Weak Arguments for Attack

Perhaps the most striking thing about the current discussion/ debate/ PR campaign about the possibility of the United States launching a pre-emptive strike against Iraq is the weakness of the arguments in favor of an attack – even if one accepts the premise that a pre-emptive strike is sometimes justified, necessary or desirable. Leaving open the possibility that the U.S. government really does have information it hasn’t yet shared with the American people and might one day choose to share, what we’ve heard so far doesn’t begin to meet even the criteria advocates of preemption seem to hold out as requiring such a strike. I’m less inclined to accept most arguments for pre-emptive strikes than many Americans, but I‘ve been trying to understand what the other side is saying, striving to see if there’s the kind of potential threat that could justify a major military incursion. As far as I can see, the argument requires assuming that Saddam Hussein is suicidally irrational. One can say all sorts of justifiably negative things about Saddam, of course, but few are able to make a persuasive case that he has a suicide wish. If anything, most observers are struck by his well-developed survival instincts and skills.


Here’s why this seems the case to me. To date I haven’t heard anyone argue that Saddam has an itch to attack the United States directly – well, he might have an itch, if he thought he could do so with relative impunity, but so far he hasn’t scratched it. A case can be made that he is a potential threat to his neighbors, although none of them besides Israel seems to feel so directly threatened as to welcome or desire a U.S. attack.

(One should hold open the possibility that neighboring regimes are saying one thing in public and another in private, but so far there have been none of the kind of leaks that one might expect if a furious private campaign urging the U.S. to take out Saddam were underway. The people I’ve talked to who are in a position to know more than I – though not everything – say that Saudi Arabia, for example, is as concerned about an attack in private as in public.) So. Iraq is a potential threat to neighbors but only Israel seems to want a U.S. attack, and even Israel is a bit ambivalent. Is there a threat to the United States?

The closest I’ve heard to an argument for this is the possibility that if and when Saddam has usable weapons of mass destruction (maybe now, though U.S. military sources seem to doubt nuclear weapons even in the near future), he might give them to terrorists or terrorist organizations who would then be in a position to launch an attack on the United States that would make 9/11 look like a walk in the park. Vice President Cheney came pretty close to making this case in his two speeches last week.


To be sure, such an attack, if it came, might well be horrendous. But just how likely is such a scenario if Saddam Hussein is not suicidally irrational? For starters, the Iraqi regime is not an Islamist or fundamentalist regime but a titularly secular regime. It may have harbored some terrorist groups in the past, and it might be tolerating some training camps even now, although here again the evidence is sketchy and has been disputed by relatively authoritative U.S. military sources. But while Saddam may use Islam in his rhetoric, his history suggests more a concern with hanging onto and expanding personal power than with embarking on a crusade for religious reasons. The Islamist groups know this. There has to be a certain level of distrust between Saddam’s regime and the more fanatical Islamist (or Islamo-fascist, if you will) organizations. They might work together on specific campaigns or projects. But they’re not likely to trust one another very far.

This makes it somewhat unlikely that Saddam would simply hand over weapons of mass destruction to al Qaida operatives or to some other terrorist faction. Given the criticism his own regime has come under from Islamist fanatics, given that Iraq fought a 10-year war with the first Islamicist regime, Iran, and given the presence of a Shia region in the south that would love to be independent or rid of Saddam, he could hardly be completely sure that those weapons might not be used against him.

It might happen. But the likelihood factor is not especially high. At the least, it is far from a sure thing.

Then there’s the other factor that would simply have to enter his calculations, assuming he is calculating fairly rationally. If a biological or chemical weapon were used in an attack in the United States, especially if it were of a type that U.S. intelligence suspects the Iraqi regime has been working on, who would be the first suspect? The Bush administration, egged on by certain policy wonks (most of whom have never been closer to a war than a textbook) has been itching to attack Iraq since 9/11, even though there is no credible evidence of a direct connection. How swiftly do you suppose an attack would come if a connection seemed even reasonably certain? I suspect the Bush administration would not need proof beyond a reasonable doubt to attack Iraq if a monstrously destructive chemical or biological weapon were used in the United States. Preponderance of the evidence or even a sliver of evidence would do nicely. And I suspect Saddam knows this too. And whatever his bluster, he has to know that if the U.S. assembled the kind of attack force it brought to bear during the Gulf War (allies or no allies) and used it as ruthlessly as the U.S. is capable of doing when provoked (or sometimes when not provoked) his chances of survival would be fairly slim.


