Before America strikes ...

August 04, 2002|By Trudy Rubin


Administration officials from President Bush down keep telling us their policy is to oust Saddam Hussein. Pentagon leaks about military options and likely attack dates are proliferating.

So thanks are due Democratic Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, who held Foreign Relations Committee hearings last week on the questions Americans need to debate before such a major military operation.

These questions include how big a threat Mr. Hussein still poses, what are the range and risks of options to confront him, and what plans the United States has for Iraq once Mr. Hussein is gone.

As we roll toward a war the United States would fight largely solo, with some help from the British, it becomes essential to get these issues aired. This kind of war will require public and congressional support to convince our enemies and allies that the administration won't falter.

Back in late 1990, when I was in Baghdad, senior Iraqi officials refused to believe Bush pM-hre was serious about war plans until Congress voted its support.

That support won't be forthcoming this time without answers to questions that trouble even some who endorse an Iraq war. Myself included. So here are some issues and questions that Congress and the American public must confront:

Exactly how big is the threat posed by Mr. Hussein's effort to obtain weapons of mass destruction (WMD)? And whom does he threaten?

We know he wants biological, chemical and nuclear weapons in order to dominate the region. We know he has a covert program he'd continue even if United Nations weapons inspectors were allowed back into Iraq. Do we know how far his WMD program has evolved over the last few years?

To make the case for war, the administration must counter media leaks from Pentagon brass that Mr. Hussein poses no immediate threat, and that the present policy of containment can be continued. Do experts believe that containment will falter, and economic sanctions collapse, providing Mr. Hussein with the cash to buy his way into the nuclear club? Is there concrete evidence that he might hand off WMD to terrorists who threaten the United States, even if this risks his own destruction?

Effective answers to those questions could provide legitimate justification for pre-emption.

But if the WMD program is Mr. Hussein's most fearful weapon, do we have sufficient means to prevent him from using anthrax against our troops or Israel if he feels cornered? The threat we fear most may be triggered if Mr. Hussein believes he has nothing to lose.

Is the administration prepared for possible upheaval in the region if it goes forward with war?

No doubt the Mideast will be a better place once Mr. Hussein is gone. But while we are getting there, a lot of bad things could happen in the neighborhood.

If an Iraq war drags on, while Israel-Palestinian violence continues unabated, the small gulf states that let us use their bases may face severe upheaval. So may Jordan.

Are we planning to help Iraqis liberate themselves, or do we plan a massive invasion and occupation of Iraq?

Iraq hawks in the Bush administration used to talk about helping the Iraqi opposition with Special Forces and air support, as we helped the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. But senior U.S. military officers don't believe the Iraqi opposition has enough reliable forces on the ground.

Iraqi opposition leaders counter that a massive invasion would be a disaster, creating the image of U.S. diktat rather than a war of liberation. Is there a credible strategy somewhere between the Afghan and invasion models?

Does the administration have a political plan for post-Hussein Iraq?

If not, the demise of the dictator may bring about another military dictatorship. Or it may lead to the breakup of Iraq, with neighboring Turkey and Iran picking over the carcass. Neither of these scenarios would provide the rosier Iraq and Middle East that Bush officials promise.

To avoid the breakup of Iraq, or a new dictatorship, some Iraq hawks propose that the United States occupy Baghdad indefinitely and create the first Arab democracy. But Iraq is not postwar Germany or Japan, nor are we aiming to defeat the country as we did the Axis powers. Our goal is to replace Mr. Hussein; occupation would discredit any new leadership we installed.

We can help Iraqis rebuild their country (they have plenty of oil money), but we must not try to do it ourselves. Instead, the administration should be developing a strategy for a transitional government of exiled opposition leaders who will be joined by Iraqis from inside the country when Mr. Hussein falls.

Such a council could hold the country together, giving Kurds and Shiites a guaranteed role. It could choose a new prime minister and call for elections once Iraq settled down.

Until now, different administration departments have squabbled over which Iraqi opposition factions to support. Iraqi opposition figures, in turn, have fought among themselves. Finally, the administration has invited top opposition leaders to meet together in Washington, with senior State and Defense Department officials.

This is the time for the administration to demonstrate it does indeed have a political plan for The Day After. It is also time for Bush officials to join a national dialogue on their Iraq policy.

The Biden hearings marked only the beginning of the debate.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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