Iraq war for Dummies

(and the terminally confused)

About This Article
If you’re like most Americans, you probably haven’t started duct-taping your windows—yet. But you are feeling a bit apprehensive about this whole Iraq war thing, not to mention terrorists with nerve gas and dirty bombs up their sleeves.

Let’s face it, we’ve got the jitters, and war and terrorism are just the beginning. Add in the tanking economy, state governments bleeding red ink, corrupt corporations, disappearing civil liberties, the ballooning federal deficit, dead bodies piling up in Israel, and a nut job in North Korea who is threatening us with nuclear-tipped missiles—hey, we’re in a funk. And to think that just a few years ago all that bothered us was a bit of hanky-panky in the White House. Who imagined we’d ever feel nostalgic about Monica Lewinsky?

We’re worried, and we’re confused. We know that Saddam Hussein is a vile man, a “baby-torturer,” as President Bush calls him, and a brutal tyrant who probably has an arsenal of nasty chemical and biological weapons. But we don’t know what should be done about him. Should we invade Iraq and take him out, as the president wants? Or should we let the United Nations weapons inspectors continue to do their jobs, as they and several of our European allies desire?

And if we do invade, what then? What will we find in this Pandora’s box called Iraq? All wars have unintended consequences, and this one, in the heart of the most volatile region of the world, is certain to have many.

The conflict itself is scary enough: What if Hussein, cornered and desperate, uses those nasty chemicals and germs against American soldiers? What if he sets his oil fields on fire or launches an anthrax-carrying missile at Israel?

And what if, after the invasion, street riots bring down the government in Pakistan, putting nukes in the hands of al-Qaeda supporters? What if civil war breaks out in Saudi Arabia? What if, what if?

As the astute New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman noted recently, the U.S. government is hoping that Iraq, with our help, will become like Japan and Germany after World War II, a model of democratic institutions, and that it will then influence the rest of the region in a positive way. But what if, he wonders, Iraq instead becomes another Yugoslavia, torn by bloody tribal and ethnic power struggles?

The war itself is expected to cost at least $200 billion. The post-war occupation could cost several times that. We could repair a lot of roads and schools here at home with that money, not to mention buying health insurance for the 40 million Americans who now go without it. And save a lot of lives, Iraqi and American, in the bargain.

Yes, we’re nervous about this war. And scared. We can count our blessings, though: We don’t live in Baghdad.

If you’re one of the many millions of Americans who haven’t yet figured out whether going to war with Iraq is a wise idea or the height of foolishness, this article may help you. Then again, it may confuse you even more. But at least you might learn a few things you didn’t know before.

What’s With Saddam Hussein, Anyway?
Iraq could easily be one of the healthiest countries in the Middle East. It has both oil wealth and a relatively well-educated, modernized populace. In the latter regard Saddam Hussein deserves at least some credit. He’s not a religious zealot like Osama bin Laden, who wants to turn back the clock to the Muslim glory days of the seventh century and kill the infidels in the process.

Iraq, remember, is the cradle of civilization. The Fertile Crescent of the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys is where the modern world began, and Iraqis are proud of their ancient heritage. Today they have one of the more liberal societies in the Middle East, at least in terms of women’s rights and educational opportunities, if not political freedom. During the 1980s, Hussein was a hero to many Arab progressives, for his emphasis on education, his determination to build a modern economy and his liberalizing of attitudes toward women.

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Illustration By Tom Tomorrow

But, as the ubiquitous murals of Hussein in Iraq suggest, he’s also a man of overweening, even pathological ambition and self-importance. In the macho world of Middle East politics, he’s always pictured himself as top dog, the leader who will unite greater Arabia and, ultimately, drive out the Israelis.

He knows no method but violence. Born poor, as a child he had to thieve to eat. He was illiterate until age 10. His first job with the Baath political party was as an enforcer, a thug. Later he became an interrogator of prisoners—and a torturer. His greatest role model, he has said, is Josef Stalin. The “Butcher of Baghdad,” he’s often called.

His lust for power has had disastrous consequences for his country.

First there was the horrific eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s, which he provoked and which resulted in the deaths of nearly a million young men, an entire generation of Iraqi and Iranian youth. It was then that Hussein first used chemical weapons in battle. They had been given to him by his ally, the United States, which at the time worried about Iranian-sponsored fundamentalism more than it did Hussein’s megalomania.

