Iraq: Why not do nothing?

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As Senate hearings get under way, Americans are beginning to work through their doubts about the prospect of war with Iraq.

Commentators from right to left, as well as senior US military officials, have expressed concerns: the risks of extended combat and significant loss of American soldiers; the possibility of Saddam Hussein using weapons of mass destruction; the costs of a large-scale campaign.

A possible "Baghdad first" attack strategy, as reported Monday in the New York Times, seems designed to minimize concerns about scale, but says little about the deeper political questions over war with Iraq.

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War supporters respond to doubters with a seemingly irresistible argument: What is the alternative? Do you really want Mr. Hussein to get weapons of mass destruction and give them to terrorists or threaten his neighbors? This objection is far less overwhelming than it may appear. Most commentators seem too cowed by the array of politicians and pundits favoring war to make the obvious response: Do nothing.

Does Iraq really pose such an urgent threat? Its neighbors – Turkey, Jordan, even Kuwait – seem unconcerned, as they publicly decline a role in the war. While they would probably go along with a US war in the end, they fervently hope it does not come to that. In their eyes, the urgency comes from Washington, not Baghdad.

Weapons of mass destruction? The final report of the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) in 1999 states that Iraq did try to acquire weapons of mass destruction, and worked hard to frustrate UNSCOM's disarmament mission. The report also makes clear that UNSCOM succeeded to a remarkable degree in finding and destroying Iraqi nuclear and chemical weapons programs. The one area of doubt is biological weapons. Perhaps Iraq has reconstituted its weapons programs, as the war partisans claim. But if the Bush administration had any evidence, beyond the shadowy defectors desperate to be useful to the US, it would have been leaked by now.

Is the war on terrorism a good reason to take on Iraq? The Bush administration has failed to find evidence connecting Hussein with Al Qaeda. Recent efforts to make the link, such as a PBS documentary, offered remarkably little evidence.

But, war partisans respond, the US has a mission, to rid the world of evil threats. If the US backs down, they argue, Hussein wins. Set aside the point that it is war proponents' rhetoric that has placed the US in such an unenviable position, where Hussein only has to survive to win.

Will the world lose respect for America if it does not fight this war? No. Most of the world desperately hopes the US comes to its senses. Even British Prime Minister Tony Blair has repeatedly declared in recent days that no decision for war has yet been made. Rather than talk ourselves into an unnecessary war, why not take the path of leadership?

Say what most of the world thinks: Iraq is beneath us. Ignore it. UN sanctions will keep Iraq from acquiring military items, and if implemented sincerely might ease the suffering of the Iraqi people. Such a gesture would remove one of the greatest complaints of the Arab and Islamic world, and would make the campaign against terrorism more winnable.

And Hussein? He knows perfectly well that one false move would be his last.

• Marc Lynch, a professor of political science at Williams College, just spent six weeks in the Arab world. He is writing a book about Iraq.

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