Last night I read an entry in Eugene Volokh’s blog which made me sit down and think. It’s short, and here’s the meat of it:

“LET’S NOT ATTACK OUR SELF-ANNOUNCED ENEMIES NOW; IF NEED BE, WE CAN ATTACK THEM LATER, WHEN THEY HAVE NUCLEAR WEAPONS.” On thinking more about the Iraq debate, I realized that the above line is a pretty apt summary of the bottom-line plan that the anti-preemption forces advocate.

Reading that gave me some trouble, because at first I kind of bought it. Then I realized that there are really plenty of other outcomes that are possible, not just attacking now and winning, or being forced to attack later and dealing with an opponent with nuclear arms. I’m not categorically against going to war with Iraq, I just haven’t seen the case made that it’s a necessity at this point. Furthermore, I feel like we’re kind of being railroaded by the administration and the hawks. Posts like the one above seem to assert that there are two options: take care of Saddam Hussein now, while he’s weaker, or let him bully us later when he’s got nuclear clout. However, the spectrum of possible outcomes is a hell of a lot wider than that. Let’s categorize them two ways: we go to war, and we don’t go to war.

We go to war with Iraq:

  • We win, but Saddam Hussein survives and continues as an insurgent, or his fate is ultimately unknown. We have recent experience with that.
  • We win, but the government we choose turns out to be no better than the one Iraq currently has.
  • We win, but the new Iraqi government decides that maybe being a nuclear power still makes sense.
  • We win, and Iraq gets a new democratic regime, but we manage to kill 250,000 Iraqis in the process.
  • We lose. There’s no doubt in my mind that if we go to war, a heck of a lot more Iraqis will die than Americans, but that doesn’t insure victory. In Somalia, 18 US soldiers were killed. Quite literally, hundreds of Somalis were killed. Nobody would classify that mission as a success. On a larger scale, in the Vietnam war, we lost 47,378 troops and our Vietnamese allies lost 223,748 troops. We managed to kill approximately 1,100,000 North Vietnamese soldiers, and 2,000,000 Vietnamese civilians. We still lost. Iraq, being run by a brutal dictator, has a higher tolerance for soldiers getting slaughtered than the US does. A couple of battles with high casualties on the US side could cause the people on the home front to lose the will to fight pretty rapidly.

On the other side, we wait:

  • Saddam Hussein continues to hold out against weapons inspections, and secretly builds a nuclear bomb, and blows up Tel Aviv. Or, he builds a nuclear weapon, gives it to Al Qaeda, and they blow up New York. This prompts immediate retaliation and we blow up Baghdad. This is clearly the worst case scenario. If you believe this is truly the likely outcome, then going to war with Iraq makes sense.
  • Saddam Hussein continues to hold out against weapons inspections, tests a nuclear weapon, and then uses his new nuclear clout to cause all sorts of trouble in the Middle East, secure in the knowledge that taking him out has become infinitely more risky for the US. An ugly scenario. If you believe that this is likely to happen, then it still probably makes sense to go to war with Iraq.
  • Saddam Hussein bows to pressure and accepts weapons inspectors, and they are successful enough to stymie his weapons programs until Saddam is out of the picture.
  • Iraq develops weapons of mass destruction, causing what’s essentially an indefinite stalemate, because Saddam Hussein doesn’t want a war with the US and the US doesn’t want to fight a toothy nuclear power.
  • Iraq’s weapons program fails to produce useful weapons of mass destruction.
  • Saddam Hussein exits stage left for any number of reasons, perhaps by death due to natural causes (he’s already 65).

There are plenty of other ways things can go in the “we don’t go to war” category, and the thing is, as events develop, we can always go to war. War is always an option. The question is, does war makes sense right now? The people who are telling us that it does just aren’t making a whole lot of sense, at least from where I sit. My back of the envelope analysis also takes into consideration on the US and Iraq. Obviously, those are the two most important players, but there are other geopolitical issues at stake. The only country around the world that would be pleased by our attacking Iraq right now is Israel, and they’re already pretty tight with us. Is basically every other country in the world wrong? If they are, then convince me. I haven’t been convinced yet.

And don’t write in telling me that Saddam Hussein is going to arm terrorists with nuclear weapons. I don’t believe that’s going to happen, and I haven’t seen any evidence suggesting that he would do such a thing. (Not that I believe he’s above it — I just think that he’s not suicidal.)