What Are the Real Reasons for a War in Iraq?

Regime change in Iraq, probably by war, now seems inevitable “in weeks rather than months,” as U.S. President George W. Bush puts it. France and Russia are unlikely to veto a United Nations resolution specifically authorizing the use of force against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Their argument will be that, whether or not the war is justified, the most important thing now is to preserve the authority of the UN. But what authority will the UN have if it is simply a rubber stamp for U.S. unilateralism?

If war is inevitable, let us at least go into it with eyes open. The reasons we have been given for war are excuses: I doubt whether even the “hawks” in Washington and London believe them. The claim is that Hussein poses a formidable threat to the Middle East, the West and the world, against which pre-emption is justified. Three arguments have been adduced in support of this.

The first is the alleged link between Hussein and al-Qaida. There is no evidence of this, although U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has recently tried to revive it.

The next is that Hussein had failed to disarm, contrary to UN Resolution 687, which ended the Gulf War. Instead of disarmament, there was deception – a deception that still continues. The impression given is that Hussein has continued to accumulate a large stockpile of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery.

In fact, there has been a substantial disarmament since 1991. The British government’s own dossier, “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” which was designed to magnify the threat Hussein poses, admitted that, despite Iraq’s obstruction of the work of UNSCOM and IAEA (the inspection teams on the ground between 1991 and 1998), the major elements of Iraq’s nuclear, chemical and biological programs were, in fact, destroyed or dismantled. As a result, it was left with what the former British ambassador to Iraq, Harold Walker, called a “risible” capacity. The more intrusive inspections begun in November have found almost nothing, which – we are told – only shows how good Hussein is at concealing things.

Yes, Hussein has not completely disarmed. He still has some chemical and biological capacity and continues to play a silly game of concealment and deception. Perhaps he sees this residual capacity as some sort of deterrence against invasion. But a war to depose him is completely disproportionate to his breach of the terms of the armistice of 1991. What his deception does justify is a continuation and strengthening of the present inspection system – as France has proposed.

The next argument, which contradicts the previous one, is that, even if he has largely disarmed – what is to stop him from rearming? This relies heavily on the lack of will of the international community to keep the present regime of inspections and sanctions in force indefinitely. Far better to get rid of him now than try to keep him bottled up in Baghdad forever. But who is talking of forever?
Hussein is 65. He may be immoral, but he is not immortal. The United States and its allies “contained” the threat of the Soviet Union for 40 years or more with weapons, armies and bases all over the world. It is an insult to our intelligence to claim that they lack the will to keep Hussein under lock and key for five years or so more – as, indeed, he has already been for the last 12.

As neither of these arguments is terribly convincing, we are given a final one. Hussein himself may not be a threat, but what is to stop him from secretly handing his chemical and biological agents to terrorist groups? In theory, nothing at all, but one has to come to a judgment about how likely this is. Leaving aside the question of whether the damage that could be done by terrorists would justify a full-scale war, the risk of a transfer of weapons from Hussein to terrorist groups seems very small. It is hard to see what satisfaction he would get from the use of weapons of mass destruction not attributable to Iraq, and he would know that, if it was attributable, the response from the United States would be fearsome. Moreover, it is hard to see him handing over command of something he values so highly to an organization not under his control. If it is al-Qaida that we have in mind, that Islamicist group and Hussein’s secular regime are like chalk and cheese.

Any sane person will probably conclude that Hussein does not pose a threat to other countries that justifies a pre-emptive war to remove him. No one is suggesting that Bush and his advisers are insane. So why are they so determined to have one?

The main reason, I think, is that getting rid of Hussein has been a goal of U.S. foreign policy ever since 1991. Then, President George H.W. Bush was persuaded that sanctions would accomplish this, without having to march on Baghdad. The United States, in short, has always seen sanctions not as a way of getting Iraq to disarm, but of getting rid of Hussein. President Bill Clinton reaffirmed this when he said, in 1997, that sanctions would stay in place “as long as Saddam lasts.” The issue of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction was, except for its nuclear program, never central to the plot.

What transformed the situation was Sept. 11, 2001. Bush and some of his advisers came to see that the way might be open to use force to bring about what sanctions had failed to accomplish. So the alleged link between Hussein and al-Qaida was the first to be exploited. The administration’s escalating rhetoric against the threat posed by Hussein failed to convince most other countries, but it made it difficult, if not impossible, for Bush to retreat from war without losing most of his political capital.

Two powerful subsidiary arguments reinforced the main one. The first was that the overthrow of Hussein and extended U.S. occupation of Iraq would transform the security situation of Israel without Israel having to make damaging concessions to the Palestinians. The second was that U.S. control of Iraq’s oil production facilities would break the OPEC cartel and guarantee the United States a flow of cheap energy. Although why Russia should be thought to welcome this development is a mystery.

Thus, with one coup, the U.S. administration can hope to restore the amour propre of the Bush family and resolve two of its most pressing foreign-policy issues, as well as make the Middle East a laboratory of democracy. No wonder the policy of regime change in Iraq seems so attractive – foreign policy rarely offers opportunities for such grand achievements.

The delusions on which it is based will become apparent only later.