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Invading Iraq: Why This? Why Now?

Everybody agrees that Saddam Hussein should go. But does he pose an immediate threat? A Rolling Stone panel

Iraq, Wesley Clark

General Wesley Clark is one of several experts Rolling Stone spoke to about the current situation in Iraq.

David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

THE WAR DRUMS, BEATING FOR MORE THAN A YEAR, will reach their crescendo on December 8th when Iraq, under the terms of November’s U.N. Security Council resolution, must provide inspectors with a complete list of its weapons of mass destruction. Many experts believe that the U.S. will be able to find enough evidence that Saddam Hussein has flouted international law to justify an invasion. The costs for both Iraq and the United States will almost certainly be significant. Rolling Stone convened a panel of experts to explain the basics of this invasion: Why are we doing this? What are the risks? And what will it lead to down the line?

The U.S. has already moved troops, tanks and bombers into the Persian Gulf region. But still it’s not clear to many Americans that Iraq itself poses an immediate threat.
KENNETH POLLACK:Iraq does not pose an immediate threat to the U.S. Iraqi scientists and engineers are working feverishly to produce nuclear weapons, which is a violation of international law, but we don’t expect the weapons to be ready for several years. The United States most definitely should invade before that happens. There is a strong argument for taking more time to prepare for the risks associated with waging this war. But from a political perspective, it’s basically now or never: The Bush administration has somewhat backed itself into a corner by having raised expectations so high. It will be nearly impossible for them to once again generate the kind of public and international support they now have.

DR. KHIDHIR HAMZA: We have no choice but to invade. It will be impossible to control Saddam, to contain his development of weapons of mass destruction. He has 18,000 workers in his weapons program. There is no way a couple of hundred U.N. inspectors can outwit his regime. The decision is whether to go to war now or to wait until he has nuclear weapons, and then the costs will be unimaginable.

CHARLES FREEMAN: I am very skeptical about the necessity of an invasion, and I am concerned about the possible consequences not only to the American position in the Middle East but to our alliance structure at large. I was ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the last Gulf War, and I supported that action. It was the right thing to do, and it worked. This is the wrong thing to do, it is unlikely to work, and it has little behind-the-scenes support. There are a handful of political appointees who are enthusiasts. The military is mostly opposed to this whole adventure. The intelligence bureaucracy is unenthusiastic, to put it mildly.

AL GORE: We have the FBI saying the bureau has lost focus on the war against terror. We have CIA officials telling the press that resources needed for victory in the war against terror are being diverted to the war against Iraq. We have the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff saying we’ve lost ground in Afghanistan. We have the director of the CIA saying that al Qaeda has reconstituted itself and poses as big a threat now as it did during the weeks preceding 9/11. This is a matter for serious concern.

YOUSSEF IBRAHIM: In my thirty years covering the Middle East for the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, I have not seen a bigger group of imbeciles than the current administration in the White House. What right do we have to say that Saddam is a menace to the United States right now when (A) he has no missiles that could reach us; and (B) even his neighbors don’t feel he is a threat? Every one of them — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Iran — is opposed to this invasion.

SEN. ROBERTY KERREY: One of the reasons Iraq’s neighbors don’t feel he’s a threat is that for eleven years the United States and our allies have been waging limited warfare against Saddam Hussein in order to contain him. And our containment efforts are hitting the innocent people of Iraq much harder than the perpetrator himself.

What is the relationship between the war on Iraq and the war on terror?
GEN. WESLEY CLARK: Thus far, there’s been no connection established between Saddam Hussein and the atrocities of September 11th, 2001. Maybe there is something the president knows that he hasn’t shared with anybody else. But according to people who are on the inside of this and have looked at the evidence, apparently there is no new information to underscore the urgency.

POLLACK: Nevertheless, September 11th changed public attitudes toward an invasion of Iraq: It convinced many Americans that we need to actively seek out threats and destroy them before they can strike us. My sense is that the Bush administration has wanted to invade Iraq since entering office, but before September 11th, the American people never would have supported it. Today, he’s got over sixty percent approval. Same thing goes for our allies: No one wants to cross a wounded superpower.

FOUAD AJAMI: There is a direct connection between leaving Saddam in place after the Gulf War and September 11th. By leaving him in place, we pledged ourselves to military containment operations and stationed a heavy military presence in Saudi Arabia, a country that could not bear the presence of foreigners. So we radicalized Saudi Arabia, and that gave rise to al Qaeda. We must correct the error we committed in 1991. In doing so, we will not undermine the war on terror.

IBRAHIM: Our war on terror has been a miserable failure. All evidence shows that Osama bin Laden is still alive and al Qaeda is getting bigger and more dangerous. The moment we distract ourselves with Iraq, al Qaeda will see its golden moment has arrived.

KERREY: It’s possible that in the short term, this will give some ammunition to al Qaeda activists, but in the medium term, in a year or two, it enables the U.S. to say we’re fighting for the freedom of Arabs.

