Should the United States invade Iraq and depose Saddam Hussein? If the
United States is already at war with Iraq when this article is published,
the immediate cause is likely to be Saddam's failure to comply with
the new U.N. inspections regime to the Bush administration's satisfaction.
But this failure is not the real reason Saddam and the United States have
been on a collision course over the past year.
The deeper root of the conflict is the U.S. position that Saddam must
be toppled because he cannot be deterred from using weapons of mass destruction
(WMD). Advocates of preventive war use numerous arguments to make their
case, but their trump card is the charge that Saddam's past behavior
proves he is too reckless, relentless, and aggressive to be allowed to
possess WMD, especially nuclear weapons. They sometimes admit that war
against Iraq might be costly, might lead to a lengthy U.S. occupation,
and might complicate U.S. relations with other countries. But these concerns
are eclipsed by the belief that the combination of Saddam plus nuclear
weapons is too dangerous to accept. For that reason alone, he has to go.
Even many opponents of preventive war seem to agree deterrence will not
work in Iraq. Instead of invading Iraq and overthrowing the regime, however,
these moderates favor using the threat of war to compel Saddam to permit
new weapons inspections. Their hope is that inspections will eliminate
any hidden WMD stockpiles and production facilities and ensure Saddam
cannot acquire any of these deadly weapons. Thus, both the hard-line preventive-war
advocates and the more moderate supporters of inspections accept the same
basic premise: Saddam Hussein is not deterrable, and he cannot be allowed
to obtain a nuclear arsenal.
One problem with this argument: It is almost certainly wrong. The belief
that Saddam's past behavior shows he cannot be contained rests on
distorted history and faulty logic. In fact, the historical record shows
that the United States can contain Iraq effectively -- even if Saddam
has nuclear weapons -- just as it contained the Soviet Union during
the Cold War. Regardless of whether Iraq complies with U.N. inspections
or what the inspectors find, the campaign to wage war against Iraq rests
on a flimsy foundation.
Is Saddam a Serial Aggressor?
Those who call for preventive war begin by portraying Saddam as a serial
aggressor bent on dominating the Persian Gulf. The war party also contends
that Saddam is either irrational or prone to serious miscalculation, which
means he may not be deterred by even credible threats of retaliation.
Kenneth Pollack, former director for gulf affairs at the National Security
Council and a proponent of war with Iraq, goes so far as to argue that
Saddam is "unintentionally suicidal."
The facts, however, tell a different story. Saddam has dominated Iraqi
politics for more than 30 years. During that period, he started two wars
against his neighbors -- Iran in 1980 and Kuwait in 1990. Saddam's
record in this regard is no worse than that of neighboring states such
as Egypt or Israel, each of which played a role in starting several wars
since 1948. Furthermore, a careful look at Saddam's two wars shows
his behavior was far from reckless. Both times, he attacked because Iraq
was vulnerable and because he believed his targets were weak and isolated.
In each case, his goal was to rectify Iraq's strategic dilemma with
a limited military victory. Such reasoning does not excuse Saddam's
aggression, but his willingness to use force on these occasions hardly
demonstrates that he cannot be deterred.
The Iran-Iraq War, 1980–88
Iran was the most powerful state in the Persian Gulf during the 1970s.
Its strength was partly due to its large population (roughly three times
that of Iraq) and its oil reserves, but it also stemmed from the strong
support the shah of Iran received from the United States. Relations between
Iraq and Iran were quite hostile throughout this period, but Iraq was
in no position to defy Iran's regional dominance. Iran put constant
pressure on Saddam's regime during the early 1970s, mostly by fomenting
unrest among Iraq's sizable Kurdish minority. Iraq finally persuaded
the Shah to stop meddling with the Kurds in 1975, but only by agreeing
to cede half of the Shatt al-Arab waterway to Iran, a concession that
underscored Iraq's weakness.
It is thus not surprising that Saddam welcomed the Shah's ouster
in 1979. Iraq went to considerable lengths to foster good relations with
Iran's revolutionary leadership. Saddam did not exploit the turmoil
in Iran to gain strategic advantage over his neighbor and made no attempt
to reverse his earlier concessions, even though Iran did not fully comply
with the terms of the 1975 agreement. Ruhollah Khomeini, on the other
hand, was determined to extend his revolution across the Islamic world,
starting with Iraq. By late 1979, Tehran was pushing the Kurdish and Shiite
populations in Iraq to revolt and topple Saddam, and Iranian operatives
were trying to assassinate senior Iraqi officials. Border clashes became
increasingly frequent by April 1980, largely at Iran's instigation.
Facing a grave threat to his regime, but aware that Iran's military
readiness had been temporarily disrupted by the revolution, Saddam launched
a limited war against his bitter foe on September 22, 1980. His principal
aim was to capture a large slice of territory along the Iraq-Iran border,
not to conquer Iran or topple Khomeini. "The war began," as
military analyst Efraim Karsh writes, "because the weaker state,
Iraq, attempted to resist the hegemonic aspirations of its stronger neighbor,
Iran, to reshape the regional status quo according to its own image."
Iran and Iraq fought for eight years, and the war cost the two antagonists
more than 1 million casualties and at least $150 billion. Iraq received
considerable outside support from other countries -- including the
United States, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and France -- largely because
these states were determined to prevent the spread of Khomeini's
Islamic revolution. Although the war cost Iraq far more than Saddam expected,
it also thwarted Khomeini's attempt to topple him and dominate the
region. War with Iran was not a reckless adventure; it was an opportunistic
response to a significant threat.
The Gulf War, 1990–91
But what about Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990? Perhaps
the earlier war with Iran was essentially defensive, but surely this was
not true in the case of Kuwait. Doesn't Saddam's decision
to invade his tiny neighbor prove he is too rash and aggressive to be
trusted with the most destructive weaponry? And doesn't his refusal
to withdraw, even when confronted by a superior coalition, demonstrate
he is "unintentionally suicidal"
The answer is no. Once again, a careful look shows Saddam was neither
mindlessly aggressive nor particularly reckless. If anything, the evidence
supports the opposite conclusion.
Saddam's decision to invade Kuwait was primarily an attempt to deal
with Iraq's continued vulnerability. Iraq's economy, badly
damaged by its war with Iran, continued to decline after that war ended.
An important cause of Iraq's difficulties was Kuwait's refusal
both to loan Iraq $10 billion and to write off debts Iraq had incurred
during the Iran-Iraq War. Saddam believed Iraq was entitled to additional
aid because the country helped protect Kuwait and other Gulf states from
Iranian expansionism. To make matters worse, Kuwait was overproducing
the quotas set by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, which
drove down world oil prices and reduced Iraqi oil profits. Saddam tried
using diplomacy to solve the problem, but Kuwait hardly budged. As Karsh
and fellow Hussein biographer Inari Rautsi note, the Kuwaitis "suspected
that some concessions might be necessary, but were determined to reduce
them to the barest minimum."
Saddam reportedly decided on war sometime in July 1990, but before sending
his army into Kuwait, he approached the United States to find out how
it would react. In a now famous interview with the Iraqi leader, U.S.
Ambassador April Glaspie told Saddam, "[W]e have no opinion on the
Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait."
The U.S. State Department had earlier told Saddam that Washington had
"no special defense or security commitments to Kuwait." The
United States may not have intended to give Iraq a green light, but that
is effectively what it did.
Saddam invaded Kuwait in early August 1990. This act was an obvious violation
of international law, and the United States was justified in opposing
the invasion and organizing a coalition against it. But Saddam's
decision to invade was hardly irrational or reckless. Deterrence did not
fail in this case; it was never tried.
But what about Saddam's failure to leave Kuwait once the United
States demanded a return to the status quo ante? Wouldn't a prudent
leader have abandoned Kuwait before getting clobbered? With hindsight,
the answer seems obvious, but Saddam had good reasons to believe hanging
tough might work. It was not initially apparent that the United States
would actually fight, and most Western military experts predicted the
Iraqi army would mount a formidable defense. These forecasts seem foolish
today, but many people believed them before the war began.
Once the U.S. air campaign had seriously damaged Iraq's armed forces,
however, Saddam began searching for a diplomatic solution that would allow
him to retreat from Kuwait before a ground war began. Indeed, Saddam made
clear he was willing to pull out completely. Instead of allowing Iraq
to withdraw and fight another day, then U.S. President George H.W. Bush
and his administration wisely insisted the Iraqi army leave its equipment
behind as it withdrew. As the administration had hoped, Saddam could not
accept this kind of deal.
Saddam undoubtedly miscalculated when he attacked Kuwait, but the history
of warfare is full of cases where leaders have misjudged the prospects
for war. No evidence suggests Hussein did not weigh his options carefully,
however. He chose to use force because he was facing a serious challenge
and because he had good reasons to think his invasion would not provoke
Nor should anyone forget that the Iraqi tyrant survived the Kuwait debacle,
just as he has survived other threats against his regime. He is now beginning
his fourth decade in power. If he is really "unintentionally suicidal,"
then his survival instincts appear to be even more finely honed.
History provides at least two more pieces of evidence that demonstrate
Saddam is deterrable. First, although he launched conventionally armed
Scud missiles at Saudi Arabia and Israel during the Gulf War, he did not
launch chemical or biological weapons at the coalition forces that were
decimating the Iraqi military. Moreover, senior Iraqi officials -- including
Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz and the former head of military intelligence,
General Wafiq al-Samarrai -- have said that Iraq refrained from using
chemical weapons because the Bush Sr. administration made ambiguous but
unmistakable threats to retaliate if Iraq used WMD. Second, in 1994 Iraq
mobilized the remnants of its army on the Kuwaiti border in an apparent
attempt to force a modification of the U.N. Special Commission's
(UNSCOM) weapons inspection regime. But when the United Nations issued
a new warning and the United States reinforced its troops in Kuwait, Iraq
backed down quickly. In both cases, the allegedly irrational Iraqi leader
Saddam's Use of Chemical weapons
Preventive-war advocates also use a second line of argument. They point
out that Saddam has used WMD against his own people (the Kurds) and against
Iran and that therefore he is likely to use them against the United States.
Thus, U.S. President George W. Bush recently warned in Cincinnati that
the Iraqi WMD threat against the United States "is already significant,
and it only grows worse with time." The United States, in other
words, is in imminent danger.
Saddam's record of chemical weapons use is deplorable, but none
of his victims had a similar arsenal and thus could not threaten to respond
in kind. Iraq's calculations would be entirely different when facing
the United States because Washington could retaliate with WMD if Iraq
ever decided to use these weapons first. Saddam thus has no incentive
to use chemical or nuclear weapons against the United States and its allies -- unless
his survival is threatened. This simple logic explains why he did not
use WMD against U.S. forces during the Gulf War and has not fired chemical
or biological warheads at Israel.
Furthermore, if Saddam cannot be deterred, what is stopping him from using
WMD against U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf, which have bombed Iraq repeatedly
over the past decade? The bottom line: Deterrence has worked well against
Saddam in the past, and there is no reason to think it cannot work equally
well in the future.
President Bush's repeated claim that the threat from Iraq is growing
makes little sense in light of Saddam's past record, and these statements
should be viewed as transparent attempts to scare Americans into supporting
a war. CIA Director George Tenet flatly contradicted the president in
an October 2002 letter to Congress, explaining that Saddam was unlikely
to initiate a WMD attack against any U.S. target unless Washington provoked
him. Even if Iraq did acquire a larger WMD arsenal, the United States
would still retain a massive nuclear retaliatory capability. And if Saddam
would only use WMD if the United States threatened his regime, then one
wonders why advocates of war are trying to do just that.
Hawks do have a fallback position on this issue. Yes, the United States
can try to deter Saddam by threatening to retaliate with massive force.
But this strategy may not work because Iraq's past use of chemical
weapons against the Kurds and Iran shows that Saddam is a warped human
being who might use WMD without regard for the consequences.
Unfortunately for those who now favor war, this argument is difficult
to reconcile with the United States' past support for Iraq, support
that coincided with some of the behavior now being invoked to portray
him as an irrational madman. The United States backed Iraq during the
1980s -- when Saddam was gassing Kurds and Iranians -- and helped
Iraq use chemical weapons more effectively by providing it with satellite
imagery of Iranian troop positions. The Reagan administration also facilitated
Iraq's efforts to develop biological weapons by allowing Baghdad
to import disease-producing biological materials such as anthrax, West
Nile virus, and botulinal toxin. A central figure in the effort to court
Iraq was none other than current U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld,
who was then President Ronald Reagan's special envoy to the Middle
East. He visited Baghdad and met with Saddam in 1983, with the explicit
aim of fostering better relations between the United States and Iraq.
In October 1989, about a year after Saddam gassed the Kurds, President
George H.W. Bush signed a formal national security directive declaring,
"Normal relations between the United States and Iraq would serve
our longer-term interests and promote stability in both the Gulf and the
If Saddam's use of chemical weapons so clearly indicates he is a
madman and cannot be contained, why did the United States fail to see
that in the 1980s? Why were Rumsfeld and former President Bush then so
unconcerned about his chemical and biological weapons? The most likely
answer is that U.S. policymakers correctly understood Saddam was unlikely
to use those weapons against the United States and its allies unless Washington
threatened him directly. The real puzzle is why they think it would be
impossible to deter him today.
Saddam With Nukes
The third strike against a policy of containment, according to those who
have called for war, is that such a policy is unlikely to stop Saddam
from getting nuclear weapons. Once he gets them, so the argument runs,
a host of really bad things will happen. For example, President Bush has
warned that Saddam intends to "blackmail the world"; likewise,
National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice believes he would use nuclear
weapons to "blackmail the entire international community."
Others fear a nuclear arsenal would enable Iraq to invade its neighbors
and then deter the United States from ousting the Iraqi army as it did
in 1991. Even worse, Saddam might surreptitiously slip a nuclear weapon
to al Qaeda or some like-minded terrorist organization, thereby making
it possible for these groups to attack the United States directly.
The administration and its supporters may be right in one sense: Containment
may not be enough to prevent Iraq from acquiring nuclear weapons someday.
Only the conquest and permanent occupation of Iraq could guarantee that.
Yet the United States can contain a nuclear Iraq, just as it contained
the Soviet Union. None of the nightmare scenarios invoked by preventive-war
advocates are likely to happen.
Consider the claim that Saddam would employ nuclear blackmail against
his adversaries. To force another state to make concessions, a blackmailer
must make clear that he would use nuclear weapons against the target state
if he does not get his way. But this strategy is feasible only if the
blackmailer has nuclear weapons but neither the target state nor its allies
If the blackmailer and the target state both have nuclear weapons, however,
the blackmailer's threat is an empty one because the blackmailer
cannot carry out the threat without triggering his own destruction. This
logic explains why the Soviet Union, which had a vast nuclear arsenal
for much of the Cold War, was never able to blackmail the United States
or its allies and did not even try.
But what if Saddam invaded Kuwait again and then said he would use nuclear
weapons if the United States attempted another Desert Storm? Again,
this threat is not credible. If Saddam initiated nuclear war against
the United States over Kuwait, he would bring U.S. nuclear warheads
down on his own head. Given the choice between withdrawing or dying,
he would almost certainly choose the former. Thus, the United States
could wage Desert Storm II against a nuclear-armed Saddam without precipitating
Ironically, some of the officials now advocating war used to recognize
that Saddam could not employ nuclear weapons for offensive purposes. In
the January/February 2000 issue of Foreign Affairs, for example, National
Security Advisor Rice described how the United States should react if
Iraq acquired WMD. "The first line of defense," she wrote,
"should be a clear and classical statement of deterrence -- if
they do acquire WMD, their weapons will be unusable because any attempt
to use them will bring national obliteration." If she believed Iraq's
weapons would be unusable in 2000, why does she now think Saddam must
be toppled before he gets them? For that matter, why does she now think
a nuclear arsenal would enable Saddam to blackmail the entire international
community, when she did not even mention this possibility in 2000?
What About A Nuclear Hand-Off?
Of course, now the real nightmare scenario is that Saddam would give nuclear
weapons secretly to al Qaeda or some other terrorist group. Groups like
al Qaeda would almost certainly try to use those weapons against Israel
or the United States, and so these countries have a powerful incentive
to take all reasonable measures to keep these weapons out of their hands.
However, the likelihood of clandestine transfer by Iraq is extremely small.
First of all, there is no credible evidence that Iraq had anything to
do with the terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon
or more generally that Iraq is collaborating with al Qaeda against the
United States. Hawks inside and outside the Bush administration have gone
to extraordinary lengths over the past months to find a link, but they
have come up empty-handed.
The lack of evidence of any genuine connection between Saddam and al Qaeda
is not surprising because relations between Saddam and al Qaeda have been
quite poor in the past. Osama bin Laden is a radical fundamentalist (like
Khomeini), and he detests secular leaders like Saddam. Similarly, Saddam
has consistently repressed fundamentalist movements within Iraq. Given
this history of enmity, the Iraqi dictator is unlikely to give al Qaeda
nuclear weapons, which it might use in ways he could not control.
Intense U.S. pressure, of course, might eventually force these unlikely
allies together, just as the United States and Communist Russia became
allies during World War II. Saddam would still be unlikely to share his
most valuable weaponry with al Qaeda, however, because he could not be
confident it would not be used in ways that place his own survival in
jeopardy. During the Cold War, the United States did not share all its
WMD expertise with its own allies, and the Soviet Union balked at giving
nuclear weapons to China despite their ideological sympathies and repeated
Chinese requests. No evidence suggests Saddam would act differently.
Second, Saddam could hardly be confident that the transfer would go undetected.
Since September 11, U.S. intelligence agencies and those of its allies
have been riveted on al Qaeda and Iraq, paying special attention to finding
links between them. If Iraq possessed nuclear weapons, U.S. monitoring
of those two adversaries would be further intensified. To give nuclear
materials to al Qaeda, Saddam would have to bet he could elude the eyes
and ears of numerous intelligence services determined to catch him if
he tries a nuclear handoff. This bet would not be a safe one.
But even if Saddam thought he could covertly smuggle nuclear weapons to
bin Laden, he would still be unlikely to do so. Saddam has been trying
to acquire these weapons for over 20 years, at great cost and risk. Is
it likely he would then turn around and give them away? Furthermore, giving
nuclear weapons to al Qaeda would be extremely risky for Saddam -- even
if he could do so without being detected -- because he would lose all
control over when and where they would be used. And Saddam could never
be sure the United States would not incinerate him anyway if it merely
suspected he had made it possible for anyone to strike the United States
with nuclear weapons. The U.S. government and a clear majority of Americans
are already deeply suspicious of Iraq, and a nuclear attack against the
United States or its allies would raise that hostility to fever pitch.
Saddam does not have to be certain the United States would retaliate to
be wary of giving his nuclear weapons to al Qaeda; he merely has to suspect
In sum, Saddam cannot afford to guess wrong on whether he would be detected
providing al Qaeda with nuclear weapons, nor can he afford to guess wrong
that Iraq would be spared if al Qaeda launched a nuclear strike against
the United States or its allies. And the threat of U.S. retaliation is
not as far-fetched as one might think. The United States has enhanced
its flexible nuclear options in recent years, and no one knows just how
vengeful Americans might feel if WMD were ever used against the U.S. homeland.
Indeed, nuclear terrorism is as dangerous for Saddam as it is for Americans,
and he has no more incentive to give al Qaeda nuclear weapons than the
United States does -- unless, of course, the country makes clear it
is trying to overthrow him. Instead of attacking Iraq and giving Saddam
nothing to lose, the Bush administration should be signaling it would
hold him responsible if some terrorist group used WMD against the United
States, even if it cannot prove he is to blame.
It is not surprising that those who favor war with Iraq portray Saddam
as an inveterate and only partly rational aggressor. They are in the business
of selling a preventive war, so they must try to make remaining at peace
seem unacceptably dangerous. And the best way to do that is to inflate
the threat, either by exaggerating Iraq's capabilities or by suggesting
horrible things will happen if the United States does not act soon. It
is equally unsurprising that advocates of war are willing to distort the
historical record to make their case. As former U.S. Secretary of State
Dean Acheson famously remarked, in politics, advocacy "must be clearer
In this case, however, the truth points the other way. Both logic and
historical evidence suggest a policy of vigilant containment would work,
both now and in the event Iraq acquires a nuclear arsenal. Why? Because
the United States and its regional allies are far stronger than Iraq.
And because it does not take a genius to figure out what would happen
if Iraq tried to use WMD to blackmail its neighbors, expand its territory,
or attack another state directly. It only takes a leader who wants to
stay alive and who wants to remain in power. Throughout his lengthy and
brutal career, Saddam Hussein has repeatedly shown that these two goals
are absolutely paramount. That is why deterrence and containment would
If the United States is, or soon will be, at war with Iraq, Americans
should understand that a compelling strategic rationale is absent. This
war would be one the Bush administration chose to fight but did not have
to fight. Even if such a war goes well and has positive long-range consequences,
it will still have been unnecessary. And if it goes badly -- whether
in the form of high U.S. casualties, significant civilian deaths, a heightened
risk of terrorism, or increased hatred of the United States in the Arab
and Islamic world -- then its architects will have even more to answer