Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein continues to deny U.N. inspectors access to more than 60 sites in Iraq where biological and chemical weapons may be stored or manufactured.
President Clinton has increased the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf and threatened to bomb Iraq unless Saddam grants U.N. inspectors unobstructed access to those sites. The United States now has more than 25,000 troops in the gulf region, plus more than 200 warplanes, two aircraft carriers and numerous battleships equipped with cruise missiles.Destroying possible biological and chemical weapons sites in Iraq may be a worthy objective, but there are tremendous risks as well.
First, bombing Iraq will surely result in civilian casualties, which Saddam will use to fan anti-American sentiment in the region. Saudi Arabia's leaders already fear that sympathy for the Iraqi people is already so strong in their country that a U.S. bombing campaign will provoke further anti-Americanism there.
Indeed, in June 1996, 19 American soldiers were killed by a truck bomb in Dhahran. In November 1995, five were killed by a bomb blast in Riyadh. The Saudis have subsequently turned down a U.S. request to use their airfields in a bombing raid against Iraq.
Second, if it bombs Iraq, the United States will be perceived as tough on Arabs but unwilling to pressure Israel to meet its obligations to Palestinians under the peace process. That perceived double standard will contribute to further regional distrust and frustration with U.S. policy toward the Middle East.
Third, Saddam's defiance of the United States resonates throughout the region. Bombing Iraq will only increase his popular appeal as an arch-opponent of American intervention. Even Iran, which fought a bloody eight-year war against Iraq in the 1980s, opposes U.S. bombing. Iranian President Mohammed Khatami has said, "The presence of dozens of (American) warships in the Persian Gulf gives offense to the people of the region. . . . The people of the region should themselves assure the security of the Persian Gulf."
Fourth, bombing Iraq will only feed Saddam's desire for revenge against the United States and drive him even harder to create biological and chemical weapons. Even a carefully planned and expertly executed bombing campaign will not destroy all of his weapons. He will retain some capability and have greater reason to construct more weapons and use them against the United States.
Fifth, since bombing Iraq will likely be inconclusive, the United States will find itself still entangled in the Persian Gulf region after the campaign is over. Indeed, Secretary of Defense William Cohen admitted that bombing would probably only curtail Saddam "in the near future." When asked if the United States would repeat air-strikes if Saddam still refused U.N. inspectors access, he replied, "It's possible that could be used in the future, would have to be used in the future."
Finally, bombing Iraq could be the beginning of yet another ill-defined military operation abroad. Indeed, Senate leaders last week proposed a resolution urging President Clinton to "take all necessary and appropriate actions" against Iraq. The non-specific wording of the resolution invites questions about whether other operations, with expanding objectives, will follow.
We are already seeing signs of such "mission creep." The Joint Chiefs want President Clinton to target not only sites where biological and chemical weapons may be produced but also Saddam's security forces and top aides. Senate Republican leader Trent Lott of Mississippi has called for the air-strike to wipe out Saddam's weapons capabilities and kill the Iraqi leader himself. Echoing Lott's views, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said, "Clearly we want to take him out." Former Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle has called for the ouster of Saddam "through a combination of military and political measures."
Those are all recipes for ever-deepening U.S. involvement in the Persian Gulf region. But American taxpayers already spend $40 billion per year on security commitments in the region, and President Clinton's call for bombing Iraq places nearly all the human, political and financial costs on the United States.
The United States would be better off if it dedicated those resources to responding to bio-chem emergencies and defending the U.S. mainland against the kind of deadly missile attack Iraq and other nations will eventually be able to launch. Indeed, even if bombing stops Iraq in the short run, other countries will certainly develop similar weapons capabilities. It is time to think about reducing our military profile in the Persian Gulf region and using the savings to deploy a national missile defense system to protect America from the Iraqs of today and tomorrow.