Is war inevitable?
KERREY: So much of the Bush administration’s actions depend on public opinion. They’re watching the polls all the time. The public is behind a multilateral effort in Iraq but opposes a unilateral effort. If our allies are not convinced, and public opinion remains where it is, the president will not go it alone.

AJAMI: Saddam Hussein has flouted the U.N. and violated international law. He has been stringing us along for years and years. The time has come. We will go to war with this man.

FREEMAN: Saddam has shown that while he’s a dangerous man, he is deterrable. The one circumstance in which we know he will do desperate things is when he is put into extremes. We now propose to put him into such a position — virtually guaranteeing that he will commit vile acts that he otherwise would not.

LISA ANDERSON: There are a number of other countries besides Iraq that have signed nuclear-non-proliferation agreements and violated them. It’s not clear to me that we know how we decide which ones merit invasion and which we can try to manage on political and diplomatic terms.

GORE: If Iraq is the first point of application, it is not necessarily the last. The very logic of the concept suggests a string of military engagements against a succession of sovereign states — Syria, Libya, North Korea, Iran — none of them very popular in the United States. But the implication is that wherever the combination exists of an interest in weapons of mass destruction, together with an ongoing role as host to terrorist operations, the doctrine will apply.

CLARK: It’s a very difficult position the president has built for himself. The cards have been laid on the table. It’s going to be hard for him to walk away from this.

Do you think domestic political concerns are driving Bush’s Iraq policy?
GORE: [Bush adviser] Karl Rove was caught saying the primary election strategy for Republican candidates in the midterm elections was to “focus on the war.” Then, Andrew Card, the White House chief of staff, was quoted saying, “You don’t introduce new products in August.” Which implies that the war against terror lacked the newness that a product line going into the elections needs. Perhaps he meant something different by the phrase, but I think he inadvertently committed candor.

IBRAHIM: Can you think of a worse time for our country to incur $300 billion in war expenses than when the economy is in a meltdown condition?

WILLIAM NORDHAUS: And yet the administration marches ahead, heedless of fiscal realities, while slow growth, deficits and growing healthcare problems threaten the economy. These issues will take a backseat while the U.S. is preoccupied with the war on Iraq.

Why do you think we haven’t seen a more vocal opposition to Bush’s plans?
FREEMAN: After September 11th, we all want to rally around the leader, right? I do. I feel reluctant to be critical of the president on matters touching on terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. I think the Democratic Party made a serious misjudgment during the election. I’m not a Democrat, by the way. They basically “me-too’d” it on the war and tried to talk about the economy instead. People like [House Minority Leader Richard] Gephardt felt they were on the wrong side last time and didn’t want to make that mistake again.

How long might the fighting last?
CLARK: My reasonable estimate would be perhaps two weeks of fighting before the Iraqi forces collapse. The expectation is that most of the cost would be in the peacekeeping and reconstructing.

NORDHAUS: If it’s a brief war like the first Gulf War in 1991, and the occupation is relatively short, it should cost about $100 billion. If things get nasty, if the peacekeeping effort is protracted, if oil prices shoot up and if all this triggers a recession, then the costs could be up to $1.9 trillion.

How about the inspections process? Does Bush have any intention of resolving the dispute peacefully through the U.N.?
ANDERSON: The inspections process — working through the U.N. — represents an acknowledgement of the importance of law and procedure in international politics. If we were to flout this process, it would be a little like the old American tradition of lynching: taking the law into our own hands without regard to due process. If we ignore international institutions, it will lead only to lawlessness and anarchy.

FREEMAN: The debate in the U.N. that resulted in the resolution was not so much driven by concern over Iraq as a rogue state but rather concern over the U.S. as a possible rogue state that would act in defiance of international law.

GORE: The rest of the world is now less concerned about what al Qaeda is going to do than what the U.S. is going to do — a reversal of fortune after the great wave of sympathy we had after September 11th. In theory, it might be possible to achieve our goals in Iraq unilaterally, but that could seriously damage the kind of multilateral cooperation we need to win the war against terrorism.

HAMZA: Strategically, the U.S. has a lot to benefit from the inspections process. It will force Saddam to hide his weapons so well that they will not be easily deployable if an invasion does follow. Therefore, U.S. troops will be in much less danger.

AJAMI: Bush’s handling of this has been superb. He has shown patience in the war on terror, and he went the extra mile to get unanimous support at the U.N.

Will war in Iraq put the American public in harm’s way?
CLARK: Saddam does not have any missiles that could strike the United States. The only way he could attack the U.S. would be through terrorists.

FREEMAN: He has likely pre-positioned some sort of retaliatory capacity inside the United States. But the great danger to our long-term interests is that our invasion of Iraq will lead to anti-American upheaval in the Muslim world. I strongly suspect also that Baghdad will immediately attempt to involve Israel, which would make the U.S. and Israel de facto allies against Iraq and the rest of the Arab world.

