The Wisdom of Delay: Iraq and the Next 9/11

In Iraq, Sooner Is Not Better

Against the invasion of Iraq. America should not go to war until it is ready for war to come to America. Written January 27, 2003.

"While preparing an overwhelming offensive against Iraq, we remain alarmingly undefended at home.... I don't doubt that the American army can occupy Iraq and change its regime. But what will happen here at home while that regime change is under way?"

January 27, 2003. Today—one day after the Super Bowl, one day before the State of the Union address—the debate over the invasion of Iraq appears to be essentially over. The following statement, published only on this website, is therefore purely personal and, as the saying goes, for the record. There are times when, if only for the writer, such an exercise seems worth the effort it takes.


n recent weeks, we have all read competing analyses of the political and military situation facing the world as the United States prepares to invade Iraq. No reader of these can fail to be impressed by the consensus among the ablest analysts that all available choices are perilous. Personally, I did not fear even during the Cuban Missile Crisis as intensely I do today that the violence of war may soon be visited upon our own land. While preparing an overwhelming offensive against Iraq, we remain alarmingly undefended at home.

The Al Qaeda terrorist network that attacked the United States on September 11, 2001 has not been defeated. Its leadership escaped the overthrow of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and has regrouped in Pakistan. If the Bush Administration is right that there has been active cooperation between Al Qaeda and Iraq, then we must expect Al Qaeda to respond when Iraq is attacked. That danger would remain, however, even if there were no active cooperation between the two. This is so because on the terms of its own Islamist ideology, Al Qaeda is fighting for the umma, the Muslim world as a whole, and may rightully avenge an infidel attack against any country within the umma, even one whose ruler it abhors. Al Qaeda sought to punish the United States on September 11, 2001 for daring to station its infidel soldiers on the sacred territory of Arabia despite the fact that Al Qaeda despised (and despises) the Saudi royal family.

Weapons of mass destruction certainly matter, but we need to remember that Al Qaeda did not employ such weapons to destroy the World Trade Center. In fact, the hijackers did not employ true weapons at all but rather turned civilian tools (box-cutters) and civilian assets (airliners) into weapons. Their tactic, in a word, was sabotage. Al Qaeda sabotage will remain a serious threat even when Saddam Hussein has been overthrown and his weapons of mass destruction destroyed. After such a victory in Iraq, the West—the United States, above all—will be approximately the same as it was after the American victory in Afghanistan. Yes, another foreign war will have been won, but Al Qaeda will still have access to weapons of mass destruction, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld will be required to concede, just as he did after Afghanistan, that major domestic sabotage can still come in any way at any time and in any place.

What troubles me most is that the likeliest time for such sabotage is just after the fighting begins in Iraq. It is not just that, with nothing to lose, Saddam Hussein may strike back. It is also that Muslims around the world will interpret a post-invasion attack by Al Qaeda as a counter-attack in their defense. For Al Qaeda, the opportunity to score a propaganda bonanza by attacking at just this moment seems uniquely good. The American invasion, Islamist propaganda will argue, was so evil that not only were all the world's Muslims opposed, so were most of the Europeans, the Americans' erstwhile allies.

A post-invasion Al Qaeda attack might come in any one of several ways. In an article in the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs, Richard K. Betts describes one of them:

A 1993 study by the Office of Technology Assessment concluded that one plane, delivering anthrax by aerosol under good weather conditions over the Washington, D.C., area, could kill between one million and three million people. That figure is probably far too pessimistic even for an efficiently executed attack, since among other things, the medical response would be quicker and more effective today that it would have been a decade ago. So discount this estimate by, say, 90 percent. Even then, fatalities could still exceed 100,000. This reduced figure may still be excessive, since clandestine Iraqi operations to infect U.S. cities might be crude and inefficient. Yet if you reduce the death boll by another 90 percent, fatalities would still be more than triple those of September 11.

Betts is speculating here about a specifically Iraqi counter-attack. Clearly, however, Al Qaeda, the undefeated enemy who has already successfully attacked the United States on its own territory, is the enemy whose next attack is most to be feared.

Unfortunately, on the eve of war with Iraq, fear of Al Qaeda seems in eclipse. In anticipation of a major tax cut, the Senate has cut $8 billion from increased security at ports, $362 million from border security, $500 million from the strengthening of police and fire department preparedness—and these cuts are from appropriations that are already shockingly low given the character of the threat that the United States faces. The nation seems to be driving with its eyes glued to the rear view mirror. For a century, defending the United States meant if not fighting "over there," then containing an enemy whose weapons were over there. We seem already to have forgotten that since 9/11 our enemy is also "over here" or trying to come here and must be resisted by our hardening the likely targets of sabotage here at home as well as aggressively closing the likely points of hostile entry.

