No, Even if Saddam Has Nukes

Jacob Weisberg  has made the case for war, and now I’d like to make the case against. Let me start by forgoing many of the objections used by skeptics and critics—that the administration hasn’t given weapons inspections a chance, that Bush shouldn’t act without multilateral support, and that there is no need to act until there is evidence that Saddam Hussein is actually on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons. Jacob says the real issue is not whether to go to war now or later but whether to go at all, and I agree. Even if we assume that Saddam wants nuclear weapons and, left in power, has a good chance of eventually acquiring them, I see no compelling reason to launch a pre-emptive attack. An Iraq armed with weapons of mass destruction would not pose a real risk to the United States or its allies

How do I know? Because Iraq already has weapons of mass destruction, in the form of chemical and biological weapons. If he has belligerent intentions for them, what’s he been waiting for since 1991? The president argues that Saddam wouldn’t hesitate to use such armaments because he used chemical weapons against Kurdish rebels and against Iranian troops. But that’s like saying that a guy who would punch his wife wouldn’t hesitate to punch Mike Tyson. The Kurds and Iranians were inviting targets because they couldn’t respond with overwhelming force. We can, and we would.

Saddam knows that and has already been deterred by it: During the Gulf War, he had biological and chemical weapons available, and he chose to submit to a crushing defeat rather than use them. Why? Because President Bush had let him know beforehand that if he did, we would turn Baghdad into smoking pile of radioactive rubble. That prospect still looms. If Saddam were inclined to suicidal tactics, he presumably could have unleashed germ warfare on us in the years since the Gulf War. He hasn’t.

The hawks would have us believe that a nuclear Iraq would be a threat greater than any we’ve ever faced. (Even prominent Republican dissident Brent Scowcroft, in his now-famous Wall Street Journal piece, agreed that Saddam wants nukes to “deter us from intervening to block his aggressive designs” and that given “his ruthlessness and unpredictability, it may at some point be wise to remove him from power.” After Al Gore blasted Bush’s policy this week, the Washington Post reported that “Gore spokesman Jano Cabrera said Gore would support unilateral action if there were an imminent threat against the United States by Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction.”) Not so. We deterred Stalin, who had shown his ambitions by forcibly colonizing half of Europe. We deterred Mao, who had fought us to a standstill in Korea and liked to boast that China, with all its people, could easily endure a nuclear war. To view Saddam as an intolerable danger is to say, as Columbia scholar Kenneth Waltz puts it, that though the strong can deter the strong, the strong cannot deter the weak.

The advocates of war say that Saddam wouldn’t ever have to carry out a nuclear attack to make his weapons useful. As Charles Krauthammer puts it, he could “use them as accessories to aggression”—to invade a neighboring country and hold on to his conquest by brandishing the nuclear sword. But if that were a plausible strategy, Stalin could have swallowed West Berlin and Mao could have taken over Hong Kong long before 1997.

Krauthammer, in a recent column in Time, points to the India-Pakistan conflict to prove a weak nuclear-armed state (Pakistan or Iraq) can deter a conventional attack by a bigger, nuclear-armed neighbor (India or the United States). Last summer, he says, India refrained from going to war over Kashmir because it feared Pakistan would go nuclear. But India did use conventional force and defeated Pakistan in the 1999 Kargil War. Krauthammer’s example actually serves to rebut his warning about Saddam. Pakistan’s nukes may be sufficient to deter India from invading Pakistan. But does anyone believe that if Pakistan invaded and seized Indian territory, India would let the conquest stand? Nuclear weapons are highly effective for defensive purposes—deterring an attack on one’s own territory. But they’re useless for offensive conquest.

The last Bush administration surprised Saddam—and most Americans—when it decided that the liberation of Kuwait was worth fighting for, despite the risk that he would respond with weapons of mass destruction. Until the invasion, no one thought Kuwait was an American protectorate. Today, everyone knows it. Saddam has no more reason to think that a nuclear arsenal would let him grab Kuwait than the Soviets had to think that we would let them invade West Germany.

Jacob raises the possibility that Saddam might give his deadliest armaments to terrorist groups and says Sept. 11 woke us up to “the potential threat of unconventional weapons by rogue states.” But that threat didn’t increase after Sept. 11—it diminished. Before then, Saddam might have hoped he could carry out a covert operation or pass weapons of mass destruction on to al-Qaida, and not be found out. Now, though, he would be the prime suspect in any unconventional attack. And seeing the fate of the Taliban, he can’t have any illusions about the price he would pay.

Skeptics may wonder why Saddam would go to such trouble to get weapons of mass destruction if he doesn’t intend to use them. For the same reason we insist on keeping ours—to deter others from attacking us. Iraq is a small, backward country, with a military decimated by war and sanctions, surrounded by enemies (deserved or not) that either have nuclear weapons (Israel, the United States) or are trying to acquire them (Iran). Nukes would have no value to Saddam except to serve to deter attacks by any of these countries.

So, how would the world be changed if we woke up tomorrow to learn that Saddam had acquired nuclear weapons? The only important difference is that we would no longer be able to plan on invading Iraq and toppling Saddam at an acceptable cost. And that’s apparently the real reason the administration wants to strike before he can acquire nukes. Being forced to tolerate his existence would be sore affront to a president obsessed with getting rid of Saddam. But it poses no danger worth going to war over.

—Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.