So-called allies have denounced U.S. plans to fight Saddam Hussein. Brian Michael Jenkins says they might not like the consequences of our inaction, either.
What if President Bush surprises the world and puts off a war against Iraq? He could argue that the United States has already accomplished a great deal in its confrontation with Iraq, at little cost. He could say that further investment of American blood and treasure demands greater international support.
"Unlike Gary Cooper in 'High Noon'," the president could say, "we're not going to protect timid townsfolk in expectation that they will join us after the fight."
An improbable scenario? Certainly. But if it happens, nations around the world would suddenly be faced with a new reality: They could not achieve regime change in Iraq—a goal most countries favor—simply by relying on the United States to get the job done. "Let George do it," would no longer be a policy option.
Most nations want to see a peaceful Iraq, stripped of weapons of mass destruction, and led by a new government. After waging war on his neighbors, his own people and his economy for his personal gain, Saddam Hussein would not be missed if he suddenly departed as leader of Iraq.
The benefits of ridding Iraq of Hussein are no greater for the United States than they are for any other nation. Yet if the United States makes war on Iraq alone—or with only Britain at our side—we will bear the principal costs in blood, future hostility and terrorist attacks. That would play into the hands of those who wish to reduce the authority and power of both Saddam Hussein and America.
Because they have assumed the United States will go after Saddam Hussein regardless of international protests, leaders of other nations have felt safe denouncing the United States' preparations for war. These leaders have used these denunciations to ensure their domestic popularity and at the same time deflect Arab and anti-war hostility.
This is free-ridership, as other nations reap benefits from the battlefield sacrifices of America and our fighting men and women. It is no wonder that our harshest critics in Europe and Russia seem less interested in diplomatic compromise than they are in publicly provoking us to war.
So far, we have achieved much by simply threatening Iraq with attack.
As a consequence of its determination, the United States has obliged the world to squarely face the issue of weapons of mass destruction. We have elevated the problem of Saddam Hussein's brutal dictatorship, reckless past and dangerous ambitions, which others would have preferred to ignore.
After being thrown out five years ago, U.N. weapons inspectors are back in Iraq operating under better conditions and even forcing Saddam Hussein to destroy some of his arsenal. Does anyone think that this was the result of anything other than American and British troops poised on Iraq's borders? And if progress slows, the United States and Britain, with support from respected statesmen like the Czech Republic's Vaclav Havel, have laid down a foundation for future military action.
America has brought about the indefinite postponement of any discussion of lifting the existing sanctions on Iraq. The eventual removal of sanctions should depend not only upon Iraq's disarmament but also on the behavior of its regime, which has been introduced usefully into the arguments for military action.
A determined George Bush and an equally determined and effective Tony Blair have once again demonstrated the durability of Anglo-American partnership. We have exposed the diversity of views within Europe, provoking strong and healthy debate versus tepid ineffectual consensus. We have energized NATO's new members, rapidly advancing them to roles of strategic importance rather than relegating them to the roles of irrelevant supernumeraries.
And we have created new relationships with courageous governments in Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. The confrontation has demonstrated the need to review historic and perhaps outdated relationships deriving from World War II origins and Cold War presumptions. It has again highlighted the need for a serious review of the utility of the United Nations in its current configuration.
The United States has achieved all of this, not with hesitant hand wringing or ambiguous rhetoric, but by single-minded determination and diplomatic muscle. America has forced the international community to make hard decisions by demonstrating that the United States can mobilize allies and rapidly project overwhelming military power to any part of the globe, thus creating an entirely credible threat of imminent military action, with or without universal approval.
All this has been achieved without firing a shot—the "pinnacle of excellence," according to ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu.
Now, as we stand on the edge of war with Iraq, President Bush is faced with stark choices in the days ahead as he weighs for one final time the costs of attacking Iraq in the face of opposition from many nations—versus the benefits of regime change and disarmament in Iraq.
Questions facing the president and his top advisers include:
Should we allow nations who shrink at bloody tasks themselves to maintain their moral pretensions while the United States, Britain and our allies solve the problem of Iraq?
Should we let those who cannot challenge or compete with America's overwhelming military superiority reduce our legitimacy and authority by hamstringing us morally and diplomatically?
Should we do the world's dirty work unappointed, unsupported and unappreciated?
Removing the prospect of imminent American-British military action would clearly slow Iraqi cooperation with disarmament efforts and could leave Saddam in power for a long time. Should we do this anyway, because of the lack of support from the Security Council? Should the United States then wait to see if France, Germany and Russia introduce an urgent resolution in the Security Council requesting that we remain at the ready and offering to share the burden?
If America followed a course of watchful waiting, we could offer formal security guarantees to our frontline allies in the Persian Gulf to assure them that any threat from Iraq will provoke U.S. military action, with no U.N. discussion required. We could remain firm in our efforts to seek a two-state solution of a peaceful and secure Israel and Palestine living side by side. And we could make clear that every terrorist attack encouraged by bounties from Iraq would affect our perspective. We could reiterate that we will respond to any overt threat with prompt force. We could choose to hold Iraq responsible for any terrorist attack on the United States involving weapons of mass destruction—so that it would be in Iraq's interest to ensure that no such attack occurs.
We could say America is not the Greyhound bus company, famed for the slogan "leave the driving to us." We could tell other nations that if they want to get rid of Saddam Hussein they cannot simply sit back and "leave the driving to the U.S."
If America did all these things—and we probably won't—some of the government officials around the world arguing so fervently against an attack on Iraq could suddenly gain a new understanding of the old proverb: "Be careful what you wish for—it might come true."
This commentary originally appeared in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on March 16, 2003. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.