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The Case for War
An interview with Professor Robert Kaufman

The road to real stability in the Middle East,”says Robert Kaufman, associate professor of political science and unstinting advocate of military action against terrorists and the states that support them, “lies through the creation, by American power, of a pro-democratic Iraq.” Kaufman, a lawyer and Columbia Ph.D. who has taught military tactics at the Naval War College, says prompt and decisive action is morally and practically necessary. If the United States hesitates or falters, he says, we “embolden our adversaries” and increase the risk of another, even more calamitous, terrorist attack. Vermont Quarterly’s Kevin Foley sat down with Kaufman, who delivered the College of Arts and Science Dean’s Lecture this spring, to probe his interventionist take on foreign policy, discussing topics ranging from terrorism to the case for waging war on Iraq to America’s biggest future foreign policy challenge.

You call the Cold War, which you have written about extensively, World War III. Why do you call the “war on terrorism” World War IV?

Because it has a global dimension, it’s not just a war against those who perpetrated the atrocities of September 11. Terrorism does not flourish and have a global reach without states that foment and harbor terrorists. The terrorists are surrogates for other states that also have fundamental conflicts with us and are in the process of acquiring or have already acquired weapons of mass destruction. Iran and Iraq lead the list.

Why are they of particular concern?

Iran is less immediately dangerous, not because their leadership isn’t malevolent, but because Saddam is closer to acquiring nuclear weapons, nerve gas, and anthrax. Saddam’s history also demonstrates that he does not calculate by Western standards. This is a man who came to power by the muzzle of a machine gun. This is a man who used poison gas to kill thousands of his own people. This is a man who runs one of the most repressive regimes in the world. This is a man who, when he invaded Arab Kuwait, killed hundreds of thousands, perpetrating such atrocities that Kuwaitis welcomed us as liberators. If Saddam has his way, I believe that the next September 11 — and there will be one — will entail far more horrific casualties because it may be perpetrated with weapons of mass destruction.

So we are waging a war not only against terrorists, but the regimes that harbor the terrorists, and the political culture that makes such terrorism possible. This is a war for high stakes that entails multiple enemies, will take a long time, and requires unremitting vigilance.

How do you wage a campaign this massive?

Well, it’s less massive than the Cold War and World War II. Although this is global, this is a much less threatening war to the West than either World War II or the war against Lenin and his progeny. We faced a much more dangerous world in 1941 than we do today. We faced a more dangerous world in 1961. We need not despair about the difficult task ahead.

So we don’t necessarily have to prepare, à la the Cold War, for forty years and 100,000 American combat fatalities and untold trillions of dollars—

Well, that’s contingent on other things. We are going to have to spend trillions of dollars for a variety of reasons —and it’s a small price to pay. Consider this: Our defense budget right now as a percentage of gross domestic product is right around 3 percent, less than what we were spending at the time of Pearl Harbor. We should raise the defense budget by $150 billion; Bush’s increase of $48 billion is a good start, but it’s not sufficient. If you increase the defense budget by $150 billion, you’re still spending less than 4 percent of the GDP. That’s low by historical standards. If liberal John Kennedy spent 8 percent on defense, we can afford 4 percent now.

But we still can’t act alone. Much of Europe and the Middle East seems dubious — at best — of our stated intent to replace Saddam by force.

I taught coalition warfare strategy: in my view, much of the talk of coalitions now has been fundamentally miscast. What you want is a coalition to fit the mission, you don’t try to dictate the mission to fit the coalition. Most effective coalitions require the willingness and capability to go it alone. Compare, for example, the success of George Herbert Walker Bush in building a coalition when the United States was prepared to go it alone in the Gulf War with the total inability of the Clinton administration to build a coalition to deal with Bosnia and Kosovo. The Clinton administration only succeeded belatedly and half-heartedly when it jettisoned the policy of letting agreement emerge, and decided to act alone. If the United States is determined and resolved to act alone — we won’t have to. You cannot take the opposition to American action against Iraq at face value.

Why Iraq? Most of the September 11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia—our putative ally. So shouldn’t our first priority be a democratic Saudi Arabia? Why do we have to go into Baghdad with guns blazing?

Well, the spillover effect of an American demonstration of power that topples Saddam will have reverberating effects throughout the entire Middle East. A lot of people say that the Middle East political culture cannot support democratization, but if you look at history you find that the most significant changes usually occur after the profound shock of war. It took war to break the American South; it took war to break Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Japan and Germany weren’t going to become democratic and pro-Western before we defeated the root cause of the conflict, the odious nature of their leaders, their ideologies and their regimes.

I think an American presence in Iraq will challenge the Saudi propensity to play a double game. On one hand, they want American support; on the other hand, to buy off support for their regime, they’ve exploited a fanatical brand of Wahhabi Islam. They have also funded terrorists.