One should not claim too much certainty about matters that by their very nature are somewhat hidden from us. Much about Saddam Hussein and his regime are purposely hidden, and much more is unknown because of the unremitting hostility with which most Americans view him. He’s evil. What more do we need to know? What manner of evil and how expressed? People who would even ask such questions are sometimes viewed as latent sympathizers.

So I can’t claim to know just how rational Saddam Hussein is in his calculations. But I do know he runs an essentially secularist regime and that he has stayed in power for decades despite fierce and sometimes unremitting opposition – see all the Iraqi opposition groups in exile, most of which contain people who would have been happy to slit Saddam’s throat if they had had the chance. So it is obvious that he has worked at surviving in power and has been pretty good at it. Whatever fantasies of world power or regional domination may be at work in his fevered brain have not prevented some rational (and ruthless) calculation and action about how to stay in power. For him to supply a terrorist group with weapons of mass destruction or the wherewithal to make them fairly quickly, then, I suspect he would have to see a pretty big payoff and not much downside risk for himself. But what kind of attack on the United States could accomplish that? Even a destructive attack on Washington, DC would leave much of the US and its military infrastructure intact and capable of striking back. And Saddam would be a target even if he hadn’t supplied the weapons.

Charles Krauthammer on Fox News over the weekend crept right up to the point of calling Saddam irrationally suicidal, but held back because he probably knows enough to know it isn’t true. But at some level of consciousness he had to know that the case for attacking Saddam pre-emptively rests on the assumption that he is so relentlessly and – well, irrationally – hostile to the United States that he would risk utter destruction in order to do significant damage that would almost fall short of the utter destruction he might well desire but is unlikely to be able to accomplish.


Unless he is irrationally suicidal, then Saddam Hussein poses little if any threat to the United States proper. Even a devastating attack would be more likely to lead to the destruction of his regime than to the destruction of the United States. All empires fade eventually, one supposes, but the American version still has a lot of power and the ability to use it, however burdened (not quite but almost to the point of being muscle-bound) by bureaucracy and overspending.

What about U.S. interests in the region? Presumably there’s some interest in keeping relatively inexpensive oil flowing. But it’s far from certain that waging war on Saddam is the best way to do this. If you were making a strictly economic calculation you might even conclude that cozying up to Saddam and urging him to provide some healthy competition for the Saudis would be a more effective way to keep the oil flowing than undertaking a military attack. The price of oil almost always rises during military actions whatever the cause and wherever they are. And if you were really calculating the full cost of Persian Gulf oil you would have to include all the costs involved in keeping a military presence in the region (even though it doesn’t always serve the purposes of assuring maximum flow of oil) so the oil is far from cheap.

Do we have an interest in deterring the more fanatical versions of Islamism motivating people around the globe but especially in the Near East? It would hardly make sense, then, to attack a relatively secular Arab regime many Islamists would like to see destroyed. I have had a number of e-mails suggesting that I have overlooked the Israeli interest in taking out Saddam. Israel and the United States are so joined at the hip, this argument goes in summary, that the U.S. will go out of its way to serve Israeli interests that might or might not coincide with U.S. interests. There’s something to be said for this. Certainly the neos at the Weekly Standard and New Republic sometimes place the interests of Israel at the forefront of their thinking, as do certain elements of the religious right in America. These elements are influential and have representatives in the administration.

I suspect the Israeli interest doesn’t explain it all, however. There is also the element of militant moralism that has played a key role in American foreign policy at least since St. Woodrow Wilson. We have to oppose evil and evildoers (even if we are a bit selective in identifying and attacking them), even eschewing rational calculation sometimes. American policymakers love to convince themselves they are doing good, rooting out evil, and making holy whatever they touch. The Bushlet is hardly immune to this peculiarly American disease – indeed, a case can be made that he is a virtual embodiment. So the great American myth lives on, secure in its righteousness no matter how many have to die.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).