Then there was the 1990 invasion of Kuwait. The resulting U.N.-sponsored Persian Gulf War, led by the United States, inflicted horrific damage on Iraq, wrecking most of its sewer, water and sanitation systems and killing an estimated 100,000 people, including as many as 8,000 civilians, though that number is in dispute.

It was a terrible defeat for Hussein, but he doesn’t see it that way, nor does the average Arab on the street, who admires Hussein for having stood up to the greatest power on Earth and survived.

It would be a mistake to assume that Arabs in the Middle East see events in the same way Americans and Europeans do. Apart from the relatively independent Al Jazeera television in Qatar, they get their news from suspect sources. That partially explains why many if not most Arabs continue to believe that the Israeli secret police, not al-Qaeda, masterminded the 9/11 attacks.

Iraq Today
For the past decade Iraq has faced U.N.-ordered sanctions—a trading embargo limiting oil sales—designed to squeeze it economically and force Saddam Hussein to destroy any chemical or biological weapons of mass destruction remaining in his arsenal. He insists he has done so; the Bush administration says he has not. U.N. inspectors say he has yet to document the destruction of known large quantities of nerve gas and anthrax.

The Iraqi people are caught in the middle. Oil is their only substantial natural resource. Hussein has skimmed off most of the limited revenues for himself, his family and his cronies, and only a bit has trickled down to the general populace. Various human-rights groups and UNICEF charge that as many as a half-million Iraqis, mostly children, have died from a lack of medications.

Iraq has never recovered from the Gulf War and is ill prepared for another conflict. Food is rationed. Medications are in short supply. As Sand Brim, a peace activist traveling in Iraq, recently wrote in an email home, “People in Iraq do not speak about the future. … They do not know if they will have a future.”

Just How Bad Would the War Be?
War can sound exciting in the abstract, and the media have a way of hyping this looming conflict as if it were the runup to the Superbowl. But the old adage is always true: War is hell on Earth. Its purpose is to destroy and kill.

This one’s especially scary because of the possibility, or likelihood, that Hussein will use some of those chemical or biological weapons, as he did against Iran and as he has threatened to do this go-around. U.S. soldiers are training in full-body protective gear, but as 60 Minutes pointed out recently, there is some question whether it really does the job and whether the Pentagon is prepared to handle chemical warfare. The outfits sure look scary, though, as in, “I don’t want to go anyplace where this is required dress.”

The president’s chief of staff, Andrew Card, recently warned that the United States reserved the right to use nuclear weapons against the Iraqis should they attack with chemical weapons. The Pentagon has said it might use nukes anyway, to blow up deep Iraqi bunkers. Neither proposed tactic is reassuring.

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Illustration By Ted Rall

Some 150,000 U.S. troops are now in the Middle East, preparing to invade Iraq. Nobody knows how many of them would become casualties. A best-case scenario has Iraqi troops folding early, in effect surrendering the country because they don’t like Hussein either. Worst case, Hussein’s strategy draws fighting into the cities, where U.S. soldiers are forced to kill civilians to get at him. Half of the people of Iraq are under age 15, so many of the dead will be children. Al Jazeera has a field day broadcasting the images of torn bodies and rubble. Iraqi soldiers use chemical weapons and resist fiercely in the cities, where only hand-to-hand combat, which is deadly, can drive them out.

It’s convenient to envision the people of Iraq rising up against Hussein as soon as the invasion begins, but that ignores reality: An estimated one million Iraqis are tied in with Hussein’s regime or party, notes Jack Beatty, writing in the Atlantic Monthly: “They’ll face imprisonment, war-crimes trials or reprisal murders if Saddam loses power.” In other words, they have every reason to fight.

The Bush War Scenario
To hear the president and his aides describe it, the invasion is going to be “no worse than high-tech heck,” as Alisa Solomon suggests in the Village Voice.

“The latest battle strategy would, as its title insists, ‘Shock and Awe’ Iraq by dropping as many as 800 ‘smart’ cruise missiles on that country in two days, more than twice the number of missiles launched during the entire 40 days of the 1991 Gulf War,” Solomon writes. “Late last month, the architect of Shock and Awe, military strategist Harlan Ullman, gloated to the press about the effect being ‘rather like the nuclear weapons at Hiroshima.’ Such an attack would ‘take the city down,’ he said, wiping out the water and power supplies in Baghdad. “In two, three, four, five days, they are physically, emotionally and psychologically exhausted.'”

