What you should and shouldn't worry about as we go to war.

Science, evolution, and politics explained.
March 18 2003 12:25 PM

The Sum of All Fears

What you should and shouldn't worry about as we go to war.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Brace yourself for a round of I-told-you-so's from Iraq hawks. And blame it partly on Iraq doves. In trying to head off war, some doves have warned of nightmarish consequences that are in fact not all that likely, thus setting the stage for a postwar public relations triumph by hawks. That's too bad because for every dubious nightmare scenario there's a more valid and equally harrowing worry about the effects of the coming war.

Robert Wright Robert Wright

Robert Wright is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.

Dubious fear No. 1: The war will be long and messy. Once the inevitability of the war's outcome becomes clear—within the first week or two—Saddam Hussein will have trouble preserving loyalty and may have trouble preserving his life. Sustained and widespread street fighting in Baghdad is unlikely. Streetside crowds of Iraqis cheering American and British soldiers are virtually guaranteed.

Valid fear No. 1: The postwar occupation will be very long and increasingly messy. The crowds who cheer us this spring will want us out by next spring. But we won't leave because, regardless of whether Iraqis are ready for democracy, President Bush won't be. If there's one thing that will scare this administration as much as Iraq being run by a ruthless dictator, it's Iraq being run by millions of Iraqis. The reason isn't just that they're Muslims, a group not currently known for its ardent pro-Americanism. (Iraqi Muslims are said to be on balance more secular, less amenable to radical Islam, than some others.) There is also pent-up anger over the years of U.N. sanctions that Iraqis blame on America. More generally, there is the inherent unpredictability of popular sentiment in a nascent, ethnically fragmented democracy recovering from trauma—and encountering such culturally disruptive influences as the Internet after decades of seclusion from the outside world. A year from now, with American troops still in Baghdad, conservatives will find it hard to keep laughing off charges of American imperialism.

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Dubious fear No. 2: The war will unleash a wave of terrorism in America. There probably will be some terrorism, but if al-Qaida or anyone else were capable of unleashing much of it on American soil at this moment, America would probably have seen something other than unbroken tranquility since 9/11.

Valid fear No. 2: The war will unleash time-release terrorism. How many teenage Muslims will see video of dead Iraqi civilians and decide to commit their lives to radical Islam? I don't know, but if they're smart and ambitious, it doesn't take many to have a big future impact. The problem is deepened by the Bush administration's inept diplomacy, which has made the war more unpopular in Europe than was necessary. With European elites opposing the war, international news outlets such as the BBC will dwell inordinately on images of "collateral damage."

Dubious fear No. 3: The "Arab street" will boil over, overthrowing friendly regimes. It's true that Al Jazeera and the spread of such grass-roots organizing technologies as e-mail and cell phones make Muslim opinion more volatile and powerful than it was during the Persian Gulf War. And this war, less clearly justified and less widely supported than both the Gulf War and the war in Afghanistan, will naturally rile more Muslims than they did. This is especially scary in the case of Pakistan, given its nuclear arsenal—a fact that a more judicious president would have pondered long and hard before starting a war. Still, authoritarian governments are remarkably good at exerting authority. Chances are we won't see an out-and-out overthrow during the war, especially given the war's likely brevity.

Valid fear No. 3: The aforementioned length of the Iraqi occupation will give the "Arab street" an ongoing energy boost. The lingering presence of an infidel army will help radical agitators throughout the Muslim world, both in their continued recruiting of anti-American terrorists and in their recruiting of rebels to overthrow pro-American regimes (goals aided anyway by the spread of information technologies). The deposing of these regimes may be ultimately good—a step toward democratization. But that step can be long and chaotic, as Iran has been illustrating for years. So, however big the eventual payoff of a revolution, it would be best if in the meanwhile, anti-Americanism weren't its driving force. Neocons who hope that war triggers a chain reaction of Arab democratization may not have reckoned with exactly how that's most likely to happen.

Dubious fear No. 4: Saddam Hussein, with his back against the wall, will pull out his weapons of mass destruction, possibly prompting the use of nukes by Israel or the United States. Saddam doesn't have nukes, and many chemical and biological weapons don't really deserve the term "weapons of mass destruction." Even Ariel Sharon isn't reckless enough to go nuclear after a chemical warhead kills 100 people.

Valid fear No. 4: This war will make the future use of nukes more likely. It would be nice to entice (that is, bribe) North Korea into surrendering its capacity to make nuclear weapons. But verifying compliance would require an ongoing intrusive inspection regime. And why would Kim Jong-il buy into such a deal, given the precedent we're setting in Iraq—attacking a nation that allowed inspections, even though the inspectors hadn't yet found any weapons of mass destruction? [Update 3/31/03: The Washington Post reported, "North Korea signaled today it is learning a lesson from the war in Iraq—though not the one the Bush administration had wanted. The government's official party newspaper said that Iraq's experience proves that North Korea must not submit to international nuclear inspectors or agree to disarm."] Perhaps the biggest long-run downside of this war is the way President Bush cynically used the United Nations along the way, tainting it as an instrument of arms control. (And one result of his crude maneuvering within the United Nations—that America and Britain are fighting the war virtually alone—makes it more likely that the terrorist blow-back will be focused on Brits and Americans, not spread across a broad alliance.)

Of course, some of the above dubious dovish fears could turn out to be valid. (Obviously, I'm a fool to make clear predictions about a war in a volatile region and a time of great flux.) But even so, I contend that the biggest dangers posed by this war are in the long run. So beware snap postwar judgments on the success of the undertaking. The Persian Gulf War seemed like an unqualified success until the troops remaining in Saudi Arabia caught the eye of Osama Bin Laden, putting him on the path to 9/11.