CHICAGO - Take a people tired of being tyrannized, add an opposition force determined to overthrow the government, blend with a handful of B-52s, bake for a few weeks and there you have it - victory. The United States used this recipe with startling results in Afghanistan, and a cadre of hawks insists it will work just as well in Iraq.
Their reasoning is like saying that if you can cook yourself breakfast, you would have no trouble making Thanksgiving dinner for 30. The Taliban turned out to be a flimsy opponent whose defeat required only minimal exertion. But the reason Saddam Hussein is still around to annoy us is that he is exceptionally tenacious and durable.
With sufficient time, resolve and bloodshed, the United States might be able to bring down his regime. But we shouldn't delude ourselves into thinking that the most strenuous and time-consuming part of the war would be the victory parade.
The Bush administration, which earlier resisted demands to go after Hussein, sounds as though it's reconsidering. Last week, the president addressed the Iraqi dictator by declaring, "If you develop weapons of mass destruction that you want to terrorize the world, you'll be held accountable." Asked what that might mean, he replied, "He'll find out."
The advocates of a wider war imagine that Hussein's government would collapse under serious military pressure. They risk the mistake made by the first President Bush and his aides back in 1991, which was assuming that they could unseat him without marching to Baghdad. The idea that losing a war would destroy Hussein was reasonable back then. Today, it amounts to wishful thinking of the most irresponsible kind.
In Afghanistan, we had the advantage of fighting an enemy that was barely a government and had hardly a friend in the world. Neighboring countries like Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Turkey and Russia quickly agreed to help. Even our arch nemesis Iran cooperated in the effort to eliminate the Taliban. But such cooperation would be hard to come by in a war against Iraq.
Saudi Arabia would probably refuse to allow us to fly missions from its air bases. Iran, fearful of being next on our list of targets, would actively resist our efforts. The Arab world would take about three seconds to unite against us.
We might find the world united against us. "Europe would have many very, very serious questions about that," says German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, which is how diplomats say "Fuhgeddaboudit." Even the ever-loyal British reject the idea.
The apparent plan is to channel arms, money and training to opposition groups inside Iraq. Then, when they're ready to stage a military offensive, we would mercilessly pound the government's forces from the air. A few victories would follow, the population would rise against their oppressors, and soon Hussein would be hanging from a lamppost.
Are these people serious? The opposition coalition in Iraq is a pale facsimile of the Northern Alliance, and the Iraqi army is a formidable military foe. Hussein can field some 400,000 troops and a couple of thousand tanks. Among his assets are 100,000 members of the elite Republican Guard, which held together under weeks of U.S. pummeling during the Persian Gulf war.
Hussein's soldiers are not likely to bolt at the first whiff of gunpowder. If the Iraqi military and people didn't turn on Hussein in 1991, after he had been routed in a war he brought on himself, why would they do it now?
Softening his forces up enough to give our allies a chance to win would require the most ambitious bombing campaign since Vietnam. University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape, author of the book Bombing to Win, thinks the air war might take as long as a year - which may be a lot longer than the American people would support it.
Even then, the opposition would eventually face the prospect of bloody street-by-street fighting in urban areas, where U.S. air power would be of little help.
The hawks are so busy assuring us of smooth sailing that they never face the crucial question: What if things go wrong?
Do we deploy hundreds of thousands of American ground troops to occupy Iraq by force? Or do we abandon the opposition to its fate, walk away and accept a humiliating defeat? At that point, we may wish we'd focused on containing Hussein rather than destroying him.
We were lucky to dislodge the Taliban with so little effort. But Las Vegas is full of busted gamblers who expected to be lucky every time.
Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.