by Philip Bobbitt
Published March 10, 2003 in The New York Times.
Reprinted with the author's permission
President Bush has again made his case for war against Iraq, and again his primary argument is the threat that Saddam Hussein poses to America. The president's critics are quick to point out that the Central Intelligence Agency and other experts feel that, for the moment, Saddam Hussein is unlikely to conduct terrorist attacks against America. However, they warn us, if an invasion threatens his regime, his agents or his extremist sympathizers might well attack us possibly even using weapons of mass destruction.
So is it really a good idea to press ahead with regime change? Aren't we better off now than we would be if we invade Iraq and risk setting off a dreadful response?
These are natural questions, but they are neither logical nor helpful. They are a prime example in our public discourse of what might be called "Parmenides' Fallacy" named after the Greek philosopher who held that all change was illusion. This fallacy occurs when one tries to assess a future state of affairs by measuring it against the present, as opposed to comparing it to other possible futures. Let me give a famous example of Parmenides' Fallacy in operation.
The turning point in the 1980 presidential race came in a debate when Ronald Reagan criticized President Jimmy Carter's record by asking the American people, "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?"
While rhetorically devastating, this question is hardly the way to evaluate a presidency. After all, the state of the nation will never stay the same for four years, regardless of who is in office. A more relevant question to have asked would have been, "Are you better off now than you would have been if Gerald Ford had continued as president and if he had had to cope with rising oil prices, a revolution in Iran, a Russian invasion of Afghanistan and soaring interest rates?"
Or, consider the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. Are we better off now than we were the day before we intervened? Probably not. Before that war we knew where Al Qaeda had its bases and it had not struck since Sept. 11; a number of American and allied soldiers who became casualties were then alive and unwounded; public opinion in Pakistan was less hostile to America; there was a greater measure of sympathy around the world for our losses in New York and Washington; our economy and confidence in our markets were stronger.
But let's ask the relevant question: Are we better off today than we would have been if we had let the Taliban continue arming and sheltering our Qaeda enemies, many of whom we killed and captured in our intervention? Clearly, we are vastly better off for having acted.
So, as we look to the future, we must stop debating whether invading Iraq will result in our being worse down the line than we are right now. We do not have the option of holding time still which exposes the biggest flaw in the "Why Rush to War?" argument. The urgency lies in the fact that every day Saddam Hussein stays in power he grows richer, the global terrorist network to which he has access plans further atrocities and (international inspections notwithstanding) the chance of his acquiring nuclear, chemical and biological weapons grows. To avoid Parmenides' Fallacy, the question we must ask is: Will we be better off in the future if we invade Iraq or if we do not invade?
Those who believe that the status quo can be indefinitely extended through inspections, then, have an obligation to tell us how the inspectors would prevent Saddam Hussein from buying a weapon from, say, North Korea which would be a rather dramatic change in the status quo.
Supporters of an indefinite inspectors' presence focus on large weapons like missile launchers that they say we will be able to detect. (Although Secretary of State Colin Powell's masterful presentation to the Security Council last month, and our experience hunting for Scuds in the Persian Gulf war, lead one to question that assumption.) But are they also considering that in the future we might have to detect and capture weapons no larger than a case of beer?
Whether they admit it or not, those who favor containment are asking for an ever more expensive United States armed presence in the region, as well as perpetual sanctions that crush innocent Iraqis even further. This is because without troops on his borders, Saddam Hussein would not admit inspectors, and without the sanctions he could quickly replace whatever outlawed weapons we are lucky enough to find and destroy.
It is also misguided to believe that the threat of our overwhelming military force is enough to deter Saddam Hussein from aggression indefinitely. Were Iraq to get weapons of mass destruction, it would be able to deter us from interfering in any plans it had to broaden its control in the Persian Gulf region. Saddam Hussein's ambition to impose his will on his neighbors is the only reason he has resisted his obligations to the United Nations for 12 years, at great cost to Iraq.
I recognize that we are running a terrible risk if we put Saddam Hussein's back against the wall. But unless we are willing to eventually grant him a free hand in the Persian Gulf, he is bound to act in a way that will put his back against the wall in the future after he does acquire nuclear weapons. At that point, however, the United States would have a significantly diminished capacity to prevent his aggression. One certainly cannot imagine an operation like Desert Storm if Iraq were to acquire nuclear warheads and accurate missiles.
We should also consider the future of the Iraqi civilians. Yes, they would suffer the horrors of war in the near term, which for a time would be even worse than life under the sanctions now. But if an American-led intervention succeeded, the country's oil revenues could once again enrich its people, as well as its schools, hospitals and financial institutions.
The Iraqis would be much better off after an invasion than they would be living indefinitely chained to Saddam Hussein. For us, though we live in relative tranquillity at present, we will at least be far less badly off in the future if we act now. Parmenides' Fallacy must not paralyze our imaginations, or our will.