We know what the benefits of a war on Iraq would be: the ouster of a cruel tyrant and the elimination of his weapons of mass destruction. But we also know what the costs would be: prohibitive. The Bush administration believes that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein could bring democracy to Iraq and then spread to the rest of the Arab world. This is a fantasy. It will be difficult to introduce democracy in a heterogeneous country that has never experienced it. After 30 years of repression, there could be violence between ethnic and religious groups that US forces would have to cope with; moreover, a prolonged occupation and military rule would squander the good will we as liberators expect to prevail at first. Arab governments will try to contain the spread of democracy in order to stay in power. Moreover, as long as we haven't decisively intervened in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and suggest that it may have to wait until Arab regimes have changed, Arab suspicion of the United States will mount.
Indeed, American control of Iraq could contribute to Muslim terrorism and foster a xenophobic fundamentalism aimed at US "imperialism." Already the administration's obsession with Iraq and its bullying way of obtaining support have provoked considerable anti-American resentment abroad.
The image of the United States has been tarnished by our manipulation of the United Nations and our alliances with NATO countries, our efforts to split the European Union, and our disdain for public opinion abroad.
More seriously, the Bush administration has recklessly attacked the very foundations of world order that this country helped put in place: the UN, international law, and the EU have been the casualties of a team that has repudiated a distinction we had wisely preserved throughout the Cold War, between leadership and dictation. This may result in something we had avoided: an anti-American ganging-up of countries threatened by the growth of unchecked American power.
Then there are the economic costs of the war as well as those of rebuilding Iraq and not neglecting its needs, which would encourage those who doubt American good intentions.
Are these costs worth it?
We have two main reasons to go to war. Both are shaky. Iraq is effectively defanged and incapable of constituting a real threat to us or its neighbors as long as we operate freely in two no-fly zones, the Kurds have autonomy under Anglo-American protection, and inspectors roam freely.
Contrary to the administration's assertions, containment can continue to work in the long run, especially if the no-fly zones and the inspections are maintained, a tight naval blockade prevents military imports into Iraq, and ground forces remain stationed at Iraq's borders. War is not necessary to render Iraq harmless to others.
The more difficult issue is that of Saddam Hussein. Like preventive war, forcible regime change violates international law. The exceptions to state sovereignty that were made legitimate through the so-called humanitarian interventions in the 1990s have never involved "regime change" and had to be justified by the argument that the violation of human rights constituted a threat to international and regional security. This could have been an argument for intervening against Saddam Hussein's regime in 1991; the opportunity was missed, and since then he has not committed mass crimes against humanity. Still, his regime is based on fear and terror.
Sooner or later all governments may realize their citizens are entitled to basic human rights. But this principle will need international support, not unilateral action, to be established, and a clear understanding of the differences between "ordinary" bad regimes and truly evil ones.
Meanwhile, those who sympathize with the plight of the Iraqi people yet do not want to increase their suffering through war should do all they can to make Saddam Hussein's position increasingly difficult. The International Criminal Court or a special criminal tribunal can try him for crimes against humanity, order a ban on travel by all top officials, deprive them of their fortunes abroad, and indicate that a recovery by Iraq of its full sovereignty will depend on its compliance with those decisions. Furthermore, we can provide covert assistance to groups of Iraqis willing to act against Saddam Hussein and overt aid if they try to overthrow him.
For these purposes, we could lead a "coalition of the willing" far bigger, and less resentful, than the one we're trying to force into supporting us for a risky and unpopular war. The democracy we say we champion should begin by recognizing that listening to what the public says is not tantamount to appeasement and inaction. Gaining more victories in the difficult war against terrorism is a far more widely shared goal, and one that could be imperiled by American hubris in the war against Iraq.