of a war would fall into three broad categories: military, political and economic.
Militarily, the chief risk is casualties. These could range from something on the order of the 200 lives lost in the 1990-91 Gulf War to a scenario that would make any American shiver, analysts say.
"There really isn't a way to put a range on it without knowing the specific plans," said Robin Dorff, chairman of the department of national security and strategy at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.
If the U.S. attack were preceded by a massive bombardment, if special forces wiped out key installations and defenses, if the Iraqi army easily became dispirited and gave up, then U.S. casualties could be quite low, Dorff said.
But if ground troops stormed into Iraq and bogged down in street fighting or ran into chemical attacks, then tens of thousands of Americans could be killed or wounded, Dorff said.
The United States could be sending between 200,000 and 250,000 personnel to the Gulf region. That would be half the size of the force that beat Saddam's army in 100 hours of ground warfare in 1991 after a month-long aerial bombardment.
The U.S. hope is that the overwhelming might of an attack would so shock Saddam's defenders and so paralyze the country that the Iraqi military would be overwhelmed. But American war planners have not—and cannot—take this for granted.
A senior defense official, speaking Friday at the Pentagon, said: "There should be no doubt in people's minds that the U.S. and its coalition . . . will be successful if war is required. But there should be no assumptions that this will be without casualties, or only limited casualties, because it is unknowable."
Politically, the range of war outcomes is also wide.
President Bush has predicted the eventual emergence of a democratic Iraq that, buoyed by its oil wealth, could become a model for Middle East societies.
"Success in Iraq could begin a new stage for Middle Eastern peace, and set in motion progress towards a truly democratic Palestinian state," Bush said in a televised speech Wednesday.
The president said "the safety of the American people" also depended on ridding Iraq of weapons of mass destruction and a dictator willing to use them.
But analysts worry that war could increase danger for Americans at home and abroad by inflaming anti-American feeling.
"There is no question there is going to be an increase in terrorism," said Vincent M. Cannistraro, director of National Security Council intelligence activities from 1984 to 1987. "There is going to be a major increase in attacks directed against Americans and American symbols around the world."
The degree of political upheaval could depend on how quickly war goes.
Muslim passions could be influenced by whether Saddam tries to draw Israel into the conflict and succeeds.
The rulers of at least two Arab monarchies—Saudi Arabia and Jordan—are said to fear that their limited support for the war could, in a worst-case scenario, be their undoing.
Many Arabs already fear that the United States intends to occupy Iraq much like a colonial power, a perception that could be strengthened if the United States is drawn in to prevent fighting among Iraqi groups or to protect oil fields.
Other political consequences of war concern the Bush presidency.
If there is war, it will be Bush's war. The American public, while with Bush, is wary. Except for the United Kingdom and Australia, no other nation has yet committed significant forces. Millions in Europe have marched in protest.
Bush's re-election next year could depend on the outcome of war. His father, George Bush, lost re-election even after winning the Gulf War because the war tilted the economy into recession.
Economically, the cost would depend on military and political outcomes.
Analysts believe that, if a war went quickly and successfully, both the American and world economies would be lifted. But a long war, or a political mess, would be a major economic drag.
Oil prices could go through the roof if ground fighting persisted. But they could decline if stability were quickly restored.
Dollar-wise, the biggest cost for the United States is likely to come from governing and restoring Iraq.
Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, told Congress that "something on the order of several hundreds of thousands" of troops would need to remain in Iraq.
Rumsfeld called that estimate "far from the mark."
The issue is crucial. Nordhaus, the Yale economist, noted that "hundreds of thousands of troops means hundreds of billions of dollars" in federal spending.
The administration has refused to release classified estimates of what the war could cost, saying the range of possibilities are too wide.
"Where the real costs are going to be is not in the military costs," Nordhaus said. "It is going to be in the post-war costs. . . . Those are likely to be at least $100 billion and could be as high as $500 (billion) or $600 billion over the next decade."
(Knight Ridder correspondent Carol Rosenberg contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.