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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Weighs Risks in Iraq Standoff

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A Dec. 18 front-page article in The Washington Post titled "Projection on Fall of Hussein Disputed" attempted to describe a split that simply does not exist between the senior civilian and military leadership over planning for potential war in Iraq. The Post's reporter attributed variously to me, to the "Wolfowitz school" and to the "Wolfowitz view" the contention that Saddam Hussein's government "will fall almost immediately upon being attacked."

That has never been my view, nor is it the view of the senior civilian leadership in the Defense Department. The Post's reporter had access to those facts, but The Post's readers, including influential people here, in Baghdad and around the world, also are entitled to them.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and General Tommy Franks have been pushing others hard to think through all the implications of the possible use of force, to think carefully about all the ways in which things can go wrong. That is the only prudent way to plan.

The day before the story appeared, Rumsfeld was asked in a news conference about the assumption that "Iraqi forces might fold quickly." He said that is "not the way to look at this situation. First of all, any war is a dangerous thing, and it puts people's lives at risk. And second, I think that it is very difficult to have good knowledge as to exactly how Iraqi forces will behave." (Those who are interested in seeing all of these views at greater length are invited to visit

President George W. Bush has not made any decision about the use of force to achieve the goal of disarmament of Iraq's arsenal of terror. We still are trying to achieve that goal by peaceful means precisely because we understand the risks involved in any use of force.

Hussein has demonstrated an unparalleled ruthlessness, unpredictability and willingness to sacrifice his military and his people for the sake of his own survival. He has shown no compunction about using weapons of mass terror in the past, either against his own people or Muslim neighbors. He has shown a willingness to use sacred Muslim religious sites to hide his weapons, thereby committing sacrilege. And he has no conscience or mercy when it comes to the weakest and most innocent members of society -- the children of Iraq. For these reasons, we in the Defense Department -- at all levels, military and civilian -- have been thinking carefully for months about all the ways in which things can go wrong, because that is the only prudent way to plan.

It is also true that it would not be responsible to plan only for the worst case. Things could break in a more favorable direction, and we need to be prepared for that too so that we do not proceed on assumptions that lead to unnecessary American or Iraqi deaths. But the best way to handle that is to be prepared for the worst things that could happen -- which I and other administration officials have been emphasizing repeatedly.

Every significant aspect of the military planning has been the subject of intense discussion among Rumsfeld, Franks, General Richard Myers and the president. They have no differences concerning the size or nature of the military forces required, should it become necessary to disarm Iraq by force. Nor do they have any false sense that anyone can predict the course of events. It has never been so.

One concern that is much greater than it was during the Persian Gulf War 11 years ago is the danger that Hussein might actually use his most terrible weapons. This serious threat leads us to conclude that this regime is too dangerous to leave indefinitely in possession of those weapons of mass terror while it acquires even more.

War is brutal, risky and unpredictable; anyone who does not understand that should not be involved in military planning. On the wall of my office I hung a painting depicting the Civil War battlefield of Antietam on the day after what was the bloodiest single day in U.S. history. It is a reminder of what it means for Americans to risk their lives in combat for their country.

The president needs no reminder about what a terrible thing war is. He has had to comfort the widows of brave men killed in Afghanistan, and he knows what it would be like to comfort widows if there were a war in Iraq. But he also has comforted the families who lost loved ones in the World Trade Center and at the Pentagon. He can imagine what it would be like to face the survivors of a catastrophic terrorist attack on the United States with chemical or biological or even nuclear weapons.

No course open to the United States is free of risk. The question is how to weigh the risks of action against the risks of inaction and to be fully aware of both.

One risk that is often exaggerated is the risk of what might happen in Iraq after the removal of the Hussein regime. It is hard to believe that the liberation of the talented people of one of the most important Arab countries in the world from the grip of one of the world's worst tyrants will not be an opportunity for Americans and Arabs and other people of goodwill to begin to move forward on the task that the president has described as "building a just and peaceful world beyond the war on terror."

Paul Wolfowitz, U.S. deputy secretary of defense, contributed this comment to The Washington Post.