Iraq: Is Peace an Option?
Over the past few weeks, the pressure against a U.S. attack on Iraq has mounted intensely. Massive demonstrations were launched, and nations that oppose war have not shifted their positions. But the opposition is not decisive, in the sense that the United States does not need the material assistance of anti-war nations to invade Iraq, nor does the public barrage of opposition create a material challenge to war. What these factors do is create is a psychological barrier in which the sense of isolation has the potential to undermine U.S. determination.
U.S. polls give some indication that this psychological dimension is having some effect on Washington. The majority of Americans continue to support a war, but the number is declining somewhat. Moreover, the number of Americans who want to go to war only if military action is sanctioned by a U.N. resolution is quite large. The position of the American public in essence seems to be that citizens favor war but would much prefer that military action be internationally sanctioned. Now, polls are volatile: Historically, at the beginning of a war, the numbers have shifted toward overwhelming support for the president. For long years during the Vietnam War, public opinion continued to support the military action. Therefore, the Bush administration knows that the poll numbers being seen now are sufficient to support a war.
However, two problems emerge. First, the political configuration in Britain has deteriorated substantially over the last two months, and Prime Minister Tony Blair clearly is signaling intense political problems. Unlike other countries, Britain provides substantial material support to the war effort, and loss of that support would directly affect U.S. war-fighting capabilities. The second problem is military: A quick U.S. victory in Iraq would change the political equation domestically and have a substantial effect globally, particularly if casualties were minimal and occupation forces were to discover stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. However, there is no way to guarantee any of these things. This war — like all wars — potentially could be more difficult and costly than either side expects or hopes.
Therefore, the United States must take a calculated risk. It is possible that massive U.S. pressure might produce a shift within the U.N. Security Council, but the basic configuration of global opinion will remain intensely opposed to war. There is a high probability of victory, but no commander can afford to begin a war that he not only must win, but win quickly, cheaply and with no nasty surprises. Therefore, the United States could find itself in a more extended war than it seeks, with the psychological pressure of global opposition reverberating through the media. That is the last thing Washington wants.
It would seem to follow that the logical course for the United States would be to find a basis for not going to war with Iraq. Enough solutions are floating around in the world that Washington could craft a suitably plausible justification for the decision not to go to war, and perhaps even claim a victory of sorts. Since the Bush administration appears to have lost the diplomatic and psychological initiative gained after the Sept. 11 attacks, this would seem the rational outcome.
In our view, this is not what the Bush administration is going to do — because it cannot afford to do so from either a strategic or a political standpoint. There is no doubt within the Bush administration that the protracted run-up to war has allowed opposition to solidify, and that the international political process leading up to war has become unmanageable. The decision to use the threat of weapons of mass destruction, rather than the deeper strategic issues we have been discussing to justify a war has created unexpected problems. It was assumed that the presence of WMD in Iraq would be generally recognized and regarded as a problem that must be solved — even if there the solution lay in war. Instead, it has turned the discussion of war into a detectives' game in which some of the judges will not admit that a violation exists, even when photos of a missile are distributed. At root, France, Russia and the rest are not particularly concerned about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. They are deeply concerned, however, about the strategic consequences of a U.S. victory in Iraq, which would leave the United States the defining power in the region. These countries oppose the strategic outcome of the war and are using the publicly stated justification for military action — WMD — as their reason to oppose war. Allowing the WMD issue to become the touchstone was clearly a fundamental miscalculation by Washington.
Put another way, the opponents of war recognized the U.S. gambit and, for reasons of grand strategy — as well as some idiosyncratic realities — refused to play.
Nevertheless, retreating from the commitment to war would represent a serious challenge to the Bush administration in three areas: strategy, psychological warfare and domestic politics. As in a game of chess, many options appear to be available — but when the board is studied in detail, the constraints are much more substantial and the options much more limited.
The strategic challenge is tremendous. After Sept. 11, the United States did not have a war-fighting strategy. The strategy that was first adopted — a combination of defending the homeland and attacking al Qaeda directly — has proven difficult if not ineffective. Al Qaeda is a sparse, global network operating in a target-rich environment. A defense of the homeland is simply impractical; there are just too many potential targets and too many ways to attack them. Attacking al Qaeda on an operative-by-operative basis is possible but extremely inefficient. The inability to capture — or actually to locate — Osama bin Laden is emblematic of the challenges posed to the United States in any dynamic, global conflict with a small, mobile group.
Washington's decision to redefine the conflict was driven by the ineffectiveness of this response. The goal has been to compel nations to crack down on citizens who are enabling al Qaeda — financially, through supplying infrastructure, intelligence and so on. Many governments, like that of Saudi Arabia, had no inclination to do so because the internal political consequences were too dangerous and the threat from the United States too distant and abstract. The U.S. strategy, therefore, was to position itself in such a way that Washington could readjust these calculations — increasing cooperation and decreasing al Qaeda's ability to operate.
Invading Iraq was a piece of this strategy. Iraq, the most strategic country in the region, would provide a base of operations from which to pressure countries like Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iraq was a piece of the solution, but far from the solution as a whole. Nevertheless, the conquest and occupation of Iraq would be at once a critical stepping-stone, a campaign in a much longer war and a proof of concept for dealing with al Qaeda.