A complete list of likely targets and likely entry points is impossible. Let me mention just two of each. Gov. George E. Pataki of New York recently commissioned a study of security at the Indian Point nuclear power plant just outside New York City. Its conclusion, confirming the results of earlier studies, was that emergency plans were inadequate to protect the public in the case of accident and that security measures at Indian Point were inadequate to prevent induced accident—that is, terrorist sabotage. Yet despite the fact that President Bush himself reported in his 2002 State of the Union address that the plans for American nuclear power plants had been found in Al Qaeda caves in Afghanistan, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has declined to consider closing the Indian Point plant until its security can be improved. Are we at war or not? The NRC seems to think we are not.

After nuclear power plants, the most attractive sites for terrorist attacks are chemical plants. The Environmental Protection Agency has identified 123 facilities where sabotage could injure or kill one million people or more, according to John B. Judis in the January 27, 2003 New Republic, as well as 750 others where more than 100,000 could be killed. Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge himself has testified that serious security deficiencies exist at many of these plants. Yet correcting these deficiencies would cost money, the chemical industry has lobbied against the corrections, and the Senate has just killed legislation that would have hardened these sites against Al Qaeda attack. Again, one must ask: Are we at war or not? The Republican Senate, whatever it says when the invasion of Iraq is being debated, legislates homeland security as if we are at peace.

As for entry points, the Justice Department released a report earlier this month stating that 'significant and ongoing deficiencies' continue to threaten security at airports, and airport deficiencies are only the most noticeable security breach. National parks lying along our borders, of which there are several, are another huge break in the security shield. These border parks, increasingly in the control of drug traffickers and the criminal facilitators of illegal immigration, are an open invitation to saboteurs as well. The Park Service has asked for help in meeting a challenge far beyond its mandate, but to no avail.

Home-front perils like these—and many others could be mentioned—need not rule out a new foreign war, but they clearly dictate a degree of organized civilian defense far beyond anything we have undertaken or even begun to talk about. In the 1950s, the United States did not shrink from subjecting even impressionable children to air raid drills. Whatever measure of practical preparation for nuclear war these drills provided, they did provide, for those of us who were put through them, useful psychological preparation. They reminded us of what we were up against in our nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union. Perhaps the Bush Administration fears that reminding the public of the possibility of a second or third 9/11, a post-invasion Al Qaeda attack of comparable or worse gravity, will undermine support for an invasion. But we are facing an enemy capable of inflicting a Chernobyl or a Bhopal on our people, and disarray or panic after such an attack will do even more harm if the attack comes during a foreign war like the one we are about to begin. If the American people have not been warned that the price of invasion could be catastrophe at home, their sense of invulnerability in their North American fortress, already shaken, will shatter completely. The time to prepare for the worst is always before it happens.

am not opposed in principle to the invasion of Iraq. During the 1990s, as an editorial writer at the Los Angeles Times, I wrote repeatedly in favor of American military action first in Bosnia and then in Kosovo. When that intervention belatedly came about, Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic, whom so many "realists" of that decade had rashly declared the winner, went into the irreversible decline that has now brought him to trial as a war criminal. The Balkans intervention worked, in short, and interventions definitely can work.

But timing matters enormously. Two hundred inspectors have been at work in Iraq for about two months. Why not two thousand for six months? The dollar cost to the United States of keeping a large military force in the field is high, but the dollar cost of invasion will be far higher, not to mention the cost in blood. Granting that Saddam Hussein cannot be left unchecked, his regime—so long as the inspections continue—is not growing stronger. On the contrary, so long as this process goes forward indefinitely, time is not on his side. Defectors will not blow the dictator's cover so long as notice has been given that the inspection team will leave Iraq en masse at a date certain. On the contrary, once an indefinite stay is in prospect, the very needle-in-the-haystack difficulty of the assignment turns from a disadvantage into an advantage, and the equation begins to change for potential defectors. As inspections drag on and incriminating details leak out, the likelihood of an Iraqi slip-up or defection grows. The defection of an insider made a gigantic difference in the last round of inspections. Another such defection could do so the same in this round. Why squander this time advantage by rushing forward? Why risk bombing or even firing on "civilian" establishments that may contain just the toxic materials whose dispersal we hope to prevent? Why preempt intelligence gathering at such a dreadful risk to our own soldiers, not to speak of the civilian population of Iraq? Why risk the launch of an Iraqi weapon of mass destruction against Israel when delay may foil such an attack?

