``Collateral'' Casualties Are Escalating the Cost of the War

By , Helena Cobban is scholar-in-residence at the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington.

``SORRY, mister, I didn't mean to break your window; the ball just came off the bat that way.'' ``Sorry, ma'am, I didn't mean to kill your baby, but you live very near that weapons factory.'' One broken window. What number of civilians killed in Iraq? These are what the military likes to call ``collateral'' casualties.

Theologians are right when they make an issue of whether civilians become casualties in war intentionally or not. There is something grotesque about Saddam Hussein's explicit targeting of civilians in Israel and Saudi Arabia. But short of clear-cut intent, there is a whole further spectrum of relative attention or inattention to collateral casualties in wartime.

Judged from this point of view, many of the facilities targeted during the first weeks of the war were ill-chosen. Consider those video images that our military proudly gave us during those first days - our tax dollars at work, blowing up Iraqi power plants. Those plants, we were told, were part of the Iraqi war machine. Well yes, a proportion of their output doubtless did fuel Saddam's weapons factories. But a further portion played an essential part in Iraq's civilian life, including pumping Baghdad's water system. Inevitably, blowing up the plants caused damage to the civilian economy and threatened Baghdad's public health.

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Were the human and political costs of this action weighed against its possible military benefits?

And how about this: The world's largest nuclear-weapons power attacks research reactors whose safeguards were recently verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Did anyone consider the damage to the integrity of the global non-proliferation regime that might result from that action, which had no relationship at all to the military situation in and around Kuwait?

We cannot yet begin to quantify much of the ``collateral'' damage caused by the way the administration chose to wage this war. We still have no good numbers for Iraq's civilian casualties. We have no idea what the war will cost the world, in political terms, over the months and years to come. Baltic independence? Democratization in China? America's relations with Arab and other third-world nations? Hopes for balanced relations between the world's northern ``haves'' and its largely southern ``have-nots?''

I know, I know. How many times have I been told that you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs? But it would be reassuring if we could feel that somebody in this administration had been keeping tabs on how many collateral ``eggs'' this operation would take. When will the number broken start to exceed the benefits the Desert Storm omelet can be expected to bring? And what will our options be then?

Is somebody starting to think about these questions?

Way back at the beginning of this crisis, I made a suggestion that if we needed a credible offensive threat to back up demands for the liberation of Kuwait, then it would be best to threaten a limited war focused on regaining that hapless country. The liberation of Kuwait, after all, and not the destruction of the Iraqi military, was what our allies had signed on to. But the folks in the Pentagon never even glanced at a limited option. For them, it was total war or nothing against the Iraqi forces.

The result of getting into a total war, including strikes against targets inside Iraq that had little bearing on the balance around Kuwait, has been a worrisome disproportion between anything we hope to gain from such a war, and the costs the world might pay as a result.

Nor is the question of ``collateral'' civilian damage inside Iraq merely moralistic. For at some stage in the month ahead the administration needs to be in position to start the ground war that will finally liberate Kuwait. Many in the Pentagon argue that the ground offensive should be delayed as long as possible, in order to minimize American casualties. What they neglect to factor in is that, in the ground war, we will be more dependent than ever on the participation of Arab allies, particularly the Egyptians. But for every week we delay the ground war, the more dismayed the Egyptians become at a campaign they see as targeting one Arab state (Iraq), rather than liberating another.

It would be a sad irony, indeed, if the ``collateral'' damage the Pentagon has almost unthinkingly inflicted on Iraq should end up threatening the success of the whole effort to liberate Kuwait. In wars, unlike ballgames, you can't just offer to pay for the damage afterwards.

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