• U.S.

Let’s Wait to Attack

4 minute read
General Wesley K. Clark

Saddam Hussein is a cunning, stubborn and potentially irrational opponent of the United States. If Iraq had nuclear weapons today, it would alter the balance of power in the region and threaten American interests. But there is a confusion and uncertainty among the American people about the need for war with Iraq, and especially about its urgency. This is understandable. The primary threat to American lives and interests around the world remains the terrorists of al-Qaeda. To be sure, in the last few weeks there have been important breakthroughs in the fight against terrorism. But we need to keep our eye on the ball, and as we extend our military operations into Iraq, we should do so in a way that advances the campaign against al-Qaeda and minimizes the risks of greater regional instability. We must also have sustained public support, but so far, our national debate on Iraq has been upside down. The Administration announced its aim to change the regime in Baghdad before it made the case for action. To some, our government seemed to be seeking war as a preferred choice rather than as a last resort. We need a real debate to gain the full and informed support of the American people as we move ahead.

In the near term, time is on our side. Saddam has no nuclear weapons today, as far as we know, and probably won’t gain them in the next few months. The U.S. has total military dominance of the region. Although Saddam has chemical and biological weapons, he has no long-range missiles with which to deliver them. Certainly, the clock is ticking, because Saddam may eventually acquire the nuclear weapons and delivery systems he seeks. Nonetheless, there is still time for dialogue before we act.

Some would say that since we can’t be certain how much time we have until then, we must attack right away. It is true that any delay entails risks. But so does action. So we must balance those risks, and take actions that not only achieve our aim of disarming Saddam–and probably ending his regime in the process–but also help defeat al-Qaeda. How can we do both?

President Bush was right to carry the problem of Iraq to the United Nations. And he is right to stay with the diplomatic process, as we seek to sway international opinion to our side. Even if the U.N. is ultimately unable to give us the strong resolution that we seek, the support of friends and allies will be important–as it was in Kosovo–in gaining worldwide credibility for our aims and legitimacy for our actions. Moreover, while we have the time, we must do everything possible to prepare for some unpleasant possibilities. What if Saddam uses his biological arsenal on his own people in southern Iraq? Are we prepared to deal with the ensuing catastrophe alone, or would we not be wiser to help ready international humanitarian and emergency organizations to come in with us? After Saddam’s government collapses, are we prepared to maintain order and prevent mayhem? Wouldn’t we be wiser to arrange for police support from other nations and international organizations? And if, as a result of conflict, Iraq’s economy collapses, wouldn’t we like to have international organizations ready to assist in nation building? Afterward, when agencies from the Islamic world enter Iraq to help rebuild, won’t we want to inhibit anti-Americanism and anti-Western sentiment by having thought through the many possible humanitarian problems before we are blamed for them?

The answer to all these questions is yes, if we have the time. Well, we do. The key issue about Iraq has never been whether weshould act if Saddam doesn’t comply with U.N. resolutions anddisarm. Rather, the problems are how we should act, and when. As for the how, the answer is clear–multilaterally, with friends and allies, with every possible effort to avoid the appearance of yet another Christian and Jewish stab at an Islamic country, with force as a last resort, and with a post-conflict plan in place to assure that the consequences of our action do not supercharge the al-Qaeda recruiting machine. As for the when, let’s take the time to plan, organize and do the whole job the right way. This will only take a few more weeks, and it’s important. It’s not just about winning a war–it’s also about winning the peace.

Clark, former nato Supreme Allied Commander Europe during the Kosovo campaign, retired after 34 years in the U.S. Army

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