Iraq has recently become the focal point of U.S. foreign policy. Some Bush administration officials advocate a preemptive attack to prevent Iraq from acquiring or using weapons of mass destruction. Others say stick with containment and deterrence that worked during the Cold War against the nuclear armed Soviet Union. These divisions are reflected in the U.S. media and the public. Some top civilian officials in the U.S. Defense Department urge an attack on Saddam Hussein's Iraq, while military leaders suggest caution.
Marine Lieutenant General E.R. Bedard said the United States would face a three-front war. "It would be Iraq. It would be globally everywhere else, and it would be the threat back here in the United States," he said.
But Vice President Richard Cheney says it is worth the risk. If Saddam Hussein were to acquire nuclear weapons, he would "seek domination of the entire Middle East, control a great portion of the world's energy supplies, threaten America's friends throughout the region, and subject the United States to nuclear blackmail." That reflects a rather extreme view, said Stephen Walt, professor of international affairs at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He said it is promoted by so-called neo-conservatives, who hold top positions in the Bush administration, and have influenced a president with little foreign policy experience.
"They are a group of people who are closely aligned politically with the right-wing in Israeli politics, as well, and they tend to see American foreign policy and right-wing Israeli policies as things that ought to go together," he explained. "So the emphasis on Iraq, even though it is not really talked about, I think, is driven primarily by the desire to make Israel safer, not so much by the desire to make the United States safer."
Partly because of this influence, said Professor Walt, the war on terrorism has lost its focus. A clear pursuit of al-Qaida has turned into a murkier challenge to other countries, with Iraq leading the list.
As it should, noted Ralph Peters, a former U.S. army officer with considerable experience in combating terrorism. Not only is Saddam Hussein a menace, he says, but his overthrow could lead to a brighter future for Iraq and the Middle East.
"A post-Saddam Iraq that was even marginally successful as a rule-of-law-democracy would bring tremendous pressure on the Saudis, the Egyptians, the Syrians, to change their regimes," said Mr. Peters. "If Iraq could build a progressive, forward-looking state, what a positive change that would be."
Like others, Mr. Peters has no doubt the United States would prevail militarily against Iraq. But he added, before the United States takes military action, it should lay out a blueprint for Iraq's future - an advance constitution that sets up a federation with respect for minority rights.
Will Iraqis and other Arabs be in a mood to accept this? asked Professor Walt. The United States will be intruding in a region where it is widely resented. It will be a tempting target for terrorists. And how long must Americans remain to assure a stable, hopefully democratic Iraq?
"I think much of the opposition [to military action] is arising from people who realize that, once you have ousted the regime, you have the prospect of governing a country that has proven to be very difficult to govern in the past," he said. "The question the United States is now asking itself: Does it want to take on that kind of a neo-imperial responsibility, with all that that entails?"
But don't underestimate Iraqis and others in the Middle East, contends Ralph Peters. Like Afghans after the Taleban, they are likely to welcome liberation from an oppressive ruler they did not choose. Mr. Peters said the rage of the Arab street against the West is much exaggerated.
"The Arab street is like the street in America or anywhere else. People's concerns are day to day," he said. "The idea that every Muslim is a raging radical ready to destroy civilizations is nonsense. The average Muslim is no better or no worse than the average Buddhist or Hindu or Christian. I have to add that, while the Islamic world has deadly, hateful radicals, so does the Christian world."
Mr. Peters said the United States must direct its policy toward the vast majority of peaceful, non-radical Muslims.