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The Prospect of War

But the Saddam Hussein of 2002 is not necessarily a rational or even a pragmatic leader. His megalomania seems undiluted by disaster, criticism, