How a War With Iraq Will Change the World
It's not if but when. Here are the consequences.
Monday, July 8, 2002
By Bill Powell

They made 16,000 of them the last time: Sacks that are about eight feet long and three feet across, with six handles and a zipper across the top. "Human Remains Pouches" is the horrible phrase the Pentagon uses for them, but everyone else knows them by the vernacular: body bags.

Remember the run-up to the first war with Iraq, Operation Desert Storm? The U.S. was headed to war, and for the first time since Vietnam we were going to take casualties, probably numerous.

Or so we thought. Three hundred and ninety American troops died in Gulf War I, a figure that is larger than what you may remember, but far, far smaller than what we had feared. Now, 11 years later, the U.S. military is fresh from subduing a band of fanatic tribal warriors in a country sprung straight from the Middle Ages, a conflict that was, on our side anyway, even more bloodless than Operation Desert Storm. This recent history of no-muss, no-fuss military success serves now as the critical backdrop to an atmosphere, both in Washington and across the country, that one eminence grise in the nation's capital reasonably describes as "surreal." We appear headed for round two with Saddam Hussein. And this time, as an HBO promo might have it, it's for keeps.

That prospect, even if it is probably a year away at best, is hugely serious business. No matter how smoothly (knock wood) any eventual military operation goes, a "regime change" in Iraq will have vast geopolitical and economic consequences. Some of them might be good, some not so good, and some of them could be horrible. But consequences there will be, for Iraq, for the region, and for the world. What is "surreal" is that for the most part, for now anyway, a lot of people in Washington talk about punching out Saddam the way they talk about, say, passing an education bill. Everyone's in favor, passage is a done deal, everyone will take credit, but please, spare us the details.

This state of denial isn't limited to the Beltway either. Stock analysts, economists, and other pundits do contortions every day trying to explain why, in a reasonably healthy economy, the stock market is so bad and so many corporate executives remain in a blue funk. They seem to focus on everything other than the 800-pound gorilla sitting in the room. Paul O'Neill, the Secretary of the Treasury, went so far as to say in mid-June that the market's recent slump was "inexplicable." But somewhere in the minds of investors, CEOs, and the man in the street are the following facts: Nine months ago the World Trade Center towers collapsed after the most heinous terrorist attack in this country's history. The man responsible for organizing it, Osama bin Laden, is unaccounted for. One of his alleged acolytes has just been arrested for planning to set off a "dirty bomb" somewhere, presumably in New York City or Washington. Meanwhile, in the Middle East, the Israelis and the Palestinians slaughter each other daily. That fuels anti-American sentiment in the Arab world as the U.S. talks big about taking out an Arab despot who has openly--and in his own way successfully--defied the U.S. for more than a decade. (He may be an S.O.B., but he's their S.O.B.)

Pardon the cliche, but markets hate uncertainty, and in that volatile mix of facts lies a whole heap of it. With all due respect to the Secretary of the Treasury, the market's continuing weakness is not necessarily all that inexplicable, and it probably isn't entirely related to funny accounting or whether Cisco meets its whisper numbers next quarter.

The fact is, by the beginning of summer 2003, if not sooner, the U.S. could be in the middle of Desert Storm II, with tens of thousands of troops headed back to Iraq, this time not to restore an oil-rich monarchy to its throne but to put Saddam out of our misery once and for all. So before the 2002 summer doldrums set in, let's at least start to think seriously about what the implications of that may be.

It's necessary, in any effort to game out scenarios for what a regime change in Iraq may mean for the world, to start with a basic question that George W. Bush has already settled in his own mind. Is it really necessary? Bush has decided that it is. The decision to get rid of Saddam, telegraphed first in his now famous Axis of Evil speech and most recently in a commencement address at West Point, is not rooted in some Shakespearean grudge, a desire to correct what is now widely perceived (rightly or wrongly) to be a family mistake: his father's "failure" to get rid of Saddam in 1991. For W., it's all about Sept. 11 and three inescapable truths. When U.N. inspectors left Iraq in late 1998, Saddam still had weapons of mass destruction, or WMD, at his disposal, despite the fact that UNSCOM (as the U.N. inspection agency was known) for more than two years had incinerators disposing of WMD materiel nonstop 24 hours a day. Saddam already has biological and chemical capacity, and he is well down the road to developing a nuclear capability that, if attained, would alter the balance of power in the Middle East forever. Inescapable reality No. 2 is that since UNSCOM departed, several Iraqi defectors have said that Saddam has redoubled his efforts to develop those programs, despite the very real burden U.N.-mandated economic sanctions have placed on those efforts. And fact No. 3 is that Sept. 11 showed all of us, a new President included, that the U.S. has ruthless enemies that not only aim to hurt us but can. Saddam is one of them. Therefore, he must go.

Supporters of Bush's conclusion believe that the status quo--keeping Saddam in a box with sanctions and a new inspection regime--simply can't be sustained indefinitely; that, in the words of Charles A. Duelfer, former No. 2 man at UNSCOM, it amounts to a policy of "slow-motion suicide." Saddam, or one of his like-minded comrades, will use those weapons of mass destruction eventually, and it will make Sept. 11 look like a junior-varsity exercise in death and destruction. Thus, the time has come to do whatever it takes to get rid of him.

Everyone, of course, hopes that a fed-up Iraqi general finally does what almost everyone outside Iraq has wanted for 11 years and offs Saddam in the still of the night. It's not likely to happen. As Nabeel Musawi, who helped lead the Kurdish rebels in the north of Iraq until they were abandoned by the Clinton Administration in 1996, says, there have been no fewer than six coup attempts since the Gulf war in 1991. None has really come close to succeeding. And Musawi, like many others, believes it's a "fantasy'' to think that it's going to happen now. The reason it hasn't, he says, "is hardly a coincidence. Saddam's entire regime, the whole paranoid security structure, is designed precisely so that it doesn't." That, indeed, is why Tommy Franks, head of the U.S. Central Command, and the other U.S. generals are finally, if reluctantly, beginning to draw up plans for a military operation that could involve up to 200,000 U.S. troops. If Saddam has to go, we are the ones who are going to have to do it.

The logic behind Bush's conclusion is sufficiently compelling that a lot of foreign-policy types who are not by instinct hawks accept it. The surprising thing is that some of Saddam's neighbors--the people you'd think would most want to be rid of him--don't. At least not completely. And the reason is that they simply don't believe the Administration has given enough thought to what the consequences of a move against Saddam might be. Neither Saudi Arabia nor Turkey, two of the most important players in Saddam's neighborhood, oppose removing him per se. They are the leaders of what can be called the law-of-unintended-consequences crowd. They fear that the most likely method of ousting Saddam--another large-scale U.S. invasion--could lead to madness. And though the Saudis for very good reason are hardly in good odor among many Americans since Sept. 11, their concerns are not idle.

First, they are not alone in believing that Saddam is in a box and that he isn't much of a threat to anyone anymore (his own people, in this cold-blooded calculation, excluded). "There is an argument that Saddam is deterrable, so why not just deter him," says Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. The basic assumption here is that Saddam wants to stay in power until he dies a natural death, and that he knows that if he is ever linked to the use of WMD in the U.S. or Israel, he's history. So if he's unlikely to make real trouble in the region anymore, why risk a military invasion now?