Invade Iraq, But Bring Friends

You will find in Washington these days a remarkable number of people who claim that they were in favor of invading Iraq during the gulf war 11 years ago. I am not one of them. I fully supported the war, but I thought at the time the Bush administration made a persuasive case that to shift from liberating Kuwait to invading Iraq would destroy the coalition and the war's legitimacy. (Remember that this was the first war of the post-cold-war era and had brought the United States and Russia together as partners, along with much of the world.) I also believed that Saddam Hussein could be contained and deterred. Events over the past two years have made me change my mind.

Containment worked well for much of the 1990s. Saddam was subject to inspection or observation (from the skies), embargoes and sanctions. All this meant that he could neither modernize his military nor use it. While the strategy was unsatisfying in that it managed a problem rather than solving it in one dramatic swoop, it handled American security concerns effectively and cheaply. It costs the United States under $1 billion a year to maintain its no-flight zones, embargoes and sanctions on Iraq. A more ambitious policy, as we shall see, would be much, much more expensive. Saddam, as I saw it, was a nasty thug, but he was a nasty thug in a box.

Unfortunately the box is falling apart. As Kenneth Pollack, one of the leading strategic analysts of the Middle East, details in a superb forthcoming book, sanctions against Saddam Hussein are crumbling. Having mastered smuggling and cheating, Saddam now has between $2 billion and $3 billion a year that he can use for whatever purpose he wants. Last year Secretary of State Colin Powell made a valiant attempt to shore up containment by proposing "smart sanctions," which would have targeted Saddam's regime more tightly and loosened the controls on the Iraqi people. But smart sanctions never got off the ground. Iraq's neighbors, European powers (most shamefully, France) and Russia all conspired to maintain the system as is, which brings their companies cozy contracts. The failure of smart sanctions was the end of any hope that containment could be shored up.

The threat Iraq poses is not overwhelming--yet. Saddam's chemical and biological arsenal is difficult to use. He has rarely cooperated with terrorists in the past, and there is no evidence that he has any links with Al Qaeda. But he is a potential threat, particularly if he manages to acquire nuclear weapons, which is certainly his goal. Pollack makes a persuasive case that given leaky sanctions, at some point the world will have to deal with Saddam, nuclear-armed and dangerous. Why not now, when he is weak?

Still, a pre-emptive invasion of a country gives one pause. But there is another massive benefit to it. Done right, an invasion would be the single best path to reform the Arab world. The roots of Islamic terror reside in the dysfunctional politics of the region, where failure and repression have produced fundamentalism and violence. For reform to spread, the Arab world needs a success story. It needs one major country that embraces modernity, maintains its identity and inspires the region, just as Japan did for East Asia.

Iraq could be that country. Before it became a playpen for Saddam Hussein's gruesome ambitions, it was one of the most secular, advanced, literate and civilized countries in the Middle East. Alone in the Arab world, it has both water and oil--a developed river-valley civilization and natural-resource wealth. Were Saddam's totalitarian regime to be replaced by a state that respected human rights, enforced the rule of law and created a market economy, it could begin to transform that world.

But for this strategy to work, two elements become essential. First, the postwar "nation-building" of Iraq will be as crucial as the war itself. The administration's actions in Afghanistan are not an encouraging sign, where an ideal, moderate, pro-Western leader, Hamid Karzai, is being slowly destroyed largely because the Pentagon will not extend security protection outside Kabul.

Second, we will need allies and the United Nations. Without a sustained commitment from them, broad and lasting success will not be possible. For one thing, it would be nice to spread the costs. If we assume the war will be half as expensive as the gulf war--250,000 troops rather than 500,000--it will run around $35 billion. Extrapolating from the Balkan example, reconstruction efforts will probably total $15 billion to $20 billion for the first three years, after which Iraq's oil revenues would pay for its own nation-building.

The Iraq operation would be America's largest military operation since the gulf war and its largest foreign-policy undertaking since Vietnam. That reality might make the administration decide not to go ahead. It should decide instead not to go alone.