President Bush got it right: You have to choose in this war. You’re either for the civilized world, or you’re with the terrorists. The reckoning is here.

What about non-military options?

We tried deterrence with Saddam. We left him in power in the first place, hoping that it would work. But we have found in ten years that it doesn’t work, and that it is also morally dubious. Sanctions have outlived their course. They were useful to prevent Iraq from building their conventional power, but they hurt the most vulnerable, innocent Iraqis. If there is a military option to remove Saddam — who is the source of the danger to us and the oppression to Iraqis — war is more prudential, moral, and practical than continuing a sanctions policy that will break down, and hurt the least deserving without getting at the root cause of the danger. A strong response that is decisive will help to deter events such as September 11 and dictators like Saddam Hussein. Not perfectly, because deterrence is never perfect.

What we will do if we take on Saddam is to say to the world, “We’ve taken on the most dangerous person.” We signal to other troublesome states, “You’re next, if you don’t change your ways.” So if Saddam goes, Syria knows that their ability to continue sponsoring terror is limited. The Syrians are certainly odious, but less dangerous in the short term. If you get Saddam, lesser thugs will also go down.

Let’s talk about the Israel-Palestinian situation, which many say contributes to terrorism and anti-Americanism in the Middle East.

There is a tendency to say that every conflict is morally equivalent or, in some aspects of the press, that we are supporting the oppressor. That’s totally wrong in this case. If this isn’t black and white as a moral and geopolitical conflict, it’s close.

Let’s look at the history of the Arab-Israel dispute. Israel seeks security, the Palestine Authority does not. Israel is the only stable, liberal democracy in a desert of despotisims ranging from fanatical to merely brutal authoritarian and corrupt. We are, in short, with our Israeli allies fighting the same war against the same enemy. Appeasing the unappeasable Yasser Arafat at democratic Israel’s expense is a moral and geopolitical catastrophe in the making that threatens to snatch defeat from the jaws of total victory.

Let’s keep in mind the origins of the refugee camps. It’s with the Arab world, not Israel. In 1943, the Palestinian leadership siding with Hitler during World War II rejected the Peel Commission’s report for two states. In 1947, Israel would have accepted a U.N. partition plan that would have given the Palestinians a state. It was the Palestinians who rejected it. The war of 1948 produced an equal number of refugees on both sides, Jews fleeing from the Islamic world and Palestinian refugees. Israel incorporated their refugees; the Arab world deliberately poisoned the minds of a generation of Palestinians by perpetuating fanaticism and poverty. So the refugee crisis is the product of the original Arab rejectionism of the state of Israel’s right to exist. Let’s also consider the record since 1993, particularly September of 2000, when Yasser Arafat rejected Ehud Barak’s recklessly generous offer that would have given the Palestinians a state on the West Bank and Gaza, a capital in East Jerusalem, and would have made Israel indefensible.

Are you saying the broad consensus that the conflict must end with a political route to two states is wrong?

I don’t dispute that there should be a Palestinian state, but the question of timing and contours is critical. A Palestinian state should emerge when you have a Palestinian leadership that is moderate enough to accept Israel’s fundamental right to exist. That is not going to happen as long as you have Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian Liberation Authority, who in word and deed are dedicated to destroying Israel. The psychology and conditions for real peace in the Middle East will occur after victory, total victory, not before.
Remember that the Oslo accords in 1993 came about in part because of the seismic shock of American power. The Soviet Union, Arafat’s patron, went down, Saddam Hussein, Arafat’s second patron, suffered a devastating defeat. Arafat, not coincidentally, went to Oslo, accepting a provisional peace. I want to do that again, but, unlike the Gulf War of 1991, not stop too soon, but permanently change the psychology of the conflict. Not just for the sake of the Israelis, but for the Palestinians themselves, who have been exploited by a leadership that is totally irresponsible.

Back to the “war on terrorism.” How do we know when we’ve won? Or when we’re winning?

We are, to paraphrase Churchill, now at the end of the beginning. There are certain benchmarks and watersheds that will provide a clue to what stage of the war we’re in and how it’s going. The good news, there is a measurability to the threats posed by states that harbor and foment terrorists. We will have reached a major watershed that puts the war well on the path to its inevitable successful conclusion with the defeat and destruction of Saddam Hussein and the establishment of a pro-democratic Iraq. This will be, however, a long process. We will never eliminate terrorist threats. What we will do, however, the way the Europeans did it in the 1970s, is reduce terrorism to a police problem. Terrorism with a global reach ends, or is severely restrained, when the most dangerous regimes supporting it undergo fundamental transformations.

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