14 December 2002  
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A war for fools and cowards
Paul Robinson says that Saddam is no threat to the West — which is one reason why the hawks want to attack him As Britain prepares to help launch the first Western war of the new century, the usual brigade of do-gooders are reflexively girding their anoraks to oppose it. The mere presence of many of these people on the anti-war side is normally evidence enough that the war must be a good thing. But, for once, the peaceniks might have it right. There exists no legitimate reason for us to wage or threaten war against Iraq. Saddam Hussein poses no threat to us.

‘Hello, reception, can I have a wake-up call in spring, please?’

As recently as ten years ago, it is unlikely that any British government would have considered taking military action unless there was a genuine threat to our national security. Today we are reduced to twitching over fantastic delusions of enormous enemy capabilities and make-believe scenarios of future holocausts, and Tony Blair can drive us inexorably towards an unnecessary and quite unjust war. When we were fighting the Cold War, the British Army Intelligence Corps used to produce a marvellous magazine called Threat. Full of grainy pictures of the latest sexy Soviet equipment, articles about the newest variant of the rear sprocket of the T-80 or BMP-2, and depictions of Motor Rifle regiments attacking from the line of march, Threat drew its readers’ attention to a serious danger existing just beyond our borders. The point about Threat is that the capabilities described were real. The equipment actually existed. The tactics had been used in recent military operations. By contrast, the ‘threat’ from Iraq is a figment of some overactive imaginations.

Threat magazine, sadly, has gone the way of the centrally planned economy. With the breakup of the Evil Empire, threat-based defence planning vanished, to be replaced by ‘risk assessments’ and ‘contingency scenarios’. At a Nato meeting in 2001, the current President Bush went so far as to state that ‘the threat now comes from uncertainty’. This is palpable nonsense. Uncertainty means that one does not know what the threat is. Uncertainty by itself cannot be a threat. But Bush’s statement is representative of the sort of muddled thinking that has taken over in the post-Cold War world.

We live in an increasingly risk-averse culture, but have lost the ability to distinguish between those risks bearing a tiny but real degree of significance and those which are utterly insignificant. (One might easily draw parallels here with many aspects of civilian life, such as the obsession with safety on the railways, etc.) We live in the most secure, comfortable environment in history and yet we are awash in a rising tide of paranoia. To defend our wealth and privilege, we feel entitled to inflict death and destruction on others to protect ourselves against the merest risk of a risk.

In the case of Iraq, the government tells us that we must be prepared to go to war because inaction will lead to terrible consequences when Saddam Hussein launches his fearful weapons of mass destruction (WMD) against us. The famous dossier on the Iraqi WMD is cited as conclusive evidence that Iraq is knee-deep in WMD, if only the weapons inspectors could find them. In fact, the great majority of the ‘evidence’ in the dossier consists of descriptions of potentially dual-use facilities, which may well be entirely civilian in their actual purpose. We are told that Iraq ‘could have’ diverted dual-use facilities to biological weapons production, that it has a remotely piloted vehicle ‘which is potentially capable’ of delivering chemical and biological agents, that it has ‘the capability’ of producing chemical agents, that it has attempted to purchase equipment which ‘could be used’ to manufacture centrifuges to develop nuclear weapons, that it ‘wants’ to extend the range of its weapons systems, and so on. But none of this proves anything, and it all could be true of any number of countries. It certainly does not constitute a casus belli.

If the truth be told, Iraq is in no position to launch an attack on anybody. Its armed forces are a shell of their former selves, lack the logistics for an invasion of any neighbouring country, and could not sustain major operations. Iraqi military spending is estimated to be about a tenth of what it was before the Gulf war. Even if the Iraqis have retained enough 1914-era technology to build some more mustard-gas shells, they lack the means to lob them at us. At the very worst, a handful of Iraqi missiles might just be able to make it to Cyprus if the launchers drove to the westernmost border of Iraq to fire. In short, the Iraqi threat to the West is next to zero. The interesting point is that we are well aware of that. That is why we are contemplating an attack.

North Korea, unlike Iraq, has a massive and proven stock of WMD. It, too, has a brutal dictatorial regime which inflicts untold daily human-rights abuses on its population. Are we threatening to attack Pyongyang? We are not. The North Koreans could inflict grave damage on South Korea and on the US forces in the region, and we are no fools. We are planning our war on Iraq not because it is strong, but because it is weak.

