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The Prospect of War

Many international problems offer only the bleak choice between a bad and a less bad solution, and the current controversy over Iraq poses this dilemma in an unusually far-reaching and complex way. It is not simply a question of dealing with a particularly obnoxious and aggressive tyrant, who may or may not be close to obtaining nuclear weapons. Other vital questions have also to be considered—the risks to the world’s most important source of oil and therefore to the world economy; the already unstable political situation of the Middle East, which has been shaken especially by the violent and emotive struggle between Israel and the Palestinians; the possibility that an American invasion of Iraq might bring down some of the less stable governments in the region; the emerging hostility between parts of the Islamic world and the West; the effect of an invasion of Iraq on international solidarity in the “war on terrorism”; and worldwide unease at the idea of an aggressive and unilateral United States hegemony, as foreshadowed in the new doctrine of American preemptive action and in documents such as the recently published National Security Strategy of the United States of America.

There is virtually no disagreement that the world would be a much better place without Saddam Hussein. There is, however, profound disagreement, both within and outside the United States, about how to achieve his overthrow without setting off a chain reaction of destructive consequences. There is also a considerable difference of opinion, and an alarming lack of reliable information, about exactly how dangerous to the outside world Saddam Hussein really is. The millions of words on the subject that have recently poured forth from governments, pundits, think tanks, academics, journalists, and the protagonists of different points of view have so far done little to clarify a situation that may well, in the near future, involve the world in war once again.

This is where Kenneth Pollack’s The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq is of great value. Whether or not one agrees with his conclusions, which are, incidentally, a good deal less uncompromising than the book’s title implies, Pollack, a respected expert on the Gulf region both in and out of government, provides a meticulous account of the history, the known facts, and the pros and cons of different options in the current controversy over Iraq. Although Saddam Hussein’s record on human rights and the brutal treatment of his own people is well down to the standard of terror and atrocity by which his chosen mentors, Stalin and Hitler, held on to power, Pollack’s book makes it embarrassingly clear that the determining factor in the reaction of governments to Saddam Hussein has always been their own interests. If Saddam Hussein was the worst of tyrants in a nonstrategic part of the world, it is unlikely that he would arouse much serious interest or outrage among governments—a few admonitory resolutions in the UN perhaps, but not much more.

As it is, Saddam Hussein is the industrialized world’s worst nightmare, an aggressive, unpredictable, psychotic dictator in the midst of the world’s most important oil-producing region, who, in addition to his chemical and biological arsenal, may before long acquire usable nuclear weapons as well. The current, much disputed question is whether to try to live with and contain this undeniably serious threat to peace and to the world economy, or to destroy it before it gets any larger. This situation provides, incidentally, yet another instance of the folly and irresponsibility of the industrialized world’s addiction to cheap oil and of its resolute refusal to cut consumption and to give the highest national and international priority to the search for alternative and renewable sources of energy.


Pollack wrote his book, he says, “to try to help those trying to understand the problems we face with Iraq and the options available to the United States.” He believes that the US has to choose between “a potentially costly war now or a far worse war in the near future.” To support this view he compares, as many others have done, the current relations of the world and Saddam Hussein with Europe and Hitler in 1938. I am wary of this analogy. For one thing Hitler had already committed aggression—in the Rhineland, Czechoslovakia, and Austria—that would have amply justified the military reaction of France and Britain, so there was no question of preemptive action. Unlike today’s United States, the strongest military power in history, Britain and France were practically, psychologically, and politically unprepared for war and by no means certain of their military superiority. And unlike the United States they did not possess, as a deterrent, the last-resort capacity to destroy an adversary at one blow. In fact, in 1938 Britain and France had little or no capacity, let alone policy, to contain or deter Hitler. In 2002 the United States, if it decides to use it, has overwhelming military power and is therefore in a far better position to exercise peaceful pressure, patience, and restraint.

Pollack’s first chapter, “From Sumer to Saddam,” provides a useful historical summary, especially of Iraq’s recent relations with the United States and other Western countries. In the current fury against Saddam Hussein, it is ironic to be reminded how much the United States, as well as Britain, France, and the Soviet Union, has done to build him up; how much those nations cared about his oil and other commercial possibilities, and how little about his ghastly human rights record. In the 1970s the so-called “twin pillars” of US policy in the Persian Gulf were Saudi Arabia and the Shah’s Iran. When the Islamic Revolution removed the Shah in 1979, Saddam Hussein gained a new importance as a bastion against revolutionary Iran. His staggeringly inept and overconfident invasion of that country in 1980 had the tacit support of the United States as well as some very practical US assistance in the form of intelligence, economic aid, helicopters, and licenses for exports that were crucial to his development of, among other things, the chemical weapons that he later used with great success to blunt Iranian counterattacks and to subdue the Kurds of northern Iraq.

