When Attacking Iraq Weakens U.S. Security

Could a U.S. invasion of Iraq reduce U.S. security?

November 22, 2002

Could a U.S. invasion of Iraq reduce U.S. security?

As with nuclear competition, on issues as complex as the Middle East it is necessary to judge policy through the prism of risk management. This does not necessarily imply caution.

It does, however, mean comparing the very different kinds of risks arising from states — and from other groupings.

The Bush Administration appears refreshingly blunt about the former but is strangely passive (and almost fatalistic) about the latter.

The proposition that an invasion of Iraq could be worse than doing nothing faces two huge hurdles. First, there is no question it would eliminate risks arising from the current Iraqi regime.

This is true despite the reasons many analysts use to downplay the Iraqi regime's nuclear and biological threats.

Some of these analysts point out that daunting material requirements block Iraq's suspected gas centrifuge program. Many more argue that Saddam cannot develop long-range missiles in secret.

And most agree he will never forget his Ba'athist Party's early struggles in the 1970s with Islamic extremists — and will therefore never cooperate with them.

But none of these arguments changes the fact that the country's chemical weapons constitute a significant threat which the Bush Administration's policy of pursuing regime change would lift.

The second hurdle for a do-nothing strategy is that the U.S. security benefits of an Iraqi invasion extend beyond Iraq's borders. War critics undermine their credibility when they deny this.

The sad fact, however, is that the impact of vigorous U.S. action against Iraq on respect and cooperation from governments in Saudi Arabia and Egypt may exceed the benefits of regime change itself.

Indeed, if the only risks to U.S. national security in the Middle East arose from Saddam and the covert and overt actions of other area governments, there would be no national security argument against either an invasion or an occupation. But a careful look at the security risks from non-government actors changes the story completely.

World history from about the time Francis Fukuyama — the author of the 1993 book "The End of History" — thought it ended has instead taken an important turn: It may no longer be states which pose the gravest threat to other states. And it certainly is not the biggest threat to a nation with the state-to-state deterrent power of the United States.

To the contrary, Al Qaeda's attacks throughout the world suggest that in the Middle East, Americans may now face greater exposure to non-government structures.

The World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks dramatize just how vulnerable Americans are to small numbers of enraged people.

Interdicting weapons in places like Iraq helps to provide protection. But it cannot be sufficient when there are so many low-technology means for a suicidal attacker to murder Americans by the hundreds. We must also fight terrorism at its roots.

An Iraqi invasion that merely overthrew Saddam without advancing Arab democracy and development would be counterproductive from a U.S. perspective.

It would amplify efforts presently based primarily on stalemate over Palestine to recruit additional terrorists targeting Americans.

Therefore, absent both a Palestinian solution and material post-invasion progress in Iraq, the increase of terrorist risks from an invasion appear to overwhelm the benefits from sobering up Iraq and other Middle East governments.

Examples from around the region illustrate the point.

No sooner had the United States and Britain safely contained Saddam after the Gulf War than Saudi elite funding of fundamentalist groups like Al Qaeda kicked into high gear.

It is as if ruling Saudis felt they had to burnish their Islamic credentials. Less well-off Saudis proved themselves lethal threats to America more directly.

With Saddam gone, the Saudi menace to Americans could increase. But the United States could significantly contain it by guaranteeing Palestinian sovereignty and real democracy for Arabs in Iraq.

Saddam runs a largely anticlerical Sunni regime. But the majority Shiites would have no incentive to cooperate with a U.S. military governor or any American-backed government after an overthrow — unless it provided significant democratic or economic benefits.

Likewise, if the United States appeared to block an Israeli accommodation with Palestinians at the same time that it frustrated Iraqi Shiite aspirations for independence (or even association with Iran), the group would try to overthrow its U.S. proxy government.

Worse, it would serve as proof to other Arabs that America does not back Arab majorities. Iraq would consequently pose a much more direct threat to Americans than it does now — by swelling terrorists' ranks and enhancing their arguments.

In fact, a U.S. occupying force is doomed to conflict with them. Any U.S. acquiescence in the Kurds' aspirations for independence immediately threatens the stability of Turkey.

That country, however, is arguably the steadiest force in the Middle East and the Muslim world. Already angry at what they see as betrayal by the United States after the Gulf War, Kurds would become superb anti-American terrorist recruitment targets.

Concrete U.S. steps to launch a Palestinian state and create true self-rule over the border in Iraq might enable King Abdullah II, a key ally, to preserve his constitutional authority. Without him, militant anti-Americanism would become the country's unifying force.

In Egypt and Pakistan, it is hard to imagine how already-unpopular secular governments will maintain control.

Following an invasion of Iraq, their populations would see nightly pictures of Americans seizing the reins of Iraq's government and oil economy. At the same time, they would be treated to images of Israel extending its occupation of Palestinian land.

The boost to terrorist recruitment from the failure of populous Egypt or nuclear Pakistan overwhelms any practical increase in anti-terror support that an Iraqi invasion might wring out of their undemocratic governments.

In each of these cases, the risk to Americans is a function of terrorists' ability to recruit young men and money.

With so much that can go wrong on the streets of Saudi Arabia, the Shiite and Kurdish parts of Iraq, Jordan, Egypt and Pakistan, the non-state risks stack up. In each region, the risks created by an invasion with no "redeeming" democratization and no progress in Palestine dwarf the benefits.

In sum, regime change in Iraq threatens to erode U.S. national security unless two conditions accompany an invasion.

A credible Palestinian solution must precede it. And palpable post-invasion progress toward Iraqi democracy and development must follow it.

Some have argued the United States should "trade" an imposed Palestinian settlement in exchange for Arab support in Iraq. Friends of Israel forcefully argue that doing so would be immoral and amount to destabilizing appeasement.

The United States should never consider such a trade. But it is not out of the question to impose a resolution when combatants like Israel and Palestine are headed nowhere — so long as it is a resolution that Israelis might choose if not under direct terrorist threat from some Palestinians.

Americans may well conclude an immediate Palestinian resolution is necessary to reduce the mounting threats to their own security from the Middle East.