- Since President Bush addressed the UN General Assembly
last week, Washington has descended into a swamp of confusion, misinformation
and hard-headed opinion pushing that should scare Americans a great deal
more than Iraq. It should be deeply disturbing to us that not a single
new piece of information about Iraq has appeared in months. But if you
take your cue from the noise level, you would think that Saddam Hussein
controls a large meteor that is headed dead on for mid USA, and we must
act strongly and now to head it off. The known facts plainly do not support
this judgment, but what are the facts?
Eleven years ago the United States led a coalition war to stop the Hussein
expansionist scheme to control the Persian Gulf. That engagement was both
short and successful in that allied forces quickly routed Iraqi troops
and destroyed much of the Iraqi war-making capability. In succeeding years,
UN inspectors discovered and destroyed significant parts of the war-making
machinery our forces had failed to uncover during the Gulf War. Thus,
when UN Inspectors left Iraq in 1998, there were still questions, but it
was clear that Iraqi capabilities were a mere shadow of their former strength.
Those capabilities were by no means eliminated, and there is no doubt that
Hussein has worked steadily to rebuild. Moreover, studying the limitations
of long supply lines and slow replacement schedules that cost him dearly
during the war, Saddam set out to become self-sufficient in as many areas
of armament÷munitions, weapons and missiles÷as his industry
could achieve. That effort has given him more autonomy than he had a decade
ago, and he has come a long way to rebuilding by most estimates. But the
best estimates available indicate that he is far from back to his pre-Gulf
War strength in any area of military capability. Even at that, he may
have achieved greater staying power by making his military industries more
One must search carefully here for what is really new and newly frightening
about Iraq. The answer, put as simply as possible, is nothing. At the end
of the Gulf War, we already knew pretty well what he was up to in the effort
to acquire or make Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs). Under UN auspices
a great deal was done to slow those efforts and to derail them. Saddam
did not stop trying. In such areas as Scud missile engines, tank guns
and artillery he learned to make his own. Former UN inspectors assert
regularly that he was not that successful in concocting WMDs, and he did
not succeed in solving the problem of how to refine weapons grade nuclear
That does not mean he could not have acquired weapons grade material for
one or more weapons, or even complete weapons. The accounting for former
Soviet/now Russian weapons and materials is by no means reassuring. Even
senior officials who had control, such as general Alexander Lebed, have
expressed doubts that all are accounted for, and not too far back five
kilograms of plutonium were discovered in the trunk of a Mercedes in Germany.
That material unfortunately would have been of interest to any of twenty
or more countries that seek quietly to become nuclear powers. On the face
of it, Iraq poses no unique WMD threat.
Just what is a threat? As defined by serious professionals, a threat is
a capability to do harm that is combined with the intent to do harm.
The capability itself is a risk, to be sure, but the intent to use it is
required to make a threat. As an example, we have more nuclear weapons
than the rest of the world powers combined. They are not a threat, unless
we decide to use them. As a second example, Americans own an estimated
40 million shotguns. If the shotguns themselves are a threat, then we
are in deep trouble, because one person out of every six or so has one,
but they become a threat only when someone is on the warpath, or possibly
in the hands of a militia on the march. As a specific case, if the possession
of nuclear weapons and other WMDs by a Middle East power is a threat to
the United States, then Israel is a major threat, because the Israeli have
around 200 actual nuclear weapons, albeit unclear numbers of chemical/biological
By the above definition, Bush has only half of a threat statement. We do
know Saddam is trying to build or obtain weapons of mass destruction. In
that search, he is a member of a fairly large club. But even if he already
has them, he has not threatened to use them on the US. The most widely
held view of the situation is that if he used such a weapon on the US,
or on Israel for that matter, he would be obliterated. No one has suggested
that Saddam has a death wish. I donât know where Chicken Little
is today, but the cry sounds very familiar.
The bottom line: Iraq is part of a global problem of policing the capabilities
and the behavior of nation states, some with extra-territorial ambitions.
As noted above, there are twenty or more nation states trying to acquire
weapons of mass destruction. Most, if not all of them, seek such weapons
to dominate or deter the actions of a neighbor, e.g., India and/or Pakistan,
or as trappings of the power of autocratic leaders, e.g., pick pretty much
any of the group. Over time, any of these may need to be reined in, moderated,
or even de-fanged by the UN and the leading world powers.
The clarity of this situation leads many observers to suspect a hidden
agenda of the group around Bush respecting Iraq. The prize, maybe, is
improved access to Iraqi oil, but that problem, such as it is with leaks,
can be solved when necessary by agreement among UN members to lift sanctions.
If the prize is US company control over Iraqi oil, then it is too bad
that the key players in Washington, from the President and the two think
tanks involved down to the Undersecretary of Defense, are oil industry
insiders. Just maybe the national interest, yours and mine, coincides
with the special interests of that group, but donât count on it.
Certainly the US Congress should ask more questions than it has to date
about the Bush agenda. And Congress should get better answers than Bush
or his core team have provided to date before approving of any program
for Iraqi regime change. They should be very wary of any program that
would put US troops on the ground and in jeopardy.
- The writer is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer
of the Department of State and former Chairman of the Department of International
Studies of the National War College.