The following is a revised version of an editorial that appeared in Newsday in New York in late January.

As more and more US troops are deployed in the Persian Gulf, the prospect of an invasion of Iraq has taken on a grim sense of inevitability. But a war is not and should not be inevitable. And it certainly doesn’t need to be launched in a matter of days or weeks.

President George W. Bush finally began to make his case for a war in his State of the Union address on January 28, a speech more notable for its rhetoric than its logic. For all the accusations about how evil Saddam Hussein is, he still did not explain why such a war must be waged now, instead of allowing the United Nations inspectors time to determine whether Iraq has disarmed or can be forced to rid itself of its weapons of mass destruction.

It would be irresponsible, arrogant, and politically obtuse for Bush to rush into war without laying out a detailed case for why Saddam Hussein today poses an imminent threat to the nation and to the security of the Persian Gulf’s oil supply, and why the best way to handle Hussein is through a war as opposed to robust containment.

If Bush can make the case, he must do so. If he is ready to go into battle, then he must explain why the costs of going to war—in treasure and lives—are less than those of continuing the inspection regime with a credible threat of military force. For instance, has the administration adequately taken into account the possibility that if the United States attacks Iraq, Hussein, with his back to the wall, might well launch some kind of terror attack on the US homeland with biological or chemical weapons?

It is not enough for Bush to argue that Hussein should have voluntarily disarmed in the same manner as, for instance, South Africa did. Of course, that would be preferable. But launching a war should be a last resort; if there are other ways of disarming Iraq they must be tried first.

Bush has been playing a risky game of chicken. He has gambled that, faced with the ominous military buildup underway—more than 150,000 US troops are already in the Gulf—either Hussein will blink and fold or reluctant US allies will resign themselves and go along with the plans for war.

But the gamble may backfire, politically and strategically. Domestic and international unease at the prospect of war is rising by the week. In polls made public on January 26, seven out of ten Americans oppose a war with Iraq unless the United Nations gives its approval. In Europe and the Arab world, opposition rises to 90 percent or more.

The only way that Bush’s risky gamble could pay off and result in a decisive political victory for him would be Hussein’s improbable last-minute capitulation to the unrelenting military pressure Bush is putting on Iraq. But that pressure works both ways. If Iraq doesn’t give in, there will be equally unbearable pressure on Bush to use the troops he has deployed at great cost. A president who has put hundreds of thousands of troops into the field is a bit like someone who holds a hammer in his hand: everything starts to look like a nail.

The international pressure on Bush to back off his war footing is mounting, and the administration has finally, if grudgingly, acknowledged it. On Friday, January 24, a possible compromise was shaping up as Britain and the United States seriously considered allowing UN inspections to continue in Iraq for several additional weeks. With such a compromise, Bush and his foreign policy team hope they will be able to make a stronger case with US allies and domestic critics for military action if Hussein continues to prevaricate and quibble over details of the inspections—such as private interviews with Iraqi scientists.

UN chief weapons inspector Hans Blix bolstered the case for a compromise on January 27, when he said that Iraq has not accepted the need to account for all its weapons and to disarm but still could. Even then, Bush still must explain why the existing stockpile of Iraqi weapons is a reason to go to war. Why couldn’t Hussein be deterred by the substantial US arsenal, including nuclear weapons?

Another alternative was set out in a report issued in mid-January by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.* It would entail an extension of the intrusive UN inspections for as long as necessary—possibly up to a year or longer—coupled with a continuing threat of imminent use of force if Hussein were to renege on his obligations.

To make that threat credible, Bush would need to maintain a large US military deployment in the Gulf for as long as inspections go on. It would be costly—it takes roughly $1 billion a week to keep 150,000 troops in the Gulf—but would cost far less, in dollars and lives, than an all-out invasion of Iraq, which could drain the treasury of $100 billion to $200 billion, not counting the inevitable human casualties.

And there would be other, intangible costs. Bush would have to do some fancy rhetorical footwork to justify such a major shift in posture, risking support from the hard-liners in his party. Congressional grumbling over the open-ended cost of maintaining a large US force in the Gulf would be a certainty. A protracted military deployment using reserve units would put severe strains on the families of those involved—their jobs and their marriages may be imperiled.

But the political gains would be equally compelling. Bush would gain considerable stature, here and abroad. He could argue, legitimately, that the intense military pressure he has put and will maintain on Iraq will pay off in better compliance with inspections. By holding the threat of war in reserve, Bush will maintain the fragile unity of the veto-bearing powers on the UN Security Council, whose cooperation he will need for a military action if Iraq ultimately fails to satisfy disarmament requirements.

By showing determination coupled with patience, Bush would defuse much of the criticism his stubborn push to war has generated. Most important of all, he will ensure that, as long as inspections continue, backed by a US expeditionary force, Iraq will be effectively contained, unable to develop nuclear weapons or use the chemical and biological weapons it might still have.

If the goal is to defuse Iraq’s threat to the region, it will have been achieved. And if Hussein continues to balk to the end and war becomes finally inevitable, then the world just might stand with the United States rather than against it.

January 29, 2003

Copyright © 2003 by Newsday, Inc.

This Issue

February 27, 2003