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December 5, 2005

Chemical Saddam Met
Nuclear Uncle Sam


And we are living with the consequences

by Jorge Hirsch

Hypothesis: In the 1991 Gulf War, after ejecting Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, the United States was determined to invade Iraq, remove Saddam Hussein from power, and pursue the same goals it is pursuing in Iraq today. It was "deterred" from doing so only because Saddam Hussein had chemical weapons then, deployed and ready to be used against U.S. troops if they had proceeded towards Baghdad.

I argue that this hypothesis provides a rational explanation for many events that the official history does not, and in particular sheds light on the evolution of U.S. nuclear weapons doctrine since then and explains events that are about to unfold in connection with Iran.

The conventional history holds that George H.W. Bush was not interested in invading Iraq to remove Saddam from power. Why not? Saddam was much stronger militarily in 1991 than in 2003, a much larger threat to the region. All the imaginable reasons that could have existed for the invasion in 2003, stated or unstated, were at least as strong in 1991: eliminate Iraq's WMD, bring democracy to Iraq, benefit U.S. corporations, control oil, expand U.S. influence, reduce the threat to Israel. The risks (difficulty to stabilize Iraq, risk of civil war and the breakup of the country, greater regional influence for Iran) were no greater in 1991 than in 2003. The memories of Saddam using WMD against Iran and against its own people were much fresher in the early '90s than they were over a decade later. The U.S. had half a million troops in place the first time around, and was responding to an act of aggression by Saddam. The international community would have been far more supportive of ousting Saddam at the outset of Gulf War I than it was at the beginning of Gulf War II.

After 12 years, Iraq had been substantially weakened by UN sanctions, and UN inspectors had combed the country up and down in search of chemical weapons. Moreover, Saddam had not threatened anyone in the region nor elsewhere in the intervening years. True, 9/11 happened, but there was no evidence that Saddam's regime had any connection, practical or ideological, with al-Qaeda. Why oust Saddam in 2003, rather than 1991?

An explanation based on the personality differences between Bush Jr. and Bush Sr. is conceivable but hardly convincing. There was only one real difference between 1991 and 2003: Saddam had chemical weapons in 1991. In 2003, the U.S. knew, with reasonable to absolute certainty, that there were no "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq that invading U.S. ground troops would have to face.

The conventional view holds that the U.S. made it clear to Saddam in 1991 that it would respond to a chemical attack with nuclear weapons, and this warning was what deterred Saddam from using chemical weapons.

However, chemical weapons were Saddam's weapons of last resort. It was rational for him not to use them to hold on to Kuwait, but he is likely to have been fully prepared to use them if the survival of his regime was at stake, no matter the nuclear threat. Chemical weapons are primarily defensive weapons, and they were used as such by Iraq (successfully) against the counteroffensive that Iran launched into Iraq's territory during the Iran-Iraq war in the '80s.

If U.S. forces had driven toward Baghdad in 1991 and Saddam had used chemical weapons, it would have resulted in thousands of U.S. casualties. Nonetheless, the use of nuclear weapons by the U.S. in such a circumstance would have been condemned by much of the rest of the world as criminal. Memories of Hiroshima were more vivid then, and the world would not have condoned the breaking of the nuclear taboo by an invading superpower against a non-nuclear country. Hence it is more plausible that the U.S. was deterred from invading Iraq by Saddam's chemical weapons than that Saddam was deterred by the nuclear threat from using chemical weapons.

This must have dealt a devastating blow to U.S. policymakers from which they have been attempting to recover ever since. Think about it: the greatest power in the world was prevented from achieving a military goal against a country with negligible military forces, despite the immensely superior conventional and nuclear arsenal of the United States. And Saddam achieving this feat without firing a single shot, so to speak. Whether Saddam explicitly told the U.S. that Iraq would use chemical weapons against invading forces or it was inferred from U.S. intelligence, it must have played a determining role in Bush Sr.'s decision not to march on Baghdad.

Twelve years later, Saddam's removal had been made possible by the success of the UN inspection and disarmament process, not necessitated by its alleged failure.

When Donald Rumsfeld mused in 2003 that U.S. forces would encounter chemical weapons around Tikrit and Baghdad, he was in a time warp. His mind must have flipped back to 1991, when the U.S. was considering going to Baghdad and chemical weapons were indeed deployed surrounding Baghdad as Saddam's ultimate weapon of survival. Dick Cheney was secretary of defense then, and a feeling of impotence about having been "deterred" by Saddam Hussein must have stuck with him. He patiently waited 12 years until he was in a position to complete the mission.

