Iraq: Deterrence Not War
Iraq: Deterrence Not War
Andrew Mack, Director - Human Security Centre
October 10, 2002
As the debate over the looming war with Iraq becomes more strident, dispassionate analysis of the Bush Administration's case for war against Iraq becomes ever more important - particularly for its critics. This means accepting that some central tenets of the hawks' case are quite correct.
First, it is true that inspections, however intrusive, can never guarantee that all Saddam's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs will be uncovered - Hans Blix, the UN's chief arms inspector, has admitted as much. Mobile and underground WMD facilities are almost impossible to detect. Inspections are always useful; never conclusive.
Second, the Iraqi regime is utterly untrustworthy and its promises to come clean on its WMD programs aren't, and never have, been worth the paper they are printed on.
Third, it is true that regime change is a necessary - but by no means sufficient - condition for getting rid of Iraqi WMD programs.
But it does not follow from this that war is necessary.
Much of the Administration's case for war is driven by politics rather than logic and evidence. It is often plain wrong - and it reeks of hypocrisy.
Consider first the claim that regime change is necessary to stop the often violent persecution of the Iraqi people? This may well be true, but it is not a driver of the campaign to wage war on Iraq. In the 1980s, Saddam was every bit as vicious a ruler as he is today, but Washington supported him. It did so because it suited America's real politik interest to do so.
And if preventing violent repression was a reason for military intervention the US would have sent forces to stop the genocide in Rwanda where the slaughter perpetrated by the genocideurs was far worse than any of Saddam's bloody crimes. Washington averted its gaze and did nothing.
Next, consider the claim that war is justified because Iraq seeks nuclear weapons to attack its neighbors.
In fact there would be no conceivable reason for a nuclear-armed Iraq to launch such unprovoked attacks. This is not because Saddam would have any qualms about slaughtering innocents - clearly he wouldn't - but because using nuclear weapons would be suicidal.
The Administration has produced not one credible argument to show why Baghdad would ever contemplate anything as self-destructive as unprovoked nuclear aggression. The devastating retaliation that would follow would destroy the regime - and Saddam has always shown a strong instinct for self-preservation.
The Iraqi leader has done many stupid - even irrational things - but since his humiliating defeat in the Gulf War, the omnipresent threat of retaliation has deterred him from any act of military adventurism outside his own borders.
But nuclear weapons do make sense for Iraq as a deterrent against attack by its enemies. If Iraq seeks nuclear weapons a deterrent this is indeed a matter of grave concern, but not one that justifies waging a war and risks destabilizing a whole region.
Next consider the much-touted nightmare scenario in which Saddam shares his weapons of mass destruction with terrorist organizations?
Once again the Administration's case is extraordinarily weak.
First, there is no evidence that Iraq has ever attempted to do so to do this. Al Queda certainly would not have bothered trying to make its own crude chemical and biological weapons had Iraq supplied it with far more lethal ones.
Second, the volatility of Middle East politics is such that Iraq's secular leaders could never be sure that any weapons of mass destruction transferred to Islamic extremists would not at some stage be used against them.
Third, the number of persons that would necessarily be involved in weapons' transfers would make concealment of Iraq's role almost impossible over the long term. The mere revelation of such transfers, let alone actual terrorist use of the weapons, would certainly lead to massive US military action against the Iraqi regime. Once again both logic and evidence suggests that deterrence works.
Ever since the Gulf War, the allied doctrine of containment - with bans on arms imports preventing Saddam from rebuilding his military capability - and of deterrence has been remarkably successful.
The second argument against war is that the undoubted benefits of regime change are not worth the likely costs of achieving it via military means. We are not talking here simply about the 'guesstimated' US $50 - $200 billion financial costs of a military campaign against Iraq, nor its impact on the global economy, nor even the heavy civilian and US death toll likely to arise from the urban warfare campaign that Saddam will force the US to fight. Some potential costs are much more serious.
Invading Iraq will further inflame an already unstable region while adding more fuel to the anti-American rage that feeds terrorism in the Muslim world. Waging an unnecessary war against Saddam, in other words, risks undermining the global campaign against terrorism.
And if the use of weapons of mass destruction really is the primary concern, then Washington needs to reflect more seriously on the prospect that a Saddam confronting certain military defeat and death or capture would no longer be deterred from using his existing chemical and biological arsenals.
War could trigger the use of the very weapons whose elimination is part of its central rationale.
Moreover, military victory provides no guarantee that a successor regime will be any better than Saddam's, while sustained US commitment to post-Baathist institution-building is anything but certain.
The task of building a new order is far more onerous than destroying the old one. It would require the sort of long-term commitment to reform that the allies demonstrated in rebuilding Germany and Japan after World War II. Few believe that the US is prepared to demonstrate that commitment. Indeed if its recent performance in Afghanistan is any guide, Washington would begin to lose interest in Iraq the moment its military goals were realized.
Finally, Washington seems to have completely ignored the possibility that any future Iraqi regime, even a 'moderate' pro-US one, might still seek to pursue a nuclear weapons program as a deterrent against a nuclear-armed Israel and a nuclear wannabee Iran.
The US, the world's most powerful state, strongly believes that nuclear weapons are essential for its security. Why should we assume that a much weaker state like Iraq, one that has enemies that long pre-date Saddam and will still be there when he has gone, would feel any differently - regardless of the complexion of its government?
There may be a compelling case for war: the Bush Administration has yet to make it.