Invading Iraq would turn a small threat into a big one

October 16, 2001|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - This war is different from the wars Americans are used to. Not because the enemy is mysterious and elusive. Not because we are unable to define our exact mission. Not because we may never achieve a clear victory.

What distinguishes this war from our other recent military undertakings, from Kosovo back to Vietnam, is simple: It wasn't optional.

We didn't choose to go to war against the al-Qaida terrorists and their sponsors in Kabul. They chose to go to war against us. Osama bin Laden and his allies have taken our past retreats (from Lebanon and Somalia, for example) as proof that the United States can't endure casualties. But that's a gross error.

This time, we're fighting to protect Americans on our soil from foreign attack, and that makes all the difference. Retreat offers no escape.

Much has been made in recent weeks about the alleged demise of the Powell doctrine. Authored by the current secretary of state, it says that the United States should use military force only when it has precise goals, an exit strategy and firm public support - and then only if it's willing to employ decisive force. Yet today, we are told, an administration in which Colin Powell plays a central part has embarked on a war that fails to meet those conditions.

In fact, there's no contradiction. The essence of Mr. Powell's view is that you shouldn't resort to military force unless your stake is big enough to justify the cost. We lost more than 5,300 lives on Sept. 11, and if the terrorists aren't stopped, more Americans will die. Stakes don't get much higher than that.

The real reason many people want to discredit the Powell doctrine is not because they want to attack the terrorists and their accomplices in Afghanistan. It's because they want to take the war to someone else.

The Weekly Standard magazine recently published an open letter to President Bush, signed by a long list of conservatives, urging "a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq." Anything less, they claim, "will constitute an early and perhaps decisive surrender in the war on international terrorism."

While the signers recommend assisting Iraqi opposition groups, they also say, "American forces must be prepared to back up our commitment to the Iraqi opposition by all necessary means."

If Hussein had a hand in the attacks, taking him out would make perfect sense. But there has been a conspicuous lack of evidence against him.

Last month, reports the Wall Street Journal, an al-Qaida spokesman denounced the Iraqi dictator, whose regime is secular rather than Islamic, as a "false God." And no one has made a good case why we should use this opportunity to settle an old score.

The disadvantages are obvious. Going after Iraq would destroy the coalition against the terrorists. It would spark violent unrest in the Muslim world. It would likely precipitate the overthrow of governments that have sided with us. It would probably embroil us in a bloody ground war in Iraq.

The advocates, however, say we have no choice. Hussein's possession of biological and chemical weapons, they argue, makes him an intolerable threat to carry out atrocities far worse than what happened last month. But we know better. If he were inclined to use these weapons against Americans, he could have done so during the Persian Gulf war. Even as he was losing, he chose not to. Why? Because he knew that the consequence would be annihilation.

Terrorists are harder to deter, because they operate secretively, hoping to carry out their attacks without being identified and punished. And bin Laden has already shown his determination to kill Americans on U.S. soil, which is why his network has to be eradicated.

Saddam Hussein is different. The aftermath of Sept. 11, if anything, makes him less of a threat than before. He now knows quite well that anyone launching an attack on the American homeland can expect an overwhelming military response. What is happening to the Taliban could happen to him. And he's never shown an interest in martyrdom.

The only thing that could cause the catastrophe feared by conservatives is the very action they propose. Faced with an all-out U.S. invasion aimed at demolishing his regime, he would no longer have any reason for restraint. If he's going to be destroyed, he might as well use every weapon he has.

Better for us to continue the tedious and unsatisfying - but so far successful - effort to contain the danger posed by Iraq. Some causes require committing America to war. Some causes don't.

Wise leadership, of the sort shown so far by Colin Powell and his boss, consists of knowing the difference.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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