By Stan Crock The Bush Administration and other advocates of ousting Saddam Hussein usually make two arguments. The first is that getting rid of the Iraqi strongman is necessary to take the war against terrorism to its next phase. The second is that it'll stop Saddam from using weapons of mass destruction.
There's a third argument that you don't hear much of -- let's call it the Unspoken Argument. It's unsaid because it would likely provoke a diplomatic uproar. But I'd argue that it makes the most compelling case of all for ousting Saddam.
If the brutal ruler were toppled, rather than unleash a torrent of Muslim extremism across the Middle East and Asia, an opportunity might be created for sweeping secular reform throughout the region. What's more, that could irrevocably alter the global oil equation -- and from a U.S. standpoint, that would be a beneficial outcome.
WEAK LINKS. Let's look at the public arguments first. The fact is, Iraq is fairly low on the totem pole of current sponsors of terrorism. Despite efforts to link Baghdad to the September 11 attacks, little evidence exists of such a connection. Indeed, the strongest sign of a tie between Saddam Hussein and terrorism is the attempted assassination of President George W. Bush's father during a visit to Kuwait. But that was back in 1993.
Indeed, Baghdad isn't high even on the hit list of Israel, a country particularly sensitive to Middle East terrorism. Israel is much more concerned about Iran, which actively bankrolls terrorist groups and still vows to destroy the Jewish state.
Targeting Iraq as a way to stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is a stronger argument. Saddam's opponents are usually dismissive of U.N. weapons inspectors' efforts. But these detectives found and destroyed thousands of chemical and biological weapons. In the three years since the inspectors left, it's possible that the regime has replaced some of that arsenal. Still, it's unlikely to be as large as it was.
It's also unlikely that Saddam has nukes -- and little chance that he has the ballistic-missile capability to deliver such weapons to the U.S. While weapons of mass destruction are a reason for ousting him, it's not necessary to do so now.
A THIRD WAY? But let's consider the Unspoken Argument. The cumulative impact of seeing secular moderates such as the opposition Iraqi National Congress assuming power in Baghdad so soon after a moderate secular regime came to power in Kabul could have a transforming impact on the entire Middle East. For too long, the blithe assumption has been that the two alternatives for government in the region are the current corrupt, antidemocratic, oppressive regimes or the radical fundamentalists.
However, Afghanistan and Iraq could demonstrate a Third Way. The secular traditions of a Turkey or Indonesia could take hold in other parts of the Islamic crescent. Look at Morocco, which is already is starting to transform itself into a more modern political and economic model.
Iraq's enemy, Iran, could be one of the first to change. Without a dangerous neighbor like Saddam, the more moderate forces in Tehran may be able to wrest power from the archconservative mullahs. Jordan and Egypt also could evolve.
SOOTHE A SORE SPOT. And -- dare I say it -- the spread of "radical moderation" across the Muslim world could catch fire in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. With Saddam out of power, America would have no reason for stationing its troops in Saudi Arabia. The U.S. could bring home the GIs, soothing a sore spot with millions of Muslims who regard the U.S. military presence in the holy kingdom as a insult to Islam. Removing the troops by itself could nudge reform along in Saudi Arabia, for the House of Saud would no longer have that shield.
Don't forget: After Saudi Arabia, Iraq has the world's second-largest oil reserves. With Saddam out of the picture and moderates in charge in Baghdad, international investment would likely pour in, and increased crude output would keep oil prices stable. This also would reduce Saudi Arabia's clout, which might not be a bad thing.
Could all this have the opposite effect, provoking massive instability in the Muslim world? After all, U.S. efforts to prop up the Shah of Iran during the 1970s ended in a horrific backlash. But I'd argue that Iran's history is indeed an interesting guide to the Islamic future in a way you might not have thought.
PALTRY SUPPORT. The Ayatollah Khomeni replaced the hated Shah because a whole range of economic and social problems had reached the breaking point in Iran. Now, Iran is changing again because the population has no interest in the strict, ascetic Islam the mullahs want to impose. It didn't take that long for Iranians to reject the fundamentalist state the mullahs proclaimed and to support more moderate politicians such as Iranian President Mohammad Khatami.
Truth is, elections in the Islamic world have never produced anything but paltry support for fundamentalist parties. Another reason for optimism: The Islamic world didn't rise up when Osama bin Laden and the Taliban came under attack in Afghanistan.
The Middle East is going to change. The only questions are whether it will change now or later, and whether it will be through a series of political explosions or more gentle transformations. It's certainly possible that the transition could be messy in the short term. But it could be even messier down the road.
None of this can be discussed in polite diplomatic circles, of course. Washington isn't about to tell a half dozen Arab regimes helping us in the antiterrorism battle to bow out. But some analysts believe that's the game now going on. We just have to wait and see how the Bush team will play its hand. Crock covers national security and foreign affairs for BusinessWeek from Washington. Follow his views in Affairs of State twice a month, only on BusinessWeek Online