October 15, 2002

Pipsqueak Adversaries
Blowing Iraq Way Out of Proportion

In 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 behemoth.

I 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.


There’s 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.

But 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.

But 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.

In 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.


You 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.

The 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.

The 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 Gulf War.


As 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 Republic.

Sometime 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.’"

In 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."

Likewise, 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.

In 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 weapons.

The 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.

I’m 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 War.


So 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).

The 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?

The 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.

Indeed, 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.


It 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.

Quite 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.

– Alan Bock

Please Support Antiwar.com

Antiwar.com 520 South Murphy Avenue #202 Sunnyvale, CA 94086

or Contribute Via our Secure Server Credit Card Donation Form

Your contributions are tax-deductible

Get Alan Bock's book, Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana

Alan Bock is Senior Essayist at the Orange County Register and a weekly columnist for WorldNetDaily. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995). He is also author of the new book Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press). His exclusive column appears every Tuesday on Antiwar.com.

Archived Columns by Alan Bock

Pipsqueak Adversaries

War For Frivolous Reasons

A Hunger For War Criticism?

Will War Wreck the Economy?

Don't Take the UN Too Seriously

Preventive or Preemptive War?

Weak Arguments for Attack

Bush Cutting Legal Corners: A Wartime Pattern

Choosing Up Sides

Invasion Complications

U.S. Government Behaving Badly

Homeland Security Horrors

Mixed Signals on Iraq?

Iraqi Warmonger Complications

Assessing the War

Bush: Planning int he Whirlwind

Colombia: Mapping a Quagmire

Roots of Discord

The Empire Strikes First

Underlying Problems in South Asia

Creating A New Axis

The Real Failures

US Wades Into More Imperial Outposts

Convening Futility

Financing Venezuelan Mischief

Chalmers Johnson: Changed Cold Warrior

Meeting Robert Fisk

Arrogance of Empire

Middle East Bloodshed: The US Role

The Terrorists Are Winning

Mideast: The Iraqi Connection

Colombia Vote Presages More Instability

The War Comes Home 3/6/02

Consorting With the Axis of Evil 2/27/02

CIA: Avoiding Reform 2/20/02

The Empire Plans Strikes 2/13/02

Military Pork by the Barrel 2/6/02

State of the Union at War 1/31/02

Guantanamo and Geneva: The Missing Questions 1/30/02

Nation-Building or... 1/23/02

Naming the Beast 1/16/02

Strange Versions of Democracy 1/9/02

Making Artificial Distinctions 1/3/02

The Empire Ruminates 12/28/01

Tracking the War 12/19/01

The Road Not Noticed 12/13/01

New Dangers in the Middle East 12/5/01

Afghan Women and the Northern Alliance 11/28/01

Long and Winding Road Toward Peace 11/21/01

Defending Peacetime 11/7/01

Nagging Questions About the War 10/31/01

Collateral Damage 10/24/01

Wartime Resignation or Endorsement – 10/17/01

Building A Peace Movement In Wartime 10/10/01

Flying the Guarded Skies 10/3/01

Anti-Terrorism for the Long Haul 9/26/01 Impressions Amid the Winds of War 9/19/01

The Price of Empire 9/12/01

War on X … When the Metaphor Becomes Too Real 9/5/01

Sticking with an Andean Disaster 8/29/01

Middle East Status is Quo 8/22/01

A Macedonian Fantasy – 8/15/01

FBI Taking Wrong International Path 8/8/01

Defining Terms Unilaterally 8/1/01

European Overtures 7/25/01

Further into the Colombian Morass 7/18/01

Taiwan Changes More Important Than US Policy – 7/11/01

More Confusion Than Closure at The Hague 7/4/01

Testing Government Reliability 6/27/01

Making the Subgrand Tour 6/20/01

The State's Dark Underside 6/13/01

Reassuring Nobody – 6/6/01

Multiplying Balkan Confusion 5/30/01

Powell on Mideast: Seduced or Cynical – 5/23/01

International Aspects of Drug Wars Undercovered 5/16/01

China: Getting Chillier 5/2/01

Previous Columns

Back to Antiwar.com Home Page | Contact Us