GORE: The chaos in the aftermath of a military victory in Iraq could pose a far greater danger to the United States than we now face from Saddam. Despite pledges from President Bush that we would never again abandon Afghanistan, we have done precisely that. What if, after we invade Iraq, al Qaeda members infiltrated across the borders of Iraq the way they are in Afghanistan? What if all of those biological weapons in Iraq fell into the hands of terrorists?

LESLIE GELB: It would be irresponsible not to assume that invading Iraq will increase the likelihood of a terrorist attack against America. I want to see vaccines come into American cities and plans and practices put in place for dealing with chemical- and biological-weapons attacks or nuclear-bomb attacks or suicide bombers.

CLARK: When the government of Saddam Hussein falls, who knows who might get their hands on a bag of anthrax spores — it’s like twenty-first-century gold. People would pay a lot of money for that.

Is this a war about oil?
KERREY: It’s far more complex than that. There are benefits for the world in seeing this through, chief among them freedom for Iraqis. Now is the time to send a new message to the Middle East: After years of mistakes, the U.S. is squarely on the side of freedom for Arab people.

IBRAHIM: I firmly believe our oil interests are driving this war. We’ve said as much: It’s on the record. People in the administration, like Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, have spoken about it. Their attitude is: This is our big chance to make Iraq into a pumping station for America. Iraq has 120 billion barrels proven, and twice that amount is underground — unreported. Iraq is the only country on Earth that could have as much proven reserves as Saudi Arabia.

NORDHAUS: But oil is a complicated story; it will depend a lot on what the Iraqi oil infrastructure looks like at the end of the war. There have been reports that Saddam has already packed the wells with explosives and is just waiting for an invasion to blow them up. Moreover, oil-exporting countries could have a political reaction to a U.S. invasion and call for a boycott as they did after the Arab-Israeli War in 1973. If so, prices will skyrocket. Oil is now around twenty-five dollars a barrel — it could go as high as thirty, fifty, eighty dollars. Gas prices could go up to three dollars a gallon.

So the U.S. won’t necessarily be able to take control of Iraq’s oil fields?
NORDHAUS: Unless the U.S. takes over the country and takes over the oil fields and turns it into Texas on the Tigris, I don’t really see the oil markets over the next few years becoming awash in Iraqi oil.

FREEMAN: Why would Iraq flood the market? Their interest would be very similar to that of Saudi Arabia: long-term price stability at relatively high prices. Only if you assume that the Iraqi government is a puppet government in perpetuity can you imagine that they would favor our interests over their own.

Assuming Saddam falls — then what?
GELB: We have to establish a government and constitutional structure that, one, guarantees the unity of the state; two, gives each Iraqi group — Kurds, Sunnis and Shias — control over its own destiny; and, three, provides for a sharing of the oil wealth.

NORDHAUS: I think it’s unlikely that we will commit ourselves to an extensive reconstruction. Look at the numbers: In Afghanistan, we spent $13 billion on the war and $10 million on civil works and humanitarian aid.

POLLACK: If we seriously commit ourselves to building a stable, prosperous Iraq, Arabs will say, “Wow, the Americans are finally putting their money where their mouth is.” But if we handle Iraq the way we handled Afghanistan — if we just go in there, take down the government and set up a puppet government and basically walk away, it will only reinforce the sense among the Arabs that all we care about is oil.

HAMZA: Anti-Americanism will disappear when the U.S. goes into Iraq. The American media will go into Saddam’s prisons and torture centers and expose the terror of his reign. When the media exposes these hideous crimes, nobody will be able to deny that they had to end.

CLARK: A completely successful attack would send an important message to other governments that may be considering developing weapons of mass destruction: They’re putting themselves at great risk in doing so.

KERREY: Maybe I’ve got too much hope. I would like the history of our country to be written to say we liberated Iraq. We helped to liberate Europe, and we stayed there long enough for the Soviet Union to fall. We have plenty of examples of where we did terrible things, but we also have tremendous examples of where we did really good things, and I’d like for one of those to be Iraq.

FREEMAN: Democracy cannot be imposed by foreigners. Iraq might in time develop into a democracy, but democracy there will not necessarily produce things that are in the interests of the United States. The notion that the Arab masses yearn for friendly relations with Israel and the United States and agree with American views on oil prices is, frankly, laughable.

IBRAHIM: Of course, the Iraqi people want to eliminate Hussein and will cooperate with us in the ambush. But once he’s gone, they will look at us and say, “What the hell are you doing here?” These are people who have been starving to death under U.S.-backed sanctions for over a decade and who believe, like many of their neighbors, that we are the most unfair human beings on earth.

AJAMI: It’s very amusing that liberals who oppose the war suddenly don’t think that the Arab people are ready for democracy. They’ve given up their own ideals. The Iraqi people must be liberated. Liberty can travel to the world.

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