With President Bush's declaration that we have reached the "moment of truth" in the showdown with Iraq, it behooves us to ask how we got here and what, if any, options remain for avoiding war.
How did Saddam Hussein become such a menace?
Basically, by brutally exterminating and intimidating his internal enemies. He also had the advantage of controlling a significant slice of the world's oil resources, and he received military supplies and equipment from both the Soviet Union and the United States, who feared that Iran would become the dominant regional power.
Could he have been dealt with earlier?
Yes. When his armed forces were routed during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, he was extremely vulnerable. But the first Bush administration halted military operations after Kuwait was freed, in part to reassure the other Muslim countries in the alliance and in part because it believed that Hussein would be either overthrown or easily contained by an inspection regime. Seven years later, when the international inspectors were ordered to leave, the Clinton administration could have forced a showdown, but its actions never matched its hard-line rhetoric.
Why did this President Bush decide to confront Saddam Hussein?
A mixture of motives. From the campaign on, he described him as a menace to the region and the world. But the 9/11 terrorist attacks convinced Bush, as he said, that "time is not on our side" and that Hussein's arsenal of weapons of mass destruction was a growing menace.
How did Iraq become part of "an axis of evil"?
Put it down to rhetorical hubris. The phrase in the 2002 State of the Union address, linking Iraq, Iran and North Korea, was a sure applause-getter, but it has done nothing but muddle policy lines. At the moment, we are massing forces to attack Iraq, while counting on Russia, China, Japan and South Korea to take the lead in negotiating a solution to the threat of North Korea, which is expanding its nuclear weapons program. And we are covertly negotiating for Iran to stay quiet and offer help to refugees when we go into Iraq.
Has the president decided what to do?
Disclaimers notwithstanding, all the evidence suggests that Bush made up his mind soon after 9/11, if not before, that "regime change," i.e., the removal of Saddam Hussein, was the only certain answer to the Iraqi threat. With great skill, he has orchestrated resolutions from both Congress and the U.N. Security Council that he can legitimately claim sanction that policy. As his implied deadline approaches, there is some buyer's remorse in both bodies, but not enough to deter him from carrying out his intention.
What if Iraq shows signs of cooperating with the inspectors?
It is too late, in Bush's judgment, for any concessions short of complete disclosure of weapons supplies and programs -- something no one expects from Saddam Hussein. A vast American military force is in the region, ready for war. Those troops cannot be held there month after month while inspections continue. And they cannot withdraw unless Hussein capitulates to U.N. demands -- at least without terrible damage to American credibility.
Will the United States go it alone?
We won't have to. British troops will participate in the air and on the sea and ground, and many nations in the region will allow the use of bases. But the bulk of the fighting -- and casualties -- will be borne by Americans.
Will we win?
Almost certainly. But no one can guarantee how long or costly the war will be. The Gulf War was much shorter than expected, but we may not be so lucky this time.
We will be in Iraq for a long, long time. The country is an artificial construct, made up of three distinct religious/ethnic groups, with no history of democratic self-government. Its oil resources and strategic location mean some force will have to provide security and stability for years, not months. That is when we will really need allies and the legitimacy of the United Nations to avoid being cast in an imperial role.
What are the risks for President Bush?
They are enormous. Already the level of threat of terrorist attacks here at home has been raised to the next-highest category. Al Qaeda will use a war with Iraq to recruit supporters and may launch another attack. Israeli-Palestinian tensions will increase, and more bloodshed may result. Divisions in NATO have become far more public and intense. The price of oil is increasing and could tip a shaky U.S. economy into trouble, jeopardizing Bush's reelection.
With all these risks, why is Bush doing this?
Because he is convinced that failure to deal with Saddam Hussein now would lead to greater danger down the road.