If the United States does not invade Iraq, it will have to generate a new war-fighting strategy against al Qaeda. The problem for Washington is that it doesn't have another strategy, except the homeland defense/global covert war strategy, which has not proved clearly effective by itself since Sept. 11. If the United States abandons the operation in Iraq, follow-on operations against enablers of al Qaeda will be enormously more difficult.
First, the key base of operations would not exist.
It should be noted here that the United States has deployed the bulk of its mobile strike forces to the region. They cannot be kept there indefinitely, due to threats elsewhere in the world. Therefore, as they withdrew, profound political concerns would emerge in countries such as Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman, which have taken political and strategic risks to align themselves with the United States. As Washington withdraws its forces and Saddam Hussein continues to dominate Iraq, the willingness of other nations to stand with the United States will decline. The effect on U.S. allies in the region who have agreed to participate in the war against Iraq will be substantial and will reverberate for an extended period of time.
This is the second point: Coalition warfare relies heavily on perceptions of reliability. During the Cold War, this was called "credibility." Credibility is a two-edged sword: It can create coalitions, and it also can cause nations to do things they don't want to do in order to retain their credibility. Credibility must be managed; it is indispensable. A precipitous capitulation would damage credibility seriously.
This leads to the second dimension: psychology. The credibility of the threat posed by the United States will decline substantially if there is no war. The calculation within the Islamic world of whether al Qaeda or the United States is more to be feared will solidify rapidly: Al Qaeda is a real threat to regimes in the region; the United States is not. If Washington abandons its war plans and Hussein is left in place, the perception in the Islamic world will be that the United States had neither the will nor the power to destroy its enemy. One of the arguments that al Qaeda has made consistently is that the United States is weak and that its troops will not endure hardship and danger. It is this argument that has made bin Laden's recruitment effective.
If the United States abandons war under the current conditions, then Hussein not only would be perceived as victorious, but also would be seen as victorious because of a bodyguard of great powers that protect him. It would be argued that these great powers oppose the United States just as much as the Islamic world does. The United States would be seen as having been strategically paralyzed by a global alliance.
Thus, at a time when the United States is trying to reverse the perception within the Islamic world that it is a militarily ineffective power, mobilizing forces, deploying them to the region, threatening war and then refraining from action would have the opposite effect. Moreover, at a time when the United States is less dependent on allies for war-fighting than at other points in its history, the perception that would result would be exactly the opposite.
The net result would be increased credibility for both Hussein and Islamic radicals, who might have very different ideologies but share common interests. There have been those who have argued that recruitment for radical Islamic groups would grow in the event of war against Iraq. That might be true. However, one of the major bars to recruitment has been a sense that the radical cause is hopeless. A U.S. abandonment of war at this point would increase hope and therefore increase both ferment and recruitment. Things that have appeared impossible now would appear manageable, and risks that wouldn't be taken before could be taken now. An abandonment of war, in our view, actually would increase the probability of strikes by Islamic militants against U.S. interests over the long run.
Finally, there is a domestic political consideration. All U.S. presidents take these considerations into account when mulling whether to fight — or not to fight — wars. All presidents keep their eyes on the polls when making their decisions on war and peace, and George W. Bush is no different. Bush is almost exactly one year away from the Republican primaries. He is facing a Democratic Party that thus far is still sorting itself out from its mid-term election losses and a quiescent Republican Party.
If the president abandons his plans on Iraq and the regime survives intact, Bush would lose a good portion of his party, of which about 83 percent supports the war option. There is not much anti-war sentiment among Republicans, and the anti-war movement is not going to endorse Bush — but rather would make the argument that it blocked Bush from making war. The net result would be a challenge to Bush within the Republican Party, probably from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who simply would argue that Bush is too indecisive to be president. Even if he turned back the challenge from McCain — or someone else — Bush would be badly weakened in 2004. He cannot afford to be weak after his marginal and disputed victory in 2000. Therefore, for Bush, the domestic consequences of not going to war would be devastating: His opponents would get the credit for stopping the war and his supporters would feel betrayed.
Bush's problem is that, for nearly a year, he has been talking about the importance of the Iraq issue. He has made it the centerpiece of his public diplomacy and of his domestic political base. Iraq also represents the only coherent strategy that has emerged from a politico-military standpoint since Sept. 11. It is not a great strategy against al Qaeda, but it is the only coherent strategic option on the table — aside from waiting and hoping that the next attack is foiled. It does not have an immediate application, but it has a long-term application. It is the best hand Bush has in a series of pretty bad hands.
Therefore, it is extremely difficult to imagine Bush simply abandoning his policy on Iraq, or adopting a transparent pretense of having achieved his goals. There was certainly a time when he could have chosen to abandon the Iraq issue; there also was a time when he could have attacked with much less public outcry. Those times are past. He cannot walk away now, and he cannot attack without an international uproar. The logic of his situation is that he will attack, endure the uproar and let what he badly hopes is a quick victory carry him over the hurdle.
Bush might wish at this point that he had not embarked on his campaign against Iraq. Alternatively, he might wish that he had acted sooner. However, given his strategic premises, diplomatic realities and political interests, we continue to believe that Bush will order an invasion of Iraq — regardless of the evolution of diplomatic events — and that this attack will come sooner rather than later.