October 15, 2002
Blowing Iraq Way Out of Proportion
the wake of Congress having voted, after a desultory debate consisting
mostly of three-minute statements written by aides, to give the
president authorization to attack Iraq if he feels so moved, the
most striking impression one gets is of how the appalling people
who rule us love to pump up their chosen adversaries. But in the
case of Iraq and Saddam Hussein, even those ready to attack must
sometimes marvel at how a pipsqueak can be transformed into a world-bestriding
listened to a good bit of the debate as I was driving around. (And
thanks to NPR for carrying it. The intention of informing people
was good. Perhaps it was enough to inform those who listened that
their representatives are a fairly predictable and commonplace lot.)
I didn’t hear everything that was said. But I did not hear a single
person who favored the resolution make anything close to a compelling
case that Saddam Hussein is a genuine threat to the United States
as a country or to most Americans.
BUT TO WHOM?
little question that Saddam Hussein is a thoroughly nasty dictator.
I would not relish being an Iraqi indeed, I wonder if I would
survive more than a few minutes given my proclivity for complaining
about leaders. He has used nasty weapons, he did engage in a decade-long
war with Iran, he did try to take over Kuwait. He is certainly a
menace to decent society in Iraq and at least a pest to his neighbors
in the region.
how much of a threat is he to the United States of America? He certainly
has the power to make certain energy companies in the United States
richer or poorer. A few other multinationals have interests in the
region. And there are certainly those with an expansive vision of
U.S. interests who would argue that not a sparrow falls in the wide
world without affecting U.S. interests in some way or another.
what about the United States itself? Saddam Hussein does not now
pose even a remote danger to the territorial United States. You
could stretch a bit well, actually more than a bit
and speculate that he is just itching to give weapons of mass destruction
to every two-bit terrorist on the planet so they can deliver them
to some U.S. destination. But that would make him an immediate target,
and surely he knows that. If there is any leader in the world who
is not irrationally suicidal, someone who is alleged to sleep in
a different palace every night and have at least two or three body
doubles is on the list.
fact, not even the most hawkish member of Congress even tried to
make a case that Saddam Hussein poses an immediate threat to the
United States. He simply doesn’t. One can run down a litany of the
nasty things he has done although you have to ignore all the times
the United States either ignored or encouraged him. There are some
questions about using poison gas on the Kurds, for example, but
presuming that it happened it was when the U.S. was backing him
in the war against Iran, and none of those now beating their chests
about the awfulness of it all offered a murmur of protest.
can find plenty of expert disagreement, and it would be prudent
to maintain a certain intellectual distance from the question of
just how fanatically Saddam has pursued weapons over the past decade
or so. But even assuming he tried to evade the strictures of the
UN inspectors which I have little trouble assuming the inspectors
did take out a good many biological and chemical weapons.
1990-91 Gulf War did at least some damage to Iraq’s military infrastructure.
The sanctions, although as many have pointed out have hurt ordinary
Iraqi people more than the military elite, also made it mildly more
inconvenient and difficult to rearm.
most frightening thing I heard any supporter of the resolution suggest
is that since the UN inspectors left in 1998 Saddam could have been
up to all kinds of rearming nastiness; we just don’t know. That’s
not quite accurate, of course. We have satellite imagery. It shows,
as best I can dope it out now, some rebuilding at a few sites that
are alleged to have housed weapons or weapons factories in times
past. But the level is still less than in was before the previous
to the weapons, we’ve heard some sense from an interesting quarter.
When I talked with Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment a
month or so ago he made the point with me, but I hadn’t had the
chance to discuss it. Now a fine article by Gregg Easterbrook has
been printed in the October 7 issue of (of all places) The New
in the last few years the category of "weapons of mass destruction"
was cobbled together and even got an abbreviation, WMD. Now our
leaders talk of WMD, by which is almost always meant chemical, biological
and nuclear weapons lumped together in one category, "implying,"
as Easterbrook put it, "equivalent power to inflict ‘death
on a massive scale.’"
