09/03/2006 12:43 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"Let's Drop the Big One"*

Three-and-a-half years ago, a group of students at the University of Chicago (where I teach) invited faculty members to write brief essays about the situation in Iraq. I wrote the following, which was included in the collection. I happened across it the other day and thought it might be interesting:

I just watched the President's State of the Union Address, and I'm no closer to agreeing with him now than I was before. I will concede (at least for the sake of argument) the following: (1) Saddam is an evil man. (2) His people are oppressed. (3) He is more likely than not to have chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction. (4) He has not disarmed and he has not conformed to the demands of the U.N. What follows from these "concessions"? The easy answer is that we should try very hard to get Saddam either to disarm or to go into exile. That would be great. Certainly, the threat of war might achieve one or the other of these goals. If so, bravo. It would a triumph for the United States, and for Iraq. But if not, what then? Does it follow that we should launch a major military attack?

Here, I must ask you to concede the following: If we attack Iraq (1) It is likely that many innocent people will die, probably many times more than were killed in the World Trade Center. (2) It is not clear what would follow such an attack. Presumably, the goal would either to kill or oust Saddam. One or the other of these is a likely, but not certain, consequence of a military attack. (3) Such an attack could provoke Saddam to do many evil things, including using weapons of mass destruction against Israel, immediately turning such weapons over to terrorists, using such weapons against his own people and blaming the Americans, and blowing up the Iraqi oil fields. (4) All of these are more likely (at least in the short-run) if we attack Iraq than if we do not attack Iraq. (5) An attack on Iraq could further destabilize the Middle East incite further terrorist attacks against the United States. (Inflammatory news clips of maimed and dead Muslim children as a result of American bombs are hardly likely to soothe the hatred of the United States in that part of the world.)

In my view, then, based on what I know today - on January 29, 2003 -- the potentially negative effects of attacking Iraq far outweigh the potentially positive effects, even in terms of American security. Of course, having firmly stated our "resolve" to act, it will be difficult for Mr. Bush to back away from a military attack by late February unless Saddam steps down or truly disarms. If he does neither, Mr. Bush will have boxed himself and the United States into a frightening corner. If Saddam calls our bluff, and we do not attack, we will look weak to all the world. President Bush is a gunslinger. He will not allow that to happen. So, whether intentionally or not, the President seems to have transferred the awesome power to decide whether the United States will go to war, not to the U.N., but to Saddam Hussein.

In what circumstances would an attack on Iraq be "justified"? Suppose we fear that Saddam is about to use weapons of mass destruction to attack the United States. If there were compelling evidence that such an attack was imminent, a preemptive strike might be warranted. But because Saddam hasn't done these things up to now, I find it hard to believe that he is likely to do so in the immediate future - unless we precipitate such an attack.

Thus, the only logic that would support an attack by the United States (other than the compulsion of having boxed ourselves into one) is that (1) Saddam does not currently have such weapons, or the means to deliver them, but (2) he will have them soon, and (3) he is likely to use them (or use them for blackmail purposes) once he has them. Even if all that were so, there is still a benefit in waiting. Constant inspections might prevent Saddam from developing the missing technology and, in the meantime, he might die or be removed from power.

Of course, this would involve a very serious risk. If we guessed wrong, we might have to deal with a nuclear explosion in New York or a biological nightmare in Chicago. Those are high stakes, indeed. We should not pretend otherwise. But before we kill thousands of innocent Iraqis and risk triggering massive retaliation, destabilization of the Middle East, and the legitimation of preemptive war, we should be damn sure we know what we're doing. So far, I see no convincing evidence of that from the White House.

* Randy Newman