Questions about war

We can all agree that Saddam Hussein is a vile man and that the world would be a better place without him. Using force to oust him, however, will have terribly painful consequences.

Many people will die. Some of those people will be innocent Iraqi citizens caught between their megalomaniacal dictator, Saddam Hussein, and the U.S. effort to oust him. Others will be American soldiers, young men and women asked to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

Before they die, the American people have a deep moral obligation to understand more about this war, and our government has an equally compelling duty to answer important questions about it.

President Bush’s speech to the nation Monday evening was an effort to answer some of those questions, but it didn’t answer them all.

For example, who will replace Saddam? Iraq is a notoriously unstable country filled with hostile ethnic and tribal groups and, because its borders are artificial constructs created following World War II, little national identity. Who can hold the country together? If it falls to the United States to build a new nation there, how many troops would be needed for how long and at what cost?

What does a war in Iraq mean for the unfinished business in Afghanistan? Osama bin Laden’s henchmen are still on the loose, and Afghanistan is on the verge of collapsing into anarchy. Can we afford to rebuild Afghanistan, ferret out the remaining terrorists and make war against Iraq at the same time? What effect will a war have on Al Qaeda? Will it radicalize more young Arabs to the terrorist cause?

What would a war mean for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? What effect would it have on the larger Mideast context? And on the tenuous truce between India and Pakistan, two nuclear-armed nations on the brink of their own war? If the United States unilaterally launched a war, would it set a precedent for other countries to do likewise?

These are tough questions. Our elected leaders, including the president, should be asking and answering them before making the decision to send our young people into war. And we citizens should be demanding that they be asked and answered.

Those of us who remember the Vietnam War know that the right questions were neither asked nor answered early on, and by the time they were being asked the United States was up to its neck in a quagmire. Before we go to war, we need to know what we’re doing.

The Bush administration did the right thing in taking its case to the United Nations. The more the other countries of the world are involved in solving the Iraq problem, the better. It is after all primarily an international issue, not an American one. And it’s obvious at this point that, even if a war were quick and successful, the cost of building democracy in Iraq would be immense. Other nations should share it.

To the extent that the Bush administration has gotten the United Nations to do something about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, its saber rattling has been a success. The presence of inspectors in Iraq will be sufficient to render Saddam Hussein powerless to use his weapons. That’s a worthwhile goal, and one that can be reached without resorting to violence. And it will leave American forces free to continue their most important work, which is to ferret out the terrorists around the world who are determined to follow up on the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.