- The Washington Times - Friday, January 18, 2002

With the conflict in Afghanistan drawing to a close, the question arises: Where next? Iraq is a tempting target, but the United States should focus on eradicating what remains of the al Qaeda terrorist network.

Were Iraq a participant in the September 11 attacks, it would deserve the same treatment as meted out against Afghanistan. Complicity in the anthrax mailings would be another justification. Yet despite ongoing Pentagon efforts to document some connection, there seems to be no convincing evidence of Iraqi involvement in either case.

Thus, the case for attacking Iraq is no different after September 11 than before there's no hurry to attack now. Instead, Washington should devise a strategy to live with Baghdad, along with the many other ugly regimes that dot the globe.

Saddam "is a very dangerous man," says National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. Right she is. But so are many other foreign dictators. That alone does not warrant war.

Inaugurating conflict is not for the fainthearted. It should be a last-resort means to advance a vital interest. Baghdad is brutal, but no more so than, say, Syria. Iraq persecutes its minorities, but then, Turkey is little kinder to its Kurds.

Saddam is an aggressor, yet the United States was unconcerned when Baghdad attacked Iran two decades ago. Anyway, Iraq remains greatly weakened; a combination of its neighbors should be able to contain it.

The most serious issue is Saddam's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. President Bush has threatened Iraq with unspecified, dire consequences if it does not resubmit to U.N. inspections.

Yet Iraq, though an ugly actor, is eminently deterrable. To use weapons of mass destruction would be to court destruction at the hands of Israel, as well as the United States. Moreover, Saddam is more interested in retaining power than in promoting terrorism, especially through a medieval theocrat who detests secular Arab dictators.

Attempting to enforce nonproliferation through coercion is problematic. A number of nations are pursuing nuclear or other destructive weapons, including such unpredictable states as Iran and North Korea. Equally unsettling is Pakistan's nuclear force; neither Islamabad's attitude toward the United States nor the integrity of its arsenal are secure.

Ironically, going to war against Iraq would encourage other potential nuclear states to accelerate their programs. Only possession of deliverable atomic weapons would insulate a nation from Washington's attention.

Nor would conquering Iraq be as easy as overcoming the Taliban. No one knows how well Saddam might rally his population through skillful nationalistic propaganda.

Most important, there is no proxy army upon which Washington could rely; creating one would be neither easy nor quick, especially after the United States recently suspended aid to the Iraqi National Congress, supposedly the leading opposition group. The United States also lacks allies, since the Europeans have made their opposition clear to a war on Iraq.

It is unclear from where an attack would be launched. Kuwait's border with Iraq is short; Turkish territory to the north is inhospitably mountainous, even if Ankara proved willing. The best staging ground is Saudi Arabia, but Riyadh is opposed this time. And if Baghdad has developed substantial biological or chemical weapons, or, less likely, a primitive nuclear capability, the war could be very costly. An American threat to go nuclear appears to have deterred Saddam from using such weapons a decade ago; he might risk Armageddon if the new U.S. goal was his ouster.

Moreover, Baghdad is not filled with Thomas Jeffersons ready to create a liberal government. Preventing emergence of a new military strongman, or equally unsettling chaos amid warring Ba'athist elites, Kurdish forces and dissident Shi'ites, would require a lengthy occupation. Even that would not guarantee a friendly regime's long-term survival.

Attacking Iraq would also risk creating a renewed perception of a U.S. war on Islam. The quick victory in Afghanistan, without an American occupation to follow, has helped quiet such sentiments in the Muslim world. A seemingly unprovoked, aggressive war, followed by the imposition of a pro-Washington regime in Baghdad, would do the opposite. It would prove fertile ground for terrorism by both Iraqi agents and whatever remains of the al Qaeda network.

Irritating Western allies and friendly Muslim regimes would be particularly inappropriate when al Qaeda remains a global threat requiring destruction. First things first.

Current policy remains unsatisfactory: constant bombing, to no obvious advantage; an embargo that hurts Iraqi civilians and angers Muslims elsewhere. Worth pursuing is a modus vivendi that would replace the existing system with much more limited controls over dual-use technologies, so-called smart sanctions.

It might be unrealistic to ever expect Saddam's Iraq to become a responsible member of the international community. But there are means short of war to try to make it less threatening.

Doug Bandow is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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