On Iraq War

Rethinking a war in Iraq: It is not about a PR push
The Jakarta Post, February 15, 2003
Philips Jusario Vermonte, Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Jakarta.

The two-part article by Piers Gillespie (The Jakarta Post, Feb. 10 and 11) has tried to make a case for a war against Iraq. The writer agrees, directly or indirectly, that the war against Iraq is justifiable, but the U.S. needs to conduct some sort of “public relations” campaign using “the truth paradigm”.

Therefore the U.S. would have to admit that the war “has as much to do with oil as it has to do with ridding the world of a tyrant who has chemical weapons”. But where could we find a legitimacy for the U.S. to act against Iraq in the first place?

There are still some questions over the logic presented by the Bush administration before the international community to take Saddam Hussein out of his presidency.

Those who advocate the idea of preemptive war against Iraq frequently portray Saddam as “a reckless tyrant who, along with his firm intention to develop Iraq’s ability in using those weapons of mass destruction (WMD), can pose a serious threat to international peace in general and to U.S. interests in particular”.

This description comes from Saddam Hussein’s past behavior towards Iraq’s neighboring countries such as Iran or Kuwait. If so, where can we find a justification for the war against Iraq? Is war really unavoidable?

International relations experts John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt argued in the latest edition of Foreign Policy journal that a war against Iraq is “unnecessary”, and that the U.S. should instead increase efforts to contain Saddam Hussein as it successfully did against the Soviet Union and its nuclear weapons during the Cold War.

If the U.S. had successfully contained the Soviet Union and its communist allies for decades, why is it unable to do the same against a far weaker enemy? The above writers cite that in comparison with Egypt, which fought six wars between 1948 and 1973, and Israel that initiated at least three wars (in 1956 in Suez, the 1967 Six Day War and the 1982 invasion of Lebanon), Iraq can be considered less aggressive.

With Iran, as Mearsheimer and Walt observe, the “reckless” Saddam carefully examined his decision to go to war as he felt Iraq was vulnerable against Iran’s hegemonic aspirations in the region. During the reign of the shah, Iran put constant pressure on Iraq through the issue of the Kurds. When Khomeini came to power in 1979 in Tehran, Saddam sensed a new threat to his secular regime, as Khomeini seemed determined to expand his Islamic revolution.

Not surprisingly, Saddam then launched a limited war against Iran. Iraq received solid support from foreign countries, including the United States, France and Kuwait, during the eight-year war.

An historical assessment is instructive here with regard to the actual capacity of weapons of mass destruction. Sarin gas released by Aum Shinrikyo, in a subway in Japan, caused 5,000 to fall seriously ill, but only 12 deaths. John Mueller and Karl Mueller have written in Foreign Affairs (May/June 1999) that it is not as easy as many people think to achieve optimum results using chemical and biological weapons.

Biological weapons “need to be dispersed in a very low-altitude aerosol cloud, which is very difficult to do. Explosive methods of dispersion, moreover, may destroy the organism.” Also, “chemical weapons are virtually incapable of killing masses of people in open areas except when used in vast quantities.” Unlike the U.S. or Israel for example, Iraq has a long way to go to arrive at a sophisticated level of mastering the use of WMD. Therefore, the issue is more about fear, not about Iraq’s actual capacity to cause a large number of casualties by using the WMD.

The combination of a tyrant and weapons of mass destruction are clearly a threat that should be dealt with. Nevertheless, war is not the best option for at least two reasons. First, many doubt that the U.S. can really fulfill its commitment to rebuild Iraq after the war due to its unfortunate economic situation at home. The effort to topple Saddam alone is predicted to cost the U.S. between US$50 billion and $100 billion.

Secondly, regarding oil, is the cost of war (in terms of money and lives) to get access to Iraq’s oil lesser than the U.S. and the rest of the world might get afterwards? Therefore, the likely U.S.-led war against Iraq is not about public relations or an advertising campaign — since, in this case, it is hard to turn a bad product into a good one.

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