There is no more sobering debate in a democracy than whether to go to war. As teachers of politics and international relations, our careers are dedicated to studying national security, the rule of law in international affairs, and the causes and consequences of war. Unlike a country that is invaded and must respond quickly, the decision to invade Iraq is one that can accommodate a full discussion of U.S. national interests and the principles that we seek to follow.
Virtually everyone recognizes that Saddam Hussein is a tyrant responsible for monstrous atrocities and that Iraq has ignored a number of U.N. resolutions. We also realize that the threat of invasion may produce the removal of Saddam, and we would welcome that result.
The question before the American people, however, is whether it is in our interest as a nation, and consistent with our longstanding principles, to now invade Iraq. It is our judgment that it is not in our interest to do so. We can win the battle with Iraq, but we cannot win all the conflicts that will follow.
Consider the following points: The United States is currently involved in a difficult and crucial war against terrorism. Al-Qaida poses a greater threat to the United States than does Iraq, and the scope of this conflict is worldwide. Military wisdom argues against opening a second front until the first front is secured unless the provocation is overwhelming.
All wars result in unintended consequences. The proposed attack on Iraq, which many of our friends and allies oppose, combined with the current instability of regimes in the Islamic world, greatly increases the possibility of severe and wide-ranging consequences. In attacking Iraq to make the United States secure, we may in fact heighten our insecurity and the insecurity of countless citizens of other states.
If Saddam is overthrown, what happens next in Iraq? Successful military occupations are very rare. Those that worked have in common the belief among the conquered that their way was wrong and the conqueror's ways are right.
Because many Iraqis hate Saddam, many will indeed welcome his removal. But hating Saddam does not mean they will welcome our occupying forces. If our forces are seen as illegitimate, they become targets of terrorism for years to come. Under these circumstances, how long are we willing to occupy Iraq?
Establishing democracy in Iraq is a worthy goal, but is war the best way to achieve it? A weak government replacing Saddam's regime might invite civil war and widespread human suffering, while a strong government could replicate the current tyranny. In most cases, democracy must grow gradually from within. Outsiders can help, but they cannot impose democracy.
The president's new national security strategy has shifted the emphasis from deterrence to pre-emption. Pre-emption is a significant departure from past policy. Such a fundamental shift in American policy requires serious debate. Deterrence has worked even in the face of far more serious and immediate threats.
We can monitor Iraq and still be prepared to invade Iraq if it threatens to attack the United States or other nations. Working with its friends and allies, the United States can contain Iraqi military forces and any weapons of mass destruction until there is clear evidence Saddam is prepared to use them.
Just war theory, international law and the U.N. Charter all agree that states can defend themselves. But when undertaking a pre-emptive attack, states must show necessity and immediacy. These are not just fancy words. Many conservatives and liberals alike question the urgency of the Iraqi danger, and they question the legality of a preventive war waged by the United States. An attack on Iraq by the United States would set a dangerous precedent of pre-emptive war. Many nations will judge an American preventive attack as unjustified.
A U.S. invasion will weaken the commitment of all nations to the rule of law and international cooperation. Why should we care? Because it is in our interest to use our military might wisely and, whenever possible, to support international law and to work with other nations to reduce violence and lack of respect for fundamental human rights. It is not in our national interest to be the world's policeman. We cannot afford to take on the task of removing all the world's tyrants who possess weapons of mass destruction.
We oppose this war at this time. We realize that just before the November 2002 election, Congress gave President Bush the authority to enforce U.N. Security Council resolutions concerning Iraq and to use any means to defend U.S. national security interests. Even so, in a democracy, continued public debate is essential. We urge members of Congress to review their support for a pre-emptive attack on Iraq, and we urge citizens to engage more fully in a discussion of our vital national interests.
The authors are members of the department of political science at Brigham Young University and provide affiliation for purposes of identification only. Their views do not represent the department, BYU or its sponsoring church.