Bush administration lurches toward a big mess in Iraq

August 13, 2002|By Steve Chapman

IN THE 1972 film The Candidate, Robert Redford plays an idealistic lawyer who is talked into launching a maverick campaign against an apparently unbeatable U.S. senator. On Election Day, though, the insurgent surprises everyone by winning. When the returns are announced and his supporters erupt in cheers, Redford's character, looking stunned and forlorn, turns to his campaign manager and mouths a question: "What do we do now?"

That's the question American policymakers -- and the American people -- may find themselves asking before long in Iraq. Almost all the discussions of our coming war with Saddam Hussein have focused on how much better off the world will be once he is serving as nourishment for worms. The president seems to think that from that day forth, we'll all be whistling Happy Days Are Here Again. He may find instead that our troubles have just begun.

Merely getting to that point won't be easy. Mr. Hussein's neighbors, who you might think would be most eager to remove him, have vehemently denounced the whole enterprise. When we went to war against Iraq in 1991, we had the world on our side. This time, we're playing the Lone Ranger. If Mr. Hussein is shrewd enough to re-admit United Nations weapons inspectors, as he recently suggested he might, the international opposition will only multiply.

And that's not the most worrisome opposition. Just about everyone wearing a uniform at the Pentagon seems to think it's a lousy idea. The generals feel the U.S. military has done a perfectly adequate job of keeping the Iraqi dictator bottled up, and that the war would be a messier undertaking than many Bush advisers like to imagine.

Keep in mind those weapons of mass destruction that have the administration so alarmed. Mr. Hussein didn't use his chemical and biological weapons in the last war because he knew he'd be guaranteeing his destruction. This time, his destruction is the whole mission. So he can be expected to hit our soldiers with every vile thing he's got.

And maybe not just our soldiers. Iraqi agents might smuggle lethal pathogens into the United States and release them as soon as the first bomb falls on Baghdad. Will the public still think this war is a good idea if the price is thousands of American civilians dying horrible deaths from smallpox?

Plenty could go wrong if we attack Iraq. But even if everything goes right, we may be trading a big set of problems for a bigger one. Invading a sovereign nation and destroying its government saddles us with the unenviable obligation of running the place. But in this realm, Americans are better at making commitments than sticking to them. In Afghanistan, the very source of the Sept. 11 attacks, we pretty much lost interest as soon as the Taliban collapsed and al-Qaida headed for the hills. We've got only 7,000 soldiers in the country, doing little besides keeping President Hamid Karzai alive.

Nation-building, even in Afghanistan, is more than we're willing to take on. What makes us think we'll find the burdens of empire any more appealing in Iraq?

Americans have a great stake in containing Saddam Hussein's aggressive instincts and deterring his use of weapons of mass destruction. But we have nothing to justify occupying Iraq and staying there as long as necessary to remake it in our image. The U.S. government is going to realize that reality sooner or later. Better to do so before we jump into the quagmire.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays in The Sun.

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