Next Up: Baghdad

David Tucker

January 1, 2002

On a tour of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt last week in the Arabian Sea, Senator John McCain expressed his view of what the next step in the war on terrorism should be by reportedly shouting from the carrier’s flight bridge "Next up: Baghdad."

We can easily understand the enthusiasm of an old Navy fighter pilot as he tours a carrier involved in the campaign in Afghanistan. But is the Senator right? Should we go after Iraq next in the war on terrorism?

Those who answer this question "Yes" have puffed up the meager evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved in the September 11 attack by reminding us that Saddam has supported terrorism in the past, plotted to assassinate the former President George Bush and is a tyrant and thug. He also has chemical and biological weapons and may have nuclear weapons within a few years, or so some have claimed. Buoyed by the ease with which the Taliban fell, those who want to go on to Baghdad next have suggested that we could do something similar in Iraq. And, they hasten to add, most Arabs and Europeans would not mind too much. They are opposed now but would get over it when we succeeded. Since they would get over it, no permanent damage would be done to the anti-terrorism coalition.

Even if we assume that this argument is right, it should still not persuade us to go after Iraq next. It should not because attacking Iraq would decrease the likelihood that we would accomplish what should be our principal goal: destroying the al Qaeda network.

This network, not Iraq, continues to pose a serious immediate threat to us. A passenger plane was recently almost blown out of the sky by someone apparently acting with the support of this network. Other attacks are likely. Information gathered in Afghanistan showed extensive plotting to strike U.S. targets in Singapore and Malaysia. Police in these two countries recently arrested the plotters or at least those we know about.

Nothing we do should endanger the intelligence sharing and other cooperation we need from countries around the world if we are to prevent future attacks and slowly destroy the al Qaeda network. Even if many of these countries got over the attack on Iraq, their opposition to the attack and the campaign itself would be a distraction from our most important immediate task, destroying al Qaeda.

But they well might not get over it. In that case the coalition would be destroyed before its most important work was done. In fact, no one knows what the consequences of an attack on Iraq would be, not only for the coalition but for other countries in the Middle East. Nor should we accept the optimistic view that we could destroy Saddam’s rule as easily as we destroyed the Taliban. We have no reason to believe that Saddam’s regime is as brittle as the one that recently crashed to the ground in Afghanistan. This is all the more reason why we should get on with our most pressing job—dealing with al Qaeda—and not go after Saddam next.

But we do need to deal with Saddam. We should be clear, however, about why we must. Saddam is a problem not because he is a vicious tyrant with a lot of oil wealth who is involved in terrorism. He is a problem primarily because he is a vicious tyrant with a lot of oil wealth who possesses weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and has used them. If we separate Saddam from the war on terrorism, we and those in the anti-terrorism coalition with us can keep our minds on what is most immediately important. At the same time, we may have better luck building a coalition to deal with Saddam if we focus on his possession and use of WMD.

Distinguishing between countering terrorism and countering the proliferation or possession of WMD is not just a semantical game. They are different tasks and require different responses. For one thing, the same states are not always both supporters of terrorism and proliferators of WMD. The coalitions for both tasks—and the politics—will be different. Mixing up the two will make our job harder not easier.

Proponents of attacking Iraq next argue that countering terrorism and the proliferation of WMD are already mixed up. Saddam could allow terrorists access to his WMD, for example. This is one more reason they insist we must go after Saddam now. It is conceivable that Saddam might give WMD to terrorists. But the best way to handle this problem is to go after the terrorists. As we know from our experience over the past ten years, going after Saddam’s WMD will be very difficult and will take a long time. We are currently making good progress against al Qaeda, our most important task.

Resolving the WMD dilemma and succeeding at the war on terrorism are both more likely to happen if we separate them and deal with each appropriately.

David Tucker is a Member of the Board of Advisors at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University and an Associate Professor of Defense Analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is the author of Skirmishes at the Edge of Empire: The United States and International Terrorism. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the Naval Postgraduate School, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.