Beginning in 1991, U.S. policymakers and military planners worked hard to modify the rules of the game so that this David-Goliath scenario could never happen again. Here is how:

  1. They ensured through UN inspections and sanctions that Iraq got rid of all its WMD so that it would be safe for the U.S. to invade. There is a logical inconsistency otherwise. Iraq did not use chemical or other WMD in invading Kuwait. Even in its war with Iran, it used chemical weapons only for defensive purposes, and the UN did not attempt to impose sanctions against Iraq. Why would the primary UN punishment for Iraq's aggression against Kuwait be that it had to get rid of weapons that played no role in the attack on Kuwait? But it makes perfect sense if chemical weapons did play a key role in the Gulf War, as in the hypothesis considered here.
  2. Year after year, U.S. policymakers created and drummed up [.pdf] the mythical concept of WMD, which encompasses chemical and nuclear as well as other unconventional weapons. Nuclear weapons are a million times more powerful than chemical and all other weapons and have the potential to destroy humanity many times over. It is absurd to lump chemical weapons and nuclear weapons in the same category [.pdf]. Nevertheless, the U.S. has been able to convince much of the world, through incessant propaganda since 1991, that chemical and nuclear weapons are comparable. The purpose, of course, is to legitimize answering chemical weapons (which the U.S. doesn't have, or at least doesn't plan to use) with nuclear weapons (which the U.S. does have and does plan to use).
  3. The U.S. government worked to strengthen international agreements outlawing chemical and biological but not nuclear weapons (see the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Biological Weapons Convention). This, of course, contradicts the WMD concept and is blatantly hypocritical; nevertheless, the world has accepted it.
  4. U.S. military planners lowered the declared threshold for using nuclear weapons. The U.S. now states in policy documents that it will use nuclear weapons against a WMD attack, whether the WMD use was offensive or defensive. Moreover, the U.S. declares that it is prepared to use nuclear weapons against enemy underground facilities and adversaries "intending" to use WMD. It will even use nuclear weapons for "favorable war termination on U.S. terms," no matter what the circumstances.

What a far cry from the times when nukes were weapons "of last resort," to be used only when the survival of the nation or of allied nations was at stake. Today, the U.S. openly advocates using nuclear weapons as a "deterrent" to prevent other countries from doing anything the U.S. opposes that could lead to a conventional war.

But despite all this effort, the Pentagon's latest nuclear deterrence strategy is still an empty threat, and the U.S. government knows it. The problem is candidly stated in the document "Rationale and Requirements for U.S. Nuclear Forces and Arms Control" [.pdf] that served as a blueprint for the official Nuclear Posture Review of 2001:

"Will U.S. conventional and/or nuclear threats be judged credible by foes and prove effective for deterrence? Or will challengers judge the credibility of U.S. deterrence policies to be low? There can be no confident answers to these questions, particularly in today's dynamic unfolding international environment."

Precisely. The much-touted nuclear deterrent is not a credible strategy against "rogue" non-nuclear nations, because nobody believes that the U.S. will use nuclear weapons in the scenarios described in the policy documents. They are just empty words until the U.S. demonstrates, by doing it once, that it is actually willing to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear countries.

And it is planning to do just that in the upcoming war with Iran. Unlike the attack on Iraq, it will be a purely aerial mission, probably a joint operation with Israel. Given that U.S. forces in Iraq and Israeli citizens will be exposed to Iranian retaliation with chemical missiles, a nuclear attack will be consistent with U.S. doctrine, which makes it "defensible" and even "legal" to use U.S. nuclear weapons preemptively against underground Iranian missile and potential WMD storage facilities.

Once the nuclear threshold has been crossed in an act of aggression against a non-nuclear country, there will be no doubts left about the "deterrent" value of the U.S. nuclear arsenal to deal with any foes for any reasons. "Confident answers" [.pdf] will be possible.

Saddam Hussein wannabes will never again be able to stop a U.S. invasion with the threat of chemical or other non-nuclear weapons. They will be nuked to the ground before they finish uttering any threat.

The trillions of dollars and millions of man-hours invested in building the U.S. nuclear arsenal will never again be proven useless by pitiful adversaries.

North Korea is likely to disarm in the immediate aftermath without extracting any concessions from the U.S.

In the minds of U.S. policymakers, ours will be a safer world. In the minds of rational people, entirely the opposite. The U.S. will have established that the only remaining check on U.S. aggression is nuclear weapons. Many more countries will go nuclear [.pdf], and the risk of global nuclear war will increase exponentially.

And terrorists sympathetic to the victimized country will do their utmost to retaliate in kind, and eventually succeed. Brace yourself.

 

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Jorge Hirsch is a professor of physics at the University of California San Diego.

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