Mohammed El Baradei, who has asked asked for more time for nuclear inspection, does not expect unlimited time. Even the much-maligned French do not expect unlimited time. Yet if we wait and make the most of just what seems most frustrating in the inspections process, we can count on the French and Germans, who have borne so much of the post-war burden in the Balkans and Afghanistan, to do the same in Iraq. Moreover, if their pre-war counsel is given the respect it deserves, Saddam Hussein's ability to plant the suggestion in the Arab world that the whole world has turned against the Americans will erode.

If and when the hoped-for intelligence breakthrough comes, the Iraqi dictator will not suddenly conceive the willingness to disarm that he now so conspicuously lacks. Yet the military action that we should expect to ensue at that point will not come at the huge diplomatic cost that of the same action undertaken today. The Atlantic alliance will survive. The prospect of at least selective intelligence cooperation within the Muslim world will survive as well. Because the Americans will have chosen multilateralism over unilateralism, there will not arise in all the world's many dictators a determination to build a nuclear deterrent immediately—now while there is still time—lest tomorrow the United States decide unilaterally to send in the Marines. Nor will there be born in every democracy facing an unstable dictatorship with a history of aggression—India facing Pakistan is the obvious current case—the determination to follow the American example and attack preemptively before the situation gets worse.

Meanwhile, if the invasion is delayed, the United States—now so ill-prepared for a counter-attack at home—will gain at least a precious few weeks or months to prepare. In the last Gulf War, though the United States was surprised by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, Iraq was even more surprised by the American counter-invasion. This time, Iraq, though weaker, will not be surprised. This time, in addition, Iraq has in Al Qaeda a de facto ally with demonstrated ability to attack the United States at home. The saying "If you want peace, prepare for war" applies at home as well as abroad. As we prepare for war at home, delay serves our purposes, once again, better than it does those of our enemies.

point remains to be made that for some is humanitarian but for me, frankly, is religious. It is simply that the lives of soldiers and civilians, Iraqi and American alike, are infinitely precious. Jesus, whom President Bush named during the 2000 presidential campaign, as the political philosopher who has influenced him most, counseled, famously, to love your enemies. Granting that even a devout Christian may regard war as justified under some circumstances, a Christian ought still to be the most reluctant of all warriors. So long as there is any reasonable chance to spare innocent lives (and remember that soldiers of a dictator are typically helpless conscripts), it is the duty of a Christian to seize that chance. As a Christian, this is what I want my country to do.

American soldiers are reportedly freezing their sperm in anticipation that Saddam Hussein will use sterilizing chemical weapons against them. Who can blame them? His ruthless use of these terrible weapons has already saved him from two defeats—one at the hands of the Kurds, the other at the hands of the Iranians. Kenneth Pollack, author of The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq (Random House: 2002) and certainly no dove, predicts that American casualties in the coming war could be as many as 10,000. But beyond American casualties on the battlefront or the home front, the loss of civilian life in Iraq could prove simply staggering.

Power failures, fires to which no fireman responds, water pollution, food shortages—these consequences of war, so familiar to Europeans, Chinese, and Japanese over fifty, are unknown in the United States or known only in the mild form in which they follow an earthquake or hurricane. May God grant that our ignorance of such horrors should continue! But if we can disarm the pitiless Iraqi dictator without inflicting comparable horrors on his people, it is our moral duty to do so. And if we cannot avoid war with Iraq, then let us commit ourselves now, and talk plainly to the world about our commitment, to bind up that poor nation's wounds when the war is over.

If, as seems likely to everyone, an invasion begins about a month from now, we must all hope for a swift American victory and an ensuing Pax Americana in the entire region. But what I confess I find myself thinking fearfully about is the difference between Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and World War I. In 1870, Prussia defeated France in a matter of weeks. In 1914, Prussia thought it would do so again. But the power equation had changed in the intervening years and it was about to change still further, with disastrous consequences for the invader.

I don't doubt that the American army can occupy Iraq and change its regime. But what will happen here at home while that regime change is under way? I don't know what will happen, and I don't think anyone else does. Worse, the whole country is talking about war over there, and scarcely anyone is talking about war over here. In more ways than one, a badly timed invasion could win Iraq but lose America.