This article originally appeared at http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/prem/200302u/pp2003-02-05
but to make sure it continued to be available I saved it here.
Atlantic Unbound | February 5, 2003
by Politics & Prose | by Jack Beatty
The Road Better Not Taken
A war against Iraq could be the most catastrophic blunder in U.S. history
This humanitarian disaster will be incalculably worse if Saddam uses chemical weapons against his own people, either purposely or inadvertently while trying to use them against us. He has used them on his people before and, facing death in the Battle of Bagdhad and wanting to raise the political cost of victory for the U.S., some strategists fear he might do so again. If the Arab "street" believes that the Mossad was behind September 11, they will accept the jihadi propaganda that the U.S., not Saddam, gassed Iraqi civilians. The U.S. would share moral responsibility for this infamy, a foreseen result of our attack.
The rubble of "victory" will still be smoking when the U.S. taxpayer inherits the burdens of occupation. In a comprehensive analysis of the economic costs of war, William Nordhaus, a Yale economist, gives a range of bad news, starting from $100 billion, if all goes well, to as much as $1.9 trillion if nothing goes well and the occupation drags on. U.S. troops never seem to come home—they remain in Germany and Japan fifty-seven years after the end of World War II and ten years after the end of the Cold War; they remain in Korea fifty years after the end of the Korean War; they remain in Saudi Arabia ten years after the end of the Gulf War; they remain in Bosnia five years after the end of the Yugoslav civil war. And they could remain in Iraq for years, targets of terrorist attack and proof of "U.S. imperialism."
Pentagon idealists bridle at that characterization. They see the occupation making Iraq the center of democratic contagion in the autocratic Middle East. One commentator has termed this "democratic imperialism." Thomas Friedman of The New York Times imagines the "seeds" of democracy spreading out from Iraq and over time ending the jihadi terrorism against the West produced by the autocratic regimes. The future, then, would seem to be a race between democracy and imperialism. Which will sprout first, Friedman's democratic seeds or the seeds of anti-imperialism? People interpret the present in the light of their past. The Arab Middle East has no experience of democracy but it has more than a hundred years' experience of Western imperialism. Friedman's seeds must push themselves up against the weight of history and memory. "I doubt you could find one person who would agree that the Americans are coming just for the sake of the region and they want to bring democracy," Khaled M. Batarfi, a Saudi Arabian newspaper editor, told The New York Times last week. "We think it's oil. We think it's Israel. We think it's control. They want a police station in Baghdad like they have in Kabul."
While democracy is germinating in Iraq, U.S. forces will be searching for evidence of weapons of mass destruction to retroactively justify our attack. What if they don't find any, or only a remnant decaying supply of no military utility? What if Saddam destroyed them, and his stonewalling of the UN weapons' inspectors was a bluff that backfired—by provoking the U.S. attack that the bluff was meant to deter? What if, as Senator Richard Lugar asked last summer, the successor Iraqi regime wants to preserve Saddam's weapons and hides them from us? Or what if, as the CIA predicted last fall, Saddam, concluding that a U.S. attack was inevitable, gave quantities of chemical and biological weapons to terrorists to attack the United States? In that case George W. Bush will have killed who knows how many human beings for worse than nothing, making his war not only a crime but a blunder, potentially the most catastrophic in American history.
Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.