What is the United States supposed to do when faced with the following danger: a belligerent and possibly deranged tyrant with whom we once fought an inconclusive war, who has worked with violent groups that have opposed us abroad, and who is bent on acquiring weapons of mass destruction? Can we afford to let him pursue that ambition, or should we act with decisive military force to erase the threat?
That was the dilemma presented in 1963 by Mao Zedong, the fanatical Communist who ruled over China. When he embarked on a program to build an atomic arsenal, President Kennedy considered a pre-emptive strike to stop him. But in the end the United States did nothing, choosing instead to bet that China would never use doomsday weapons against us or our allies. So far, we’ve won the wager.
Today, the problem is Saddam Hussein, whose lust for chemical, biological, and nuclear armaments is not in doubt, and who is suspected in some quarters of working with al-Qaida to bring about the Sept. 11 attacks. For weeks, a host of conservatives—including Richard Perle, William Safire, Charles Krauthammer, and Weekly Standard writers—has been urging President Bush to widen the war on terrorism to target Iraq. Some top government officials, most notably Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, have long favored that course.
Lately the administration has been saying things that hint it may indeed go after Saddam. At a biological weapons conference in Geneva on Nov. 19, the State Department’s John Bolton cited five countries that are pursuing germ agents. “Beyond Al Qaeda,” he declared, “the most serious concern is Iraq.” National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice recently said, “The world would clearly be better off and the Iraqi people would be better off if Saddam Hussein were not in power.” On Nov. 28, President Bush himself warned Iraq to admit outside weapons inspectors or face serious consequences. What would those be? “He’ll find out,” said Bush.
Why the sudden urgency about taking Saddam down? Any connection he might have with the events of Sept. 11 is pure speculation at this point. “There’s not a drop of evidence” implicating him, a senior U.S. intelligence official told the Los Angeles Times recently. Absent proof that he is bent on sponsoring or carrying out acts of terror against Americans, it’s hard to see why we should be any more worried about Iraq today than we were Sept. 10. Hawks act as though we have to prevent him from acquiring weapons of mass destruction. But he’s had chemical and biological weapons for a long time. In the 1980s, he used poison gas in his war with Iran and against Kurdish rebels in Iraq, and he has armed his warheads with biological agents. U.N. weapons inspectors, who operated in Iraq until they pulled out in 1998, found numerous stores of these weapons, as well as considerable evidence that he was trying to acquire nuclear arms.
It’s this last item that is supposed to settle the case for taking him out. Imagine, we are told, the consequences if terrorists had attacked New York and Washington with atomic bombs instead of airliners. But having weapons of mass destruction and using them are two different things. At least eight countries already have the bomb, and only one has ever used it. Even Stalin and Mao, both of whom had few qualms about mass slaughter, held back on this particular form of killing. Saddam has been exceedingly careful when it comes to unconventional arms. He used poison gas only against foes who he assumed couldn’t respond in kind. When he was fighting U.S. forces a decade ago, he left his chemical and biological weapons on the shelf even as he was enduring a humiliating defeat.
Why? Because the first Bush administration communicated to Iraq in unmistakable terms that it would retaliate with nuclear weapons. In other words, Saddam was deterred—much as the Soviet Union was deterred for the entire length of the Cold War. Given his record, there is no reason to believe he would use the bomb if he had it.
Hawks think the only possible reason he would want them is to use them offensively. But even a peaceably inclined Iraqi government might feel a strong urge to follow the same course, purely as a matter of self-preservation—much as China did in the 1960s. After all, Iraq is bordered on the east by its old enemy, Iran, with which it fought a debilitating war in the 1980s and which is suspected of having nuclear ambitions of its own. To the west lies Israel, a nuclear power that launched a pre-emptive airstrike against Iraq in 1981, pulverizing a nuclear reactor before it came online. Possessing nuclear weapons wouldn’t enable Iraq to agress against nuclear-armed neighbors with impunity. But it would give Baghdad some assurance that it wouldn’t be attacked.
One popular theory is that Saddam wants nukes because they would render the United States helpless if he were to invade one of his neighbors. Rather than chance a nuclear war, Washington would meekly stand aside. But the Soviets, with their enormous nuclear arsenal, never imagined during the Cold War that they could seize NATO territory with impunity by threatening to launch a few ICBMs. They knew we would fight, and after the Gulf War, Saddam can hardly have any illusions on the matter. He can probably also see that any game of nuclear brinksmanship holds much greater perils for him than for us. This theory also presumes that Saddam is up to the challenge of marching into Kuwait or Saudi Arabia. After the devastation of the Gulf War and a decade of economic sanctions, though, his military is a puny version of what it was—though not as puny as it could be. Massing his forces for extraterritorial adventure would be an invitation for the United States to pummel them mercilessly from the air.
Another fear is that Saddam might smuggle nuclear devices to al-Qaida for use against the United States, confident that secrecy would immunize him against retaliation. But it strains belief to picture a secular Arab ruler giving the ultimate weapon to fanatical terrorists who want to establish Islamic theocracies across the region. Not long ago, the Wall Street Journal reports, an al-Qaida spokesman denounced Saddam as a “false god.” The sword wielded against America could in time be turned against Iraq. And where would Saddam get the idea that he could successfully conceal his role? The number of governments that might conceivably produce weapons of mass destruction for use against the United States is pretty short, with Iraq at the top. Saddam would stand out like O.J. at a crime scene. Given how quickly Washington identified the source of the Sept. 11 attacks, he’d be taking a gigantic gamble to figure he could level an American city without the act ever being traced to Baghdad—and punished in kind.
The hawks argue that Sept. 11 shows the enormous danger of letting our worst enemies acquire the worst kind of weapons. In fact, our ability to deter Iraq has only been enhanced in the last three months. Before, Saddam couldn’t be entirely sure how we would respond to a horrific attack. The fate of the Taliban has to disabuse him of any illusions. What happened to them could happen to him, if he gave us any excuse. Our decision to go to war in Afghanistan is bound to make him more cautious, not less. We could reinforce the lesson by announcing a simple, unequivocal policy: Any nation that uses chemical, biological, or atomic weapons against us will face swift nuclear devastation. That prospect has contained Iraq in the past, and it can contain Iraq in the future.
In fact, there is only one situation in which it would make sense for Saddam to use any weapons of mass destruction he may possess: an American-led attack with the clear intent of eliminating his regime once and for all. If the U.S. Army were rolling into Baghdad, he would have nothing to lose by unleashing all the havoc he can muster—which, as the hawks have been telling us, could be considerable. If they get their way in dealing with Saddam, they may also realize their worst fears.