Monday, February 17, 2003


Our Choices

Sun Tzu says that the greatest general is one who never has to go to war. But that simply raises the question: How can the United States achieve its objectives without going to war?

It’s important to understand that a strategy for avoiding war does not mean that we should not threaten to go to war. The only reason why Saddam Hussein has agreed to let weapons inspectors back in his country in the first place is because the United States has begun preparations for war. It is sometimes necessary to make a realistic threat of the use of force.

However, threatening to go to war and making preparations for war is not the same thing as actually going to war. There is a crucial difference. Threatening and preparing for war offers both a carrot and a stick. If you don’t do what we say, we will go to war. If you do what we say we will not go to war. Simply signaling that we are going to war no matter what transpires offers Saddam no reason to do anything other than to prepare for war himself. Thus the optimal strategy is to threaten war while always leaving Saddam with the option to avoid it through disarming. It is ok to be forceful; it is not ok to be so forceful that one undermines the strategic advantage of making a realistic threat of force.

Our European allies want us to take more time and engage in more rounds of inspections. We should take them up on that invitation. We should take them up on that invitation because it will buy the United States crucial time to repair rifts in the Atlantic alliance. And it will hamstring Saddam in the meantime. As I’ve noted in a previous post, a strategy of continuing inspections at least until October has many advantages.

Our President says that he is losing patience. But patience is of the essence here. With patience, we may be able to avoid war. Or we may be able to make war on the most favorable terms with the maximum of international cooperation and support. After all, our optimal strategy is not attacking immediately with a coallition of the willing. It is assembling the full authority of the United Nations behind us and completely isolating Saddam, leaving him with no other choice than to disarm.

The alternatives, in other words, are not simply a stark choice between attacking now or removing our troops and leaving Saddam alone. There are all sorts of intermediate strategies to take. Those strategies may achieve our objectives without war. The fact that Bush does not seem to be interested in intermediate strategies is what I find most worrisome about his conduct in the current crisis.

Nevertheless, we must hope that President Bush has secretly adopted one of those intermediate strategies, even while conveying to the world that he means to go to war by the end of March. If this in fact what he is doing, he’s a damn good poker player. But he certainly has me, and our allies fooled into thinking that he means war come what may. And, perhaps, most importantly, he seems to have Saddam Hussein fooled into thinking that there is nothing he can do to prevent a U.S. attack. That sort of bluffing is counterproductive.


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