A lot of them would be dead, too. Even more would be injured. And the infrastructure needed to care for them—food supplies, water, hospitals—would be in shambles.

Why Go After Iraq?
Not that long ago Americans were more concerned about Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda than Saddam Hussein. After all, Hussein hasn’t caused any trouble since getting his butt kicked out of Kuwait 12 years ago. And, unlike our ally Saudi Arabia, Iraq is not an exporter of Islamic terrorists.

Shortly after the war in Afghanistan ended, driving out the Taliban but not capturing bin Laden or his top lieutenants, the Bush administration shifted its, and our, attention to Iraq. Suddenly Saddam Hussein was Public Enemy No. 1, and Osama bin Laden faded into the background.

The reason? Because a seachange in policy was taking place in the White House. Because of 9/11, the president began to accept the idea, propounded by certain hawks in the neo-conservative defense establishment, that America should take a more assertive role vis-à-vis potential enemies. Instead of merely containing them, as the U.N. had tried to do with Hussein for over a decade, America would take pre-emptive action wherever and whenever it was threatened.

It began with the idea, carried to force in Afghanistan, that America would treat any nation harboring terrorists as an enemy. And gradually it has extended to any nation developing weapons of mass destruction, the president’s notorious “axis of evil,” first among them Iraq. (Though it should be noted that several nations have chemical or biological weapons, including Iran and Syria.)

Hussein had such weapons, was developing a nuclear bomb and supposedly was in the process of hooking up—and presumably sharing his weapons—with al-Qaeda. Despite U.N. resolutions ordering him to dispose of his weapons, he had not done so.

During his State of the Union speech this year, for example, the president reiterated his concerns: “Imagine,” he said, speaking of the 9/11 attackers, “those 19 hijackers with other weapons, and other plans—this time armed by Saddam Hussein. It would take just one vial, one canister, one crate slipped into this country to bring a day of horror like none we have ever known.”

It is a scary thought. Sept. 11 showed us just how vulnerable we could be to even a small group of people who were determined to wreak havoc. As the president has said, the oceans are no longer enough to protect us.

Iraq and al-Qaeda
How close is the Iraq–al-Qaeda connection? Quite close, said Secretary of State Colin Powell in his Feb. 5 address to the United Nations. He held up a satellite photo of a supposed al-Qaeda base in northern Iraq and mentioned a “fine paper … which describes in exquisite detail Iraqi deception activities.”

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Illustration By Ted Rall

However, the report, grabbed off the Internet from an Israeli publication, turned out to be a grad student’s work based on 12-year-old data. And the camps, as reporters later discovered, were squalid little compounds outside Hussein’s direct authority lacking electricity and running water. In addition, the militants occupying them, like bin Laden himself, despise Hussein.

Bin Laden’s goal, after all, is to restore an Islamic caliphate with Baghdad as its capital and replace Hussein’s secular regime. Most unaligned analysts believe that the ideological rift between bin Laden and Hussein is far too great to enable them to partner up.

Why Invade Now?
Increasingly, the answer given is simply that we’re set to do so and it’s too late to back down. Perhaps believing that other nations would get on board, the Bush administration has prepared for war. Now we’ve got all those soldiers, ships and tanks in the region. If we wait much longer, more than another three weeks or so, the weather will be too hot for soldiers wearing bio-chem protection gear. And if, after all this, we don’t invade, the thinking goes, we’ll send a signal of American impotence to rogue nations everywhere.

The problem, even for many who support invasion, is that America so far has been unable to garner international support for military action. Many nations, including some of America’s closest allies, want to wait. War, they say, should be a last resort, and they don’t see Saddam Hussein as an immediate threat, especially with the weapons inspectors now at work and Iraq surrounded by American forces. The U.N. Security Council is deeply divided.

As Hussein has shown, he can keep up his hide-and-seek game with the inspectors indefinitely. President Bush is probably right when he argues that only force will make him come clean. On the other hand, Iraq can’t cause any trouble as long as it’s under such scrutiny.