Washington turned a blind eye to the Iraqi missile attack in 1987 that killed thirty-seven sailors on the USS Stark, and to Saddam’s use of chemical weapons against Iran, as well as in a murderous campaign that killed 200,000 Kurds and displaced 1.5 million more. In return Saddam Hussein paid off his US loans, gave a one-dollar-per-barrel discount on oil, reined in Iraq-based Palestinian groups, and even supported the Arab–Israeli peace process that he had led the Arab world in denouncing only a few years earlier. In those days he was certainly a pragmatic fellow.

Already by 1980 the Israelis had understood, and warned the United States, that Saddam Hussein’s ambitions included the aggressive leadership of the Arab world and the matching of Israel’s weapons of mass destruction. The Israelis took action by destroying Saddam’s French-built Osiraq nuclear reactor in 1981. From their post in the CIA, Pollack and his colleagues echoed these warnings, but until 1989, in order to contain Iran, Washington’s policy remained “constructive engagement” with Iraq. While Saddam pursued his program to produce missiles and weapons of mass destruction as well as a “supergun” that could hit Tel Aviv, and threatened to “make the fire eat up half of Israel” if Israel attacked his country, visiting senators and US diplomats continued to assure him that the United States wanted good relations with him. In spite of warnings by Pollack and others that Saddam was serious about invading Kuwait, the friendly US policy continued up to the eve of the invasion that, had it succeeded, would have given Saddam limitless cash and control of 9 percent of the world’s oil, as well as put him in a position to threaten Saudi Arabia. Only as Iraqi tanks rolled into Kuwait did the policies of his former benefactors change. In Washington they changed with a vengeance, President George Bush going so far as to say that Saddam was worse than Hitler.

The Desert Storm operation stopped after just ninety hours of land fighting and posed no threat to Baghdad or to Saddam Hussein personally. Nor did the Desert Storm commanders give any support to the rebellions of the Shia in the south or the Kurds in the north, which President Bush had called for, and they were brutally suppressed by Saddam. The United States and the coalition put their trust in containing Saddam (sanctions, arms inspections, and the elimination of weapons of mass destruction) and in deterrence (the presence in the region of the overwhelming military strength of the United States).

Pollack concludes that UN Security Council Resolution 687, which set out the conditions for the cease-fire that ended Desert Storm, was based on several false assumptions. The first was that Desert Storm had destroyed most of Iraq’s facilities for making weapons of mass destruction. (In fact it destroyed only three out of seven of his major nuclear sites); secondly, that Iraq would cooperate with the UN and its arms inspectors because it would want to get the very stringent UN sanctions lifted as soon as possible (Saddam is estimated to have lost between $130 billion and $180 billion from oil export sanctions); and third, that Saddam Hussein himself would not last for long. In fact Saddam Hussein’s main concern was to stay in power and restore his tattered position, and he believed that, sanctions or no sanctions, weapons of mass destruction were essential to achieving that goal.

For ten years, as the coalition disintegrated, as the Iraqis played cat-and-mouse with the UN arms inspectors until they were pulled out in 1998, and as the sanctions were steadily eroded, containment and deterrence continued to be the policy. It was the shock of September 11, Pollack writes, that made the United States reevaluate the risks of doveish containment of Iraq and to consider the possibility, and the risk, of actually toppling Saddam Hussein. He estimates that Saddam today is weaker than in 1990 because of the destruction of half his army in Desert Storm, the effects of UN sanctions and arms inspections, the northern and southern No-Fly Zones, and a series of attempted coups against him. In other ways, however, Saddam is stronger. Pervasive state terror and mass executions have destroyed virtually all domestic opposition. Saddam’s stranglehold over the vast smuggling network that now evades the sanctions has made him and his cronies even richer than before, despite the destitution of the Iraqi people. (At an estimated cost of $2.5 billion a year, Saddam is believed to have built some fifty palaces since the Gulf War.) Above all, he has survived.

In a chapter called “The Threat,” Pollack tries to estimate the nature and reality of the dangers posed by Saddam Hussein to the outside world. This question is, or should be, the real basis of US or any other national policy, and it is hardly surprising that it is giving rise to much controversy. Pollack begins by saying that Saddam is probably “several years away from being an irremediable danger” because it will take that long for Iraq to get the necessary fissile material for nuclear weapons, and that in any case Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction are at present intended to deter domestic or regional threats, and to be used only as a last resort to resist “regime change.” Although there is no serious evidence of any link to al-Qaeda, he may also be trying to rebuild terrorist capacity; but Saddam is very much aware that terrorist acts would be a casus belli for the United States. If, however, his regime were immediately threatened he would certainly use any weapon available to lash out against his enemies. So far, these considerations would seem to present a fairly solid argument against invasion.

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