Ah, but what if Iraq does develop a nuclear weapon and gives it to terrorists? According to the latest US National Security Strategy, ‘America is now threatened ...less by fleets and armies than by catastrophic technologies in the hands of the embittered few.’ Leaving aside the interesting question of just why those few are so embittered, we must act to prevent the twain — technology and few — from ever meeting, or, as President Bush so vividly says, ‘The smoking gun will be a mushroom cloud.’

Let us consider. Israel has built nuclear weapons; was its first act to give away free samples? How about India, Pakistan, China, the USSR, any of the nuclear powers? Apparently not. But we are meant to believe that Saddam Hussein’s first thought would be to allow al-Qa’eda to use up his shiny new nuclear weapon on an American city so that he could take credit and receive the prompt retaliation. Of course Saddam would not do this. If he did develop a nuclear weapon, he would use it in exactly the same way as all the other nuclear powers — to deter attacks. After all, his most pressing military problem is one of deterrence against a large and belligerent country which has stated flatly that it wants him deposed or dead and preferably both, wants the political system of his country completely remodelled along its preferred ideological lines, and wants control of his most valuable resources.

Iraq’s biological and chemical weapons are similarly most valuable in deterrence. During the Gulf war, Iraqi rules of engagement stated that these weapons were only to be used if the allies marched on Baghdad — in other words, as a desperate last resort. In any case, it would be better if we dispensed with the flurry of panic over the term ‘mass destruction’. Only nuclear weapons truly qualify for this description. Old-fashioned bullets and high explosives are capable of quite enormous destruction, and are much more to be feared than biological and chemical weapons. Biological weapons (BW) are extremely difficult to deliver to a target in an effective manner. If, for instance, a BW warhead was fired at Israel, the biological agents would probably be destroyed on impact by the heat of the explosion, and if they survived would almost certainly disperse harmlessly. The Israeli defence analyst Meir Steiglitz has concluded that ‘there is no such thing as a long-range Iraqi missile with an effective biological warhead’. Chemical weapons are only marginally more deadly. In the first world war, it took on average one ton of gas to inflict one casualty.

Faced with such boring facts, the proponents of war argue that Iraq may pose little threat now, but will suddenly become overwhelmingly powerful in the near future, and that we must act now before it is too late. Here we come to the fashionable American doctrine of pre-emption, a startling new view from the nation which until now led the world in opposing this concept.

International law banning pre-emptive strikes is founded on a principle upheld by the US secretary of state of 1837, one Daniel Webster. At the time, an American ship, the Caroline, was lending support to the rebels of William Lyon Mackenzie in Canada. The British, deeming the Caroline to be a threat to Canada, seized the ship even though it was in US waters, and sent it tumbling over the Niagara Falls. The American government denounced this attack on American property and territory as ‘an outrage’. Webster pronounced that pre-emptive action could only be justified where a state could prove ‘a necessity of self-defence, instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment of deliberation’. Ever since, the United States has enforced Webster’s interpretation of the right to pre-emptive self-defence. It denounced the 1981 Israeli attack on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor, for instance, because Israel could not prove that there was an ‘instant, overwhelming’ necessity for action. Yet we are now told that we must jettison international law and permit an armed attack merely because of the possibility that Iraq might, at some time in the future, pose some degree of threat to us.

This is a dangerous doctrine. Is it one that we would wish to see universally established, and applied by and to all? Hardly. It would destroy decades of efforts to create a stable international order based on the rule of law. Paradoxically, it is also a doctrine that would give Iraq a perfect right to attack the United States. After all, Washington has declared its intention to attack Iraq, and we can all see without benefit of dossiers that the US most certainly poses an immediate and very real threat to the survival of the Iraqi regime.

Wars inherently tend to escalation, unexpected excesses of destruction and unintended long-term consequences. Even in the best case of a short and successful campaign, a sad fact which our war-happy leaders appear to have overlooked is that there is only too literally a ‘blood price’ to be paid for any war. We need to face these facts squarely before we agree to sacrifice lives in fighting a country which in no way threatens us.

Paul Robinson is assistant director of the Centre for Security Studies at the University of Hull. He has also served as an intelligence officer in both the British and Canadian armies.

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