Failure to fight just as risky


WASHINGTON - Is Iraq a direct and imminent threat to the United States? Is war in the next few weeks a necessary and acceptable way to deal with the threat? Is the aftermath of war worse than continuing the status quo?

These are the questions of war facing Americans today.

What constitutes a direct and imminent threat warranting pre-emptive war? In state wars of the past, the massing of troops on the border or the sudden movement of nuclear weapons and missiles provided sufficient justification. Israel attacked to pre-empt Arab troop concentrations in 1967, and the United States took a pre-emptive act of war, the naval quarantine, to stop Soviet missiles from going into Cuba in 1962.

But today's threat is global terrorism - no massing of state armies or weapons, just sleeper cells and an invisible global financial and logistical network perhaps supported by rogue states. Would the United States have been justified on Sept. 10, 2001 to attack pre-emptively the Taliban government in Afghanistan? In retrospect, the answer would surely be yes. What did we know about Afghanistan then? Not enough, Presidents Bill Clinton and Bush concluded. They did not pre-empt, and nearly 3,000 people died on Sept. 11.

What do we know about Iraq today? That it has supported terrorists in the Middle East is incontrovertible. That it has weapons of mass destruction is also beyond question, except for those who believe that the weapons, which Saddam Hussein already used against his own people, do not exist until the inspectors find them in a deadly game of cat and mouse.

That Iraq has trafficked with global terrorists is also a fact, but its significance is debated. Would Mr. Hussein give weapons of mass destruction to global terrorists? Absolutely not, some say. He's a survivor and he knows he would be signing his own death sentence. Others note that he is a risk-taker who survives by taking on big challenges - warring with Iran, invading Kuwait and now perhaps colluding with global terrorists.

So what do we do? Those who say inspections are an alternative to war have a hard sell. There would be no inspections today if it had not been for the imminent threat of war. And there will be no inspections tomorrow if, by delaying war indefinitely, the world community demonstrates that the threat to use force is a bluff. So at some point, if Iraq continues to refuse to surrender its weapons of mass destruction, war is necessary.

Twelve more years or even weeks of cat and mouse is not a solution. It is instead an acceptance of the status quo. Iraq keeps its weapons of mass destruction, eventually acquires nuclear weapons, passes these on perhaps to global terrorists who attack the United States, Europe or Japan, and the Middle East convulses into a deadly standoff similar to the one between India and Pakistan, or a nuclear-armed Israel against Iraq or even Iran.

The aftermath of a war therefore cannot be compared to the present. Those who believe that war is necessary must take responsibility for the inevitable casualties that will follow. But those who advocate delay must also take responsibility for the deaths that will follow from future terrorist attacks and from a Middle East conflict cratered by a ghastly nuclear divide.

From this perspective, the aftermath of war looks much less foreboding. Nothing in war is certain, of course. But the Persian Gulf war was followed by the only serious peace negotiations (Oslo accords) in the history of the Middle East dispute. And the aftermath of the conflict in Afghanistan has gone much better than almost anyone predicted when the conventional wisdom was that Afghanistan would be a quagmire like Vietnam.

Questions of war are never easy. Not only Americans but also people in other nations must decide. America needs at least a majority of the major democratic nations to go ahead; otherwise it betrays its own values of letting free people decide.

But make no mistake: The case against war is no less fraught with risks and moral responsibility than the case for war. No one gets a free ride on questions of war.

Henry R. Nau, a professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs of George Washington University, served in the Ford and Reagan administrations and recently completed a book, At Home Abroad: Identity and Power in American Foreign Policy (Cornell, 2002).

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