Wes Clark on the Iraq War

September 9, 2002

Before Iraq: Strengthen allies, weaken al-Qaeda by Wesley K. Clark

As the Bush administration raises prospects of war with Iraq, USA TODAY asked experts to explore critical military, diplomatic and political factors involved and the possible consequences. This is part of that occasional series.

Saddam Hussein is a cunning, stubborn opponent, as I well know. As commander of U.S. forces in Europe in the late 1990s, I watched Iraqi forces violate the “no fly zone” and defy United Nations inspection teams. He is the kind of leader who starts wars, as when he invaded Kuwait in 1990 and then struck Israel with SCUD missiles. He has a strong streak of irrationality, and, apparently, a messianic complex.

If Saddam had the SCUD missiles armed with nuclear warheads that he wants, the Middle East would face terrible new risks. He might strike at Israel or go after another neighboring state, holding his missiles as a second-strike deterrent. Or Israel might launch preventive strikes. We must act to prevent this kind of war.

The president will address the United Nations on Thursday. This is an appropriate journey. But is the administration asserting that we should start a war now to prevent one later? Rushing too quickly to invade Iraq presents greater problems now than Saddam does.

Saddam has been seeking nuclear weapons for more than 20 years. In 1991, the CIA said he was within six months of having a nuclear weapon. The latest information says he has tried in recent months to acquire aluminum rods necessary to enrich uranium. Despite all of the talk of “loose nukes,” Saddam doesn’t have any, or, apparently, the highly enriched uranium or plutonium to enable him to construct them.

Unless there is new evidence, we appear to have months, if not years, to work out this problem. And today we are still at war with al-Qaeda. These terrorists weren’t destroyed in Afghanistan, just scattered. Thousands of fighters remain, plotting their next moves.

Despite our successes in Afghanistan, we will not be able to defeat al-Qaeda without committed allies. Military forces and so-called floating coalitions aren’t enough, because the terrorists have insinuated themselves into communities around the world, hiding where we can’t attack them with air power and special forces. Frustratingly, some friends are releasing terrorist suspects we helped identify because their laws and judicial procedures are not like ours.

Rather than unilaterally attack Iraq now, we should refine the war against al-Qaeda by:

* Strengthening cooperation with allies, forging common standards for evidence and definitions of crimes and enhancing the exchange of in-depth information.
* Training more police and investigators around the world so they can detect al-Qaeda operatives and bring them to justice.
* Increasing U.S. assistance to countries and to non-governmental organizations to alleviate the miseries of underdevelopment and strengthen democracy.

While we do this, we also should make our case against Saddam. Ultimately, he must be held to his pledge to give up weapons of mass destruction, by force if necessary. First, we should build international pressure against him. We need to simultaneously offer more tightly focused and, therefore, more effective sanctions against Iraq while increasing our efforts to open the country to humanitarian and human-rights efforts. We need to press for a U.N. resolution demanding no-holds-barred inspections, which the White House is considering. At worst, engaging the U.N. would build international support for action against Iraq; at best, intrusive inspections might slow down Saddam’s weapons programs, giving us more time. Finally, we should establish “red lines” Saddam cannot cross – such as refusing to accept these inspections – that would mobilize international support for action against him.

Above all, we need to demonstrate that we ourselves are abiding by international law, considering force only if absolutely necessary.

Attacking Iraq now, before these other actions are taken, would reduce, not enhance, our security. Unilateral U.S. action today would disrupt the war against al-Qaeda, supercharge anti-American sentiment in the Middle East and Europe, undercut international cooperation and shake up moderate Arab governments.

Invading Iraq also entails considerable military risks and uncertainties. Under the best scenario, most Iraqi soldiers probably wouldn’t fight well, and battles might last only a few days. But some troops might fight fiercely, and in cities such as Baghdad, that could be costly and time-consuming. If Saddam attacked Israel, he would draw it into war and undercut any Arab support. After the war, establishing a Western-style democracy in an Arab police state such as Iraq would be problematic. We likely would have thousands of soldiers tied down and billions of dollars committed in post-war reconstruction.

Our strategic priorities need to be kept in order: We can best face a possible fight against Iraq if we have strong allies and a weakened al-Qaeda. While we eventually may have to use force against Iraq, we should use our resolve first to empower diplomacy, with war as the last resort.

USA Today, 9/9/02

Wesley K. Clark, a retired U.S. Army general, commanded NATO forces in Europe and is the author of Waging Modern War.

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