I am noting more and more that commentators on the ongoing showdown with Iraq are talking past each other. First, let us dismiss out of hand the Chomsky/Sontag types, and the decrepit human detritus of the Vietnam-era anti-war movement, which is enjoying a moment’s febrile nostalgia before finally withering away. No, that is not it. The intelligent question is whether, given that America has interests at stake, what are those interests, and what should we do to achieve them? The Bush administration is not helping much, because, while it focuses on disarmament, and refers to compliance with the U.N.’s resolutions, the strong sense one gets is that it has larger ambitions, operating under the code phrase “regime change”. For the former, enforcing U.N. resolutions, something as minimal as a deal with the existing regime could, conceivably, suffice. For the latter, nothing less than conquest and occupation of Iraq and reconstruction along the lines of Germany and Japan after 1945 will do. In their much-cited essay “An Unnecessary War”, arch-realists John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt offer an analysis which basically concludes that Saddam is not entirely irrational, and that he can be contained and deterred, even if he obtains nuclear weapons, so a war is unnecessary. This piece, like everything by Mearsheimer is relentlessly logical and vigorously argued. I had the good fortune to be an undergraduate in two of Mearsheimer’s courses, and I learned a lot from him, most of which I still think is correct. Right or wrong, he is a serious and hard-nosed thinker. Mearsheimer and Walt set up the argument this way:
The belief that Saddam’s past behavior shows he cannot be contained rests on distorted history and faulty logic. In fact, the historical record shows that the United States can contain Iraq effectively-even if Saddam has nuclear weapons-just as it contained the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Regardless of whether Iraq complies with U.N. inspections or what the inspectors find, the campaign to wage war against Iraq rests on a flimsy foundation.
Mearsheimer and Walt then proceed to make the case that Saddam is no less deterrable than the old Soviet Union, i.e. he cannot use nuclear weapons, nor can he blackmail anybody with them, because he would invite annihilation if ever tried to use nuclear weapons. They are a little less convincing in arguing that Saddam would not “hand off ” a bomb to a terrorist. They conclude as follows:
… Both logic and historical evidence suggest a policy of vigilant containment would work, both now and in the event Iraq acquires a nuclear arsenal. Why? Because the United States and its regional allies are far stronger than Iraq. And because it does not take a genius to figure out what would happen if Iraq tried to use WMD to blackmail its neighbors, expand its territory, or attack another state directly. It only takes a leader who wants to stay alive and who wants to remain in power. Throughout his lengthy and brutal career, Saddam Hussein has repeatedly shown that these two goals are absolutely paramount. That is why deterrence and containment would work.
If the United States is, or soon will be, at war with Iraq, Americans should understand that a compelling strategic rationale is absent. This war would be one the Bush administration chose to fight but did not have to fight. Even if such a war goes well and has positive long-range consequences, it will still have been unnecessary. And if it goes badly-whether in the form of high U.S. casualties, significant civilian deaths, a heightened risk of terrorism, or increased hatred of the United States in the Arab and Islamic world-then its architects will have even more to answer for.
This article has been the most powerful assault on my pro-war position yet, and my summary does not do justice to its force. It took some mulling before I rejected it. First, my reading of Kenneth Pollack’s book, The Threatening Storm, suggests to me that Saddam is more a lone dictator than was the leadership of the old Soviet Union. Hence, whether he himself is personally sane or not is in fact relevant. And I’m not sure Saddam is so clearly a “rational” actor within the realist framework that Mearsheimer and Walt operate in. Nor do I think Saddam’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would be such a non-issue in our dealings with him and with other countries in the region. Mearsheimer and Walt seem to hold a view not held by others in the region. Whether possessing nuclear weapons is practical or symbolic, Saddam wants them, and other people in the regime seem to be afraid of him having them. Mearsheimer and Waltz even assert that a “Desert Storm II” could be waged even if Saddam possessed nuclear weapons:
… If Saddam initiated nuclear war against the United States over Kuwait, he would bring U.S. nuclear warheads down on his own head. Given the choice between withdrawing or dying, he would almost certainly choose the former. Thus, the United States could wage Desert Storm II against a nuclear-armed Saddam without precipitating nuclear war.