fact, however, as Easterbrook put it, "their lethal potential
is emphatically not equivalent. Chemical weapons are dangerous,
to be sure, but not ‘weapons of mass destruction’ in any meaningful
sense. In actual use, chemical weapons have proven less deadly than
regular bombs, bullets, and artillery shells.. Since the gassing
of the trenches in World War I and the Holocaust a generation later,
people have been terrified by the thought of death by gas
partly because we visualize ghastly, helpless choking rather than
vanishing in the flash of an explosion. But pound for pound, chemical
weapons are less lethal than conventional explosives and more difficult
for an attacker or terrorist to use."
biological weapons induce great fear in most people, and they are
certainly frightening and dangerous. "But the biological weapon
that creates a runaway effect, killing huge numbers of people,"
Easterbrook notes, "so far exists only in science fiction and
preposterous Hollywood thrillers such as Outbreak." The most
successful use of biological weapons was 250 years ago, when the
British gave small-pox laden blankets to the foes in the French-Indian
wars (or whatever the current PC term is now). Biological agents
are difficult to handle and disperse in the atmosphere. When the
Aum Shinrikyo cult which had a lot of money and fairly sophisticated
scientists attacked the Tokyo subway in 1995 which
should have been a perfect target since the gas was confined
thousands were sickened but only a dozen people died.
short, the only weapons that deserve to be called "weapons
of mass destruction" are nuclear weapons. Ordinary bombs and
artillery can inflict more casualties more quickly more bang for
the buck, so to speak than either chemical or biological weapons,
yet they are considered "ordinary" rather than WMD. And
the only Iraqi weapons the U.S. has a legitimate reason to be concerned
about enough to think about initiating military action are nuclear
most alarming estimate I have heard from any of the warhawks is
that Saddam is desperately seeking fissile material, and if he is
able to get it on the Ukrainian black market or wherever, he might
be able to put together a bomb in a matter of months but still
wouldn’t have the ability to deliver it except in a suitcase or
something. Gregg Easterbrook suggests keeping a close eye through
satellite surveillance and other means and bombing if the Iraqis
get close to an actual nuke, as the Israelis did in 1981.
not sure if I endorse that, but the distinction is vital. Being
close to an operational nuke might justify a pre-emptive strike,
but the best evidence is that he doesn’t have one yet. There are
different opinions about Saddam’s chemical and biological stocks,
but they are almost certainly less than just before the first Gulf
it is not unreasonable to posit the possibility that Saddam Hussein’s
regime is actually weaker than it was when Bush 41 decided to end
the Gulf War after the Iraqis had been effectively expelled from
Kuwait rather than pushing on to Baghdad. The U.S. and British governments
have enforced no-fly zones since then and occasionally destroyed
some military targets (and maybe some civilian ones too).
Clinton administration occasionally used Saddam as a handy foil
when it was advantageous to drum up some foreign threat to promote
domestic unity and executive power and, perhaps, to be fair, in
response to a real concern or two along the way. But for 11 years
the threat, such as it is, has been contained enough that it seemed
possible to get by with bluster and the occasional bomb. What has
changed to make it necessary to mount a full-scale diplomatic and
(possible) military offensive?
attacks on September 11 effected a psychological change, to be sure,
and made it more thinkable to consider pre-emptive strikes at potential
dangers before they become reified. But despite the best efforts
of U.S., British and Israeli intelligence, no direct link between
Saddam and the 9/11 attackers has been discovered.
you might well argue that one way to undermine the kind of multinational
non-state terrorist groups that inflicted so much damage that day
would be to improve relationships with secular governments like
Saddam Hussein to make sure that they are not tempted to provide
safe harbor for terrorists in the future. That might not be a practical
course and it might not work, but if the real goal were to neutralize
terrorist groups it would at least be an option.
is curious in a way. Here is the United States, the Sole Superpower,
the most dominant military and political force the world has ever
seen, and we seek to justify our desire to effect regime change
by puffing up pipsqueaks, by elevating nuisances to the level of
dangerous threats that have us quaking in our boots. It’s almost
like an elephant frightened by a mouse.
frankly it’s unworthy of a country that claims to be a great power.
If we want to effect a regime change from time to time just to prove
we can do it, that’s one thing. But to claim that Saddam is this
terrible threat to the peace of the world and the sanctity of freedom
and democracy is somewhat ludicrous.
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