In any case, the build-up to war has created a deep rift between the United States and its close allies France and Germany and its new friend Russia, all of which oppose invasion at this point.

In the meantime, millions of people all over the world have hit the streets in recent weeks, protesting the potential invasion. Such massive demonstrations haven’t been seen since the heyday of resistance to the war in Vietnam, if even then.

Bush says he respects the protesters but won’t be swayed by them. “Saddam Hussein is a threat to America, and we will deal with him,” he said. Unwilling to wait until the next U.N. inspectors’ report is due, on March 7, he is pressing for a new resolution telling Iraq to come clean or face the consequences.

How Will the Middle East React?
It’s impossible to predict. Some commentators are sanguine, arguing that Hussein is widely despised as a troublemaker and his demise would be welcome, especially if the war doesn’t drag on. Others say that anger at the sight of a Christian nation engaged in a prolonged slaughter of Arab Muslims could arouse barely latent passions and cause the whole region to go up in flames.

Saudi Arabia is especially vulnerable, they say. Tremendous tension already exists between the ruling family and the multitudes of religious conservatives among the population, where an extreme version of Islam called Wahabbism is practiced. There is already deep resentment of the U.S. military bases on Saudi soil.

In fact, Osama bin Laden has based much of his recruiting of new militants on the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia, the site of the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers, 15 were from Saudi Arabia.

Pakistan is also showing signs of tension. Islamic hardliners did well in October elections, winning numerous legislative seats and control of the two provinces bordering the Afghanistan border. And Turkey, directly to Iraq’s north, is worried that a war could inflame separatism among Turkish Kurds. (Iraqi Kurds, thanks to the “no-fly” zone imposed over northern Iraq following the Gulf War, now enjoy virtual autonomy there.)

Muslim nations in Southeast Asia such as Indonesia also worry that a drawn-out Iraq war might foster increased militance and instability in their countries.

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Illustration By Ted Rall

War is always unpredictable. As a Pakistani columnist, Ayaz Amir, wrote recently in the newspaper Dawn (as reprinted in the Sacramento Bee), “Who can tell what is enshrouded in the mists of the coming war on Iraq? In the very war on terrorism, who can tell what dragon’s teeth are being sown?’

After Saddam Hussein, What?
A conquered Iraq will present huge problems. Not only will the country be devastated, but also a governmental system will be virtually non-existent. Who will be responsible for rebuilding?

Here the old adage would seem to apply: “If you break it, you own it.” If America goes to war with Iraq without the support of the international community, it and the few nations that join its coalition will be responsible for the war’s aftermath, including policing and rebuilding a country the size of California.

Iraq has almost no experience with democracy or its institutions—no checks and balances, no impartial laws and courts, no meaningful legislative bodies—and its populace is anything but homogeneous. There are three major groups, the Kurds in the far north, the Sunni Muslims in the area around Baghdad, and the largest group, Shiite Muslims in the south. Sunnis and Shiites have a long history of violent conflict in the Middle East, and the Shiites rose up against Hussein just after the Gulf War, thinking that America would support them. When it didn’t, Hussein quickly crushed them, killing thousands.

Iraq is also fundamentally a tribal society, one in which clan affiliation influences everything. A nation in which tribalism is the most powerful political factor is hardly ripe for democracy.

A conquered Iraq, then, will require nothing less than nation-building. And while that happens, a huge military presence will be necessary to keep order. The effort will take many years and could cost hundreds of billions of dollars. Without U.N. and international support, America would be responsible for most of those dollars.

Who’s Worse, Saddam Hussein or Kim Il Jong?
One of the principal arguments for going after Saddam Hussein is that he’s trying to make nuclear weapons. But it’s widely agreed that he’s not even close and that it would be a matter of years before he had a bomb, if ever. In that regard, North Korea is a much bigger threat. Today it is racing forward with a plutonium processing operation that could give it enough material for a half-dozen warheads in a few months. And it also has long-range missiles, some possibly capable of reaching the West Coast of the United States.

In recent months North Korea has been thumbing its nose at the United States, first engaging in a clandestine uranium enrichment program, a violation of a 1994 agreement with the United States. More recently, it has issued provocative statements threatening war and withdrawal from the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean Conflict.

As a result, many analysts now consider North Korea a greater threat to peace and America than Saddam Hussein.

