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The High Cost Of Being Right

Fighting probably will have commenced in Iraq by the time you read this. It might even be over, and the regime of Saddam Hussein may have ended. But as I write this on the first weekend in March, there is a sense of history poised to happen, of world-changing events about to unfold. I suspect the summer of 1939 felt like this.

I believe war in Iraq has been both necessary and inevitable for a long time. I am not terribly worried about what will happen if it turns out this is wrong. I am more concerned, actually, about the high cost of being right.

In the short term, the likeliest outcome probably is what the Bush administration expects. American and allied forces will sweep quickly into Baghdad. The regular Iraqi army will trip over itself in a rush to surrender. Saddam’s elite forces may hold out longer, mingling with the civilian population to maximize collateral damage and win propaganda points, but even the Republican Guard has no motivation to sacrifice itself in a lost cause.

Saddam, unconstrained by any genuine concern for the Iraqi public, may employ a scorched-earth policy of blowing up oil fields and even using chemical weapons in populated areas. Once he is gone, however, the Iraqis are much more likely to throw flowers than rocks at the incoming allies. When summer’s heat descends on the Tigris and Euphrates valleys, so should another Pax Americana.

The worldwide demands for peace at any price will end once it is clear that the Iraqis, who actually stood to pay most of the price of either keeping Saddam or removing him, believe they received a much better return on investment for getting rid of him.

This is pretty much a best-case scenario. There is no guarantee it will happen. We could get bogged down in urban fighting; civilian casualties in Iraq might become unacceptably high; Iraq may succeed in delivering weapons of mass destruction to our troops or, more likely, to civilian centers in neighboring countries; or a wave of worldwide anger could make Americans targets of terrorism virtually anywhere. These risks strike me as acceptably low, or not materially affected by a war. For example, do the terrorists we are most worried about actually need some new excuse to strike Americans?

No, I’m not too anxious about the imminent war. I am concerned about what may follow, however. We can achieve our goals in Iraq even against the weight of world opinion. But what about the problems we will surely face afterward? Our most important postwar challenges are going to be much more difficult to solve on our own. Consider:

  • The Korean peninsula. Saddam posed a threat to our troops and our regional allies. Assume that because the risks of deposing him were acceptably low, we did it. What lesson would North Korea draw from this? It, too, poses a threat to our troops and allies. Its answer probably will be to make the price of removing that regime unacceptably high by stockpiling nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them against South Korea, Japan and eventually us. Simultaneously, cash-hungry Pyongyang is going to be inclined to sell fissile material along with delivery vehicles to anyone who can pay. We cannot accept this scenario – but what can we do? The South Koreans want to try to buy off the North indefinitely. This probably will not work, and ultimately raises the cost of solving the problem. But our options in the meantime are: 1) To pull back from the South Korean alliance and try to convince the North that any attack against Japan or other countries would mean prompt annihilation; 2) To try to remove the North’s nuclear capability, or even its regime, through a surprise strike, and hope that we can limit South Korean casualties; or 3) Persuade the South Koreans that it is worth considerable sacrifice to eliminate Kim Jong Il sooner rather than later. The first two options mean the end of our South Korean alliance and a less stable, less prosperous South Korea, while the third simply is a long shot.
  • China and Taiwan. No action in Korea is likely to work without support, or at least acceptance, from China. The Chinese leadership wants, in this order: 1) To stay in power; 2) To maintain stability internally and along its borders; 3) To be the leading strategic and economic power in Asia, eclipsing Japan and keeping South Korea subordinate; and 4) To absorb Taiwan. The price of Chinese support in Korea is likely to be our acceptance of all of these goals, though they are antithetical to our own interests and values as long as China lacks a real democracy. Will we actually sacrifice Taiwan’s self-rule to gain Chinese help in Korea? American policy-makers will agonize over this.
  • The Middle East. Military interventions are like farm subsidies: Everyone opposes them except people who think they need help right away. Those people get angry when the United States proves less willing to help them achieve their visions of security and prosperity than we were in Kuwait (which sells us oil) or the former Yugoslavia (a European country). Bitterness begets extremism. Unfair though it is, the entire Arab world believes the United States could and should force a settlement of the Palestinian question upon Israel. Our failure to do this justifies, in some minds, almost any action against Israel or against us. Vigilance against terrorism and especially nuclear proliferation can only take us so far. To truly solve the problem, the underlying issues need to be settled – and there is simply no end game in sight. Even if all the leading terrorists and their key supporters were rounded up today, it would only be a matter of time until new, equally dangerous opponents emerged. In the meantime, the world’s key oil-producing region looks to become an increasingly unstable place.
  • Western Europe and the United Nations. Like it or not, everyone is affected when America exercises its unparalleled power. This makes most of the world feel a need for a voice in how that power is exercised. But the rest of the world doesn’t work here, doesn’t pay taxes here, doesn’t vote here. Americans, especially in this administration, reserve the final say over where and how they act. Because America’s power makes us the primary target for every resentful extremist in the world, we see our security needs differently from our allies. The run-up to Iraq, in which we were actively hindered by some presumed allies, and helped by many others against the clear wishes of their own publics, may be the wave of the future. This does not bode well for our efforts to build a more secure, more prosperous world, in which we are going to have to either work closely with other nations or severely restrict our ties to them.

American policy-makers have tools to deal with these challenges. An efficient and enlightened administration of postwar Iraq would be a big help. So would continued attention to rebuilding Afghanistan, to prove to the world that we do not invade countries merely to address our own immediate concerns and then abandon their people when we are through.

Washington probably is justified in avoiding the dictates of international agencies, such as the United Nations and the new International Criminal Court, that seek to constrain when and how the United States defends its interests. At the same time, however, we have to be willing to listen to other countries and to negotiate agreements for the common good. We continue to pay an enormous price in worldwide goodwill for the Bush decision to walk away from the Kyoto treaty on global warming. Politically motivated protectionism for U.S. farmers and steelmakers, and subsidies to U.S. exporters who violate World Trade Organization rules, are not helping, either.

The events of the coming months will have much to do with whether this President Bush, like his father, is limited to a one term in the White House. I give George W. Bush high marks for his willingness to take tough, clear stands on the most difficult problems we face. But to deal with the long-term costs of his decisions, this president and his associates are going to have to learn to market their policies better to a global audience that is not terribly inclined to buy them.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us,” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s book The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth.