Saddam Hussein is deemed reckless, ruthless and not fully rational. But his past dealings show him to be eminently deterrableby John J Mearsheimer / March 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
Should the United States invade Iraq and depose Saddam Hussein? The immediate cause of any war is likely to be Saddam’s failure to comply with UN inspectors to the Bush administration’s satisfaction. But this failure is not the real reason Saddam and the US have been on collision course over the past year.
The deeper root of the conflict is the US view that Saddam must be toppled because he cannot be deterred from using weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Advocates of preventive war use many arguments to make their case, but their trump card is the charge that Saddam’s past behaviour proves he is too reckless 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 US occupation, and might complicate US relations with other countries. But these concerns are eclipsed by the belief that the combination of Saddam and nuclear weapons is too dangerous to accept.
Even many opponents of preventive war seem to agree that deterrence will not work in Iraq. Instead of invading Iraq and overthrowing the regime, however, these moderates prefer to keep Saddam bottled up with bigger and better inspections. Their hope is that inspections will eliminate any hidden WMD and ensure Saddam cannot acquire any of these deadly weapons. Thus both the hardline 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.
This argument is almost certainly wrong. The record shows that the US can contain Iraq-even if Saddam has nuclear weapons-just as it contained the Soviet Union during the cold war.
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 tell a different story. Saddam has dominated Iraqi politics for more than 30 years. During that period, he started two wars against his neighbours-Iran in 1980, Kuwait in 1990. Saddam’s record in this regard is no worse than that of nearby states such as Egypt or Israel, each of which has played a role in starting several wars since 1948. Moreover, a careful look at Saddam’s two wars shows his behaviour was far from reckless. Both times, he attacked because Iraq was vulnerable and because he believed his targets were weak. In each case, his goal was to rectify a 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.
Iran was the most powerful state in the Persian Gulf during the 1970s. Its strength was partly due to its population (roughly three times that of Iraq) and its oil reserves, but it also stemmed from strong US support for the Shah. 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 Kurdish minority. Iraq finally persuaded the Shah to stop meddling in 1975, but only by agreeing to cede half of the Shatt al-Arab waterway to Iran.
It is 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 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 Iranian operatives were trying to assassinate senior Iraqi officials. Border clashes became 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 foe on 22nd September 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 neighbour, Iran.”
Iran and Iraq fought for eight years, and the war cost the two antagonists more than 1m casualties and at least $150 billion. Iraq received considerable support from other states-including the US, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and France-all determined to prevent the spread of Khomeini’s 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 real threat.
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 neighbour 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. 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, declined further 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 Opec, which drove down world oil prices and reduced Iraqi oil profits. Saddam tried using diplomacy to solve the problem, but Kuwait hardly budged.
Saddam reportedly decided on war sometime in July 1990, but before sending his army into Kuwait, he approached the US to find out how it would react. In a now famous interview with the Iraqi leader, US ambassador April Glaspie told Saddam, “We have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait.” The State department had earlier told Saddam that Washington had “no special defence or security commitments to Kuwait.” The US may not have intended to give Iraq a green light, but that is what it did.
Saddam invaded Kuwait in August 1990. This act was an obvious violation of international law, and the US was justified in opposing the invasion and organising 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 US demanded a return to the status quo ante? A prudent leader would have surely abandoned Kuwait before getting clobbered? With hindsight, the answer is obvious, but Saddam had good reasons to believe hanging tough might work. It was not initially apparent that the US would fight, and most western military experts predicted the Iraqi army would mount a formidable defence.
Once the US air campaign had seriously damaged Iraq’s forces, however, Saddam began searching for a diplomatic solution that would allow him to retreat from Kuwait before a ground war began. Indeed, he made clear he was willing to pull out completely. Instead of allowing Iraq to withdraw and fight another day, President Bush senior 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 war is full of such misjudgements. No evidence suggests he did not weigh his options carefully, however. He chose to use force because he was facing a challenge and because he had good reason to think his invasion would not provoke serious opposition.
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 have said that Iraq refrained from using chemical weapons because the Bush administration made ambiguous but unmistakable threats to retaliate if Iraq used WMD. Second, in 1994, Iraq mobilised the remnants of its army on the Kuwaiti border in an attempt to force a modification of the UN Special Commission’s weapons inspection regime. But when the UN issued a new warning and the US reinforced its troops in Kuwait, Iraq backed down quickly. In both cases, the allegedly irrational Iraqi leader was deterred.
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 he is thus likely to use them against the US. President Bush has warned that the Iraqi WMD threat against the US “is already significant, and it grows worse with time.”
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 US 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 US and its allies-unless his survival is threatened. This simple logic explains why he did not use WMD against US 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 the US 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 the 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 US target unless Washington provoked him. Even if Iraq did acquire a larger WMD arsenal, the US would still retain a massive nuclear retaliatory capability.
Hawks do have a fallback position on this issue: yes, the US can try to deter Saddam by threatening to retaliate with massive force. But this 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 favour war, this argument is difficult to reconcile with the US’s past support for Iraq. The Reagan administration facilitated Iraq’s efforts to develop biological weapons by allowing Baghdad to import biological materials such as anthrax, West Nile virus, and botulinal toxin. A central figure in the effort to court Iraq was the current US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who was then President Reagan’s special envoy to the middle east.
If Saddam’s use of chemical weapons so clearly indicates he is a madman and cannot be contained, why did the US fail to see that in the 1980s? The most likely answer is that US policymakers correctly understood Saddam was unlikely to use those weapons against the US and its allies unless Washington threatened him directly. The real puzzle is why they think it would be impossible to deter him today.
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.” Others, such as Philip Bobbitt in last month’s Prospect, fear a nuclear arsenal would enable Iraq to invade its neighbours and then deter the US from ousting the Iraqi army as it did in 1991. Even worse, Saddam might surreptitiously slip a nuclear weapon to al Qaeda or a similar terrorist organisation, thereby making it possible for these groups to attack the US directly.
The administration and its supporters may be right in one sense: containment may not be enough to prevent Iraq from acquiring nuclear weapons some day. Only the conquest and permanent occupation of Iraq could guarantee that. Yet the US can contain a nuclear Iraq, just as it contained the Soviet Union. None of the nightmare scenarios invoked are likely.
To force another state to make concessions, a nuclear blackmailer must make clear that he would use nuclear weapons against the target state if he did not get his way. But this strategy is feasible only if the blackmailer has nuclear weapons but neither the target state nor its allies do.
What if Saddam invaded Kuwait again and then said he would use nuclear weapons if the US attempted another Desert Storm? This threat is not credible. If Saddam initiated nuclear war against the US over Kuwait, he would bring US nuclear warheads down on his own head. Given the choice between withdrawing or dying, he would almost certainly choose the former. Thus, the US could wage Desert Storm II against a nuclear-armed Saddam without precipitating nuclear war.
Ironically, some of the officials now advocating war used to recognise that Saddam could not employ nuclear weapons for offensive purposes. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice described three years ago in Foreign Affairs how the US should react if Iraq acquired WMD. “The first line of defence,” 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?
What about the real nightmare scenario that Saddam would give nuclear weapons to al Qaeda or some other terrorist group? There is no credible evidence that Iraq had anything to do with the 11th September terrorist attacks or, more generally, that Iraq is collaborating with al Qaeda against the US. Even if Iraq did decide to collaborate with terrorists, Saddam could hardly be confident that the transfer of WMD materials would go undetected.
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 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 because he would lose all control over when and where they would be used. And Saddam could never be sure the US would not incinerate him anyway, if it merely suspected he had made it possible for anyone to strike the US with nuclear weapons. The threat of US retaliation is not as far-fetched as one might think. The US 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 US homeland.
It is not surprising that those who favour war with Iraq 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 would happen if the US did not act soon. But both logic and history suggest a policy of vigilant containment would work, both now and in the event Iraq acquired a nuclear arsenal. Why? Because the US and its allies are far stronger than Iraq. And it does not take a genius to work out what would happen if Iraq tried to use WMD to blackmail its neighbours, expand its territory, or attack another state. It only takes a leader who wants to stay alive and remain in power. Throughout his long and brutal career, Saddam has shown that these two goals are paramount. That is why deterrence and containment work.
There is no compelling strategic rationale for war. Even if a war were to go well with positive long-range consequences, it would still have been unnecessary. If it went badly-whether in the form of high military casualties, significant civilian deaths, a heightened risk of terrorism, or increased hatred of the west in the Arab and Islamic world-then its architects would have even more to answer for.