And neither, others say, is as dangerous as Osama bin Laden, who of course is still on the loose, still leading al-Qaeda and still fomenting terror.

Splitting legal hairs
The central U.S. argument for invasion of Iraq is that it is in “material breach” of U.N. resolution 1441, passed on Nov. 8, 2002, ordering it to disarm or face “serious consequences.” The U.N. inspectors have stated that Iraq has not been fully cooperative with them.

Does this justify invasion? From the standpoint of the U.N., that’s up to the Security Council, and right now it says no. It’s worth noting that several nations, including Israel and Turkey, are in violation of U.N. resolutions. One is the long-standing Resolution 242 ordering Israel to withdraw from the Arab territories it occupied in 1967.

President Bush argues that Iraqi subterfuge has been going on for years and there is no reason to think it ever will end. Saddam Hussein is a deceitful murderer who will do whatever it takes to stay in power, he says. And as long as Hussein is in power, and as long as al-Qaeda remains operative, Americans will not be safe. As commander-in-chief it’s his job to make sure that America is secure, and if that means invading Iraq, even unilaterally, invade he will.

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Illustration By Tom Tomorrow

In a not-so-subtle reminder of America’s role in World War II, he suggests that France and Germany are guilty of appeasement—à la British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s infamous 1938 acceptance, to avoid war, of Hitler’s occupation of Czechoslovakia—for not standing up to Saddam Hussein. But as one columnist, old-school conservative Charlie Reese, wrote recently, “Saddam Hussein is no Hitler, George Bush is no Winston Churchill. And this war will definitely not be our finest hour.”

A unilateral attack would be, of course, unprecedented. America as a rule does not wage war against countries that are not waging war against it. There are small exceptions—Granada, for example, and the operation to snatch Manuel Noriega from Panama—and American secret agents long have operated in other countries, though less so now than during the Cold War. But a full-scale invasion of a non-belligerent nation would be something different altogether.

There is no telling what such a rewriting of precedent, and international law, would provoke. Would other nations feel empowered to launch pre-emptive strikes against otherwise peaceful enemies?

Still, even his critics have to give Bush credit for reinvigorating the United Nations. Had it not been for his persistence, there would be no inspectors in Iraq right now, and the world would not be paying such attention to the U.N.'s dealings. He’s put that international body on the spot, challenging it to be strong for a change in seeing that its resolutions are honored. He’s forcing it to force Saddam Hussein’s hand, and nobody can say that’s not good.

It’s a watershed moment for both the United States and the United Nations. A unilateral U.S. invasion would be a devastating blow to the U.N., relegating that body to mere onlooker status as the United States, the world’s only remaining superpower, took on the role of international cop and power broker. And yet taking on that imperial role ultimately may be disastrous for America.

At a time when goods and information and people travel freely across borders and nations are interdependent in a way that was unimaginable a century ago, only the United Nations has the moral and, ultimately, legal authority to keep the peace. Only it contains the collective wisdom of the community of nations and represents their consensual decision-making process. If the United States ignores that, it may be at our own peril.

The ancient Greeks had a word for it: hubris. Tragic pride. At the end of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Creon’s last words to the blinded, bereft former king of Corinth are: “Crave not mastery in all, for the mastery that raised thee was thy bane and wrought thy fall.” For President Bush, a devout Christian, Proverbs 16:18 might serve: “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.”

Iraq by the Numbers
Number of precision-guided missiles and bombs the United States plans to launch per hour at Baghdad during the war’s first 48 hours.

48,000 to 260,000
Number of Iraqis and Americans who, doctors say, might die in the next war.

Number of additional deaths expected from “post-war adverse health effects.”

Year that Dick Cheney, as head of oil field equipment manufacturer Halliburton, called for an end to sanctions against Iraq.

U.S. military spending, in billions of dollars per day.

Ratio of U.S. military spending to the combined military budgets of Cuba, Iraq, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Sudan and Syria.

Percentage of federal discretionary spending in 2001 devoted to “homeland security” or the Department of Defense.

Number of names on the State Department’s list of “suspected terrorists".

Hours after Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld learned Osama bin Laden was a suspect that he sought reasons to “hit” Iraq.

Sources: Village Voice, Harper’s (see them for details).