I would like to restate the argument and then comment on some related points raised by Steve.
The argument rests on the proposition that the terrorists pose a more immediate threat to us than does Saddam. Neither Peter nor Steve has disputed this, as far as I can tell. Assuming that the terrorists are the more immediate problem, it seems to me that we ought to deal with them first and do nothing that will make it harder for us to deal with them. If invading Iraq makes it harder for us to deal with the terrorists, then we should not invade Iraq. On balance, I believe that invading Iraq will make it harder for us to deal with the terrorists, for the reasons I have given, so I would not now propose an invasion.
Steve objects that Iraq may have supported or even directed al Qaeda’s (AQ) attacks on the United States. He thereby implies that going after Iraq is a way of going after AQ. In my view, at most the available evidence shows that Iraq may have provided some support to AQ. I think that removing that support will not hurt AQ much but does risk making AQ’s job much easier. Weighing the pros and cons in this way leads me to think that going after Iraq now is not the right thing to do.
Both Peter and Steve suggest that attacking Iraq may have salutary consequences beyond removing some (possible) support for the terrorists. Both suggest (Peter citing Max Boot) that using force against Iraq will discourage Islamists and others from attacking us. Boot says “Islamists are emboldened by U.S. weakness (e.g., the pullout from Beirut in 1984 and from Somalia in 1993), not by U.S. strength.” This argument conveniently forgets that it was one of the most effective uses of U.S. strength (the Gulf War) that inspired bin Ladin to attack us.
To return to the issue that began this exchange, on balance, I still think that the Bush administration is pursuing the right policy. It should go without saying that any number of events or new evidence could change this picture. Also, at some point, we will have made sufficient progress against the terrorists that we can turn, for example, to the longer term problem of countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
Some related points: Steve believes that the U.S. is too fettered in its use of force. He cites Vietnam to support this claim, saying that we used half measures there. This is not true. Those conducting the ground war got everything they asked for, and used it all. The Air Force was restricted with regard to the timing of its bombing but did eventually get to bomb just about everything it wanted to bomb. The problem in Vietnam was not a lack of force but a bad strategy. Vigorously pursuing a bad strategy does not lead to victory. It leads more quickly to defeat. This is the danger we face in the war on terrorism.
It is also important to point out that it was military leaders who thought up and pursued the bad strategy. Others in the Army—Chief of Staff Harold Johnson and Creighton Abrams, who eventually replaced Westmoreland—thought Westmoreland’s strategy was bad. It is not the case that civilians have fettered the military.
Steve also raises the issue of overt or latent support for the US in the Middle East, suggesting that if it is there, military action will encourage it. It may well be the case that lots of Iraqis would like us to get rid of Saddam. This does not mean that Iraqis will like having us in Baghdad five years later nor does it mean that liberal democracy will bloom in the desert. More generally, polling that has been done shows mixed sentiments toward the US. Iranians like our technology and movies and television, for example, but not our freedom and democracy or the American people. We should not believe that military action on our part will lead to greater support.