I do not find this convincing. I don’t think the United States would mass conventional military assets where a desperate or irrational Saddam or his successor could use a nuclear weapon on them. Iraq would likely perceive such a force as an existential threat, and the United States would not perceive even an occupied Kuwait as an existential threat. No administration would put American soldiers and sailors in that degree of hazard. Saddam possessing nuclear weapons would nullify America’s advantage in conventional military power in the region, and I find the contrary argument unconvincing. Our willingness to threaten annihilation against Soviet Russia turned on their ability to do the same. And the political will to maintain that stance was barely adequate to last out the Cold War. We could not muster the will to make similar threats of annihilation against any lesser foe. That is my take on American political reality, and I’ll stand by it. Finally, even on their own terms, let us take Mearsheimer and Walt’s rationality postulate and turn it around. If Saddam is rational, and if possessing nuclear weapons is such an obviously self-defeating proposal, why has he risked his regime and his life to obtain them? Political Scientists of the Realist school remind me of certain kinds of economists, who tell you why what everyone on earth thinks is the case is wrong. Still, everyone carries on pretty much as before, and sometimes more sophisticated social science models emerge later, and, by Jove, what everybody thought all along actually made some sense. I won’t discuss Jonathan Pollack at length, but at the end of the day, his arguments in The Threatening Storm on the possibility of containment or deterrence are more convincing than Walt and Mearsheimer’s. And his book is subtitled The Case for Invading Iraq. (Read it if you haven’t yet.) Despite all the foregoing, Mearsheimer and Walt have put their finger on a critical point, which is that the United States needs to more convincingly present a “compelling strategic rationale” for an attack on Iraq. That compelling strategic rationale goes beyond disarming Saddam. It is the creation of a more peaceable and orderly region, with Iraq as the test case. In other words, the goal should be to conquer Iraq and drag it kicking and screaming into the world of democracy, rights, capitalism, etc. to the maximum feasible extent, along the lines of what we did in Germany and Japan 50+ years ago. (Incidentally, the Realist case is that the type of regime is irrelevant to whether wars break out or who wins them. A recent example of this is Democracy and Victory, Why Regime Type Hardly Matters
by Michael C. Desch. I have not yet done more than skim the Desch article, but it looks like it is worth the effort.) Any number of commentators have been calling for just such a “maximalist” American engagement. I recently had the chance to read the current issue of Foreign Affairs. Fouad Ajami’s essay Iraq and the Arabs’ Future
is one of the best arguments I have seen for the maximalist strategy. Ajami lays out the options:
For American power, there are two ways in the Arab world. One is restraint, pessimistic about the possibility of changing that stubborn world, reticent about the uses of American power. In this vision of things, the United States would either spare the Iraqi dictator or wage a war with limited political goals for Iraq and for the region as a whole. The other choice, more ambitious, would envisage a more profound American role in Arab political life: the spearheading of a reformist project that seeks to modernize and transform the Arab landscape. Iraq would be the starting point, and beyond Iraq lies an Arab political and economic tradition and a culture whose agonies and failures have been on cruel display.
Ajami argues that the transformation of Iraq will be a major undertaking, but that it is not a pipe dream. He contrasts Iraq with Egypt and Saudi Arabia:
Iraq may offer a contrast, a base in the Arab world free of the poison of anti-Americanism. The country is not hemmed in by the kind of religious prohibitions that stalk the U.S. presence in the Saudi realm. It may have a greater readiness for democracy than Egypt, if only because it is wealthier and is free of the weight of Egypt’s demographic pressures and the steady menace of an Islamist movement.
Any fallout of war is certain to be dwarfed by the terrible consequences of America’s walking right up to the edge of war and then stepping back, letting the Iraqi dictator work out the terms of another reprieve. It is the fate of great powers that provide order to do so against the background of a world that takes the protection while it bemoans the heavy hand of the protector. This new expedition to Mesopotamia would be no exception to that rule.
So, the big problem, which Mearsheimer and Walt poke hard, is that the Bush Administration’s articulated reasons for the war are, arguably, insufficient for the risks and costs it is apparently willing to incur. My suspicion, and that of many others, is that the “limited aims” asserted by the Bush Administration are a mask for a more visionary and much more risky policy along the lines Ajami (and many others, usually less eloquent) suggests. In other words, the Bush administration’s actual goals are not the same as those articulated in its “declaratory policy”. (Further evidence can be found in the National Security Strategy
published by the Bush administration, which hints heavily that it has ambitious goals, e.g. to “champion aspirations for human dignity” and to “expand the circle of development by opening societies and building the infrastructure of democracy”. ) I don’t know what the Bush administration really plans to do. I don’t know if it knows. I find unusual Wilsonian stirrings in my breast. I feel a growing suspicion that there is a higher realism than the heartless physics-like modeling of systemic determinism, however valuable and accurate that type of Realism may frequently be. I fear that a mere “police action” in Iraq will settle only minor issues, and temporarily, and open us up greater dangers. Ultimately, Ajami’s analysis is more convincing than Walt and Mearsheimer’s – though they don’t really address the same concerns. If some hope and progress are not realized in the Muslim world, even if initially at the point of an American bayonet, and if America does not break with its habit of supporting and sustaining convenient tyrants in the Muslim World, then far worse disasters await us. Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, not at this point inevitable, will become more and more likely. The next few weeks and months will be terribly important ones.