The debate on the pros and cons of a U.S. attack on Iraq is heating up in the United States and elsewhere. Whether Iraq is a member of the “axis of evil” or not, there is no doubt that President George W. Bush sees its continuing development of weapons of mass destruction as a serious threat to U.S. security. And he seems determined to drive Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from power. Both U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld are on record as saying a “regime change” in Baghdad is necessary.

The big question is whether the U.S. should actually strike Iraq first. A U.S. war against Iraq would have far-reaching political and economic repercussions around the world. First and foremost, the question must be debated exhaustively not only in the U.S. but in the United Nations as well.

Any U.S. military action against Iraq involves many imponderables. As yet there is no convincing rationale or conclusive evidence to justify such an operation. There also remains much doubt about how to conduct such a high-risk campaign. Iraq is not Afghanistan. It is also unclear how, or even whether, a post-Hussein Iraq can be rebuilt into a democracy.

In retrospect, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 strengthened the case for an anti-Iraq war among the “neoconservative” hardliners in the Bush administration, notably Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. However, as the U.S. became preoccupied with the antiterrorist campaign in Afghanistan, those “down with Hussein” hawks retreated to the sidelines.

Later in the year, though, following a series of intelligence briefings on Iraq, President Bush himself reportedly came around to the view that Iraq indeed posed a serious threat to U.S. security. Those briefings allegedly depicted the Hussein regime as pushing dangerous programs, including development of weapons of mass destruction.

Moreover, the Iraqi dictatorship came under suspicion that it might have been involved in the Sept. 11 attacks. What prompted the doubt was the revelation that a frontline terrorist who organized the assaults met an Iraqi intelligence agent stationed in Czech Republic in the spring of the same year. However, there is no hard evidence of Iraqi involvement.

There is no denying that the Hussein regime — which has repeatedly rejected visits by U.N. weapons inspectors — is continuing to develop nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. The U.S. will probably emphasize this point should it decide to attack Iraq. In the eye of international law, however, there is no clear-cut basis for such action. In the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the use of force was sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council to reverse the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

President Bush now calls for a new strategy — a “first strike” doctrine for the war on terror. This runs counter to the traditional U.S. strategy of avoiding any first strike on an enemy country. Now, however, there is the possibility that the U.S. might mount a pre-emptive attack on Iraq. Such a move could violate the U.N. Charter. A first strike aimed at a “regime change” in a foreign country constitutes an open interference in its internal affairs.

The saber-rattling by the Bush administration has many nations worried — including not only its allies but also pro-American Arab nations in the Middle East, such as Egypt and Jordan. People in these Arab states will become even more critical of a U.S. that goes ahead and strikes Iraq without making more positive efforts to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

How an anti-Iraq operation would develop is anybody’s guess, but it is not difficult to imagine that it would inflict many casualties on both sides. U.S. reports say it would involve both ground fighting and air bombing. Iraqi forces might choose to fight in urban areas — a development that would cause heavy collateral damage. They might even use biological and chemical weapons.

A U.S. military victory seems a certainty given its overwhelming high-tech weaponry. But the real test of U.S. strength would be to build a new nation under a democratic regime. That would be a daunting challenge given the complexities in Iraq’s domestic situation. Caution is the best council, as suggested by Secretary of State Powell, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Richard B. Myers and other “moderates.”

No less worrying is the possible impact on the world economy not only because disruptions in Iraq’s oil supply would drive up world oil prices, but also because the cost of a new war against Iraq — unlike the Persian Gulf War, which was financed mostly by other nations such as Saudi Arabia and Japan — would impose a heavy burden on the U.S. Treasury and further inflate the already-growing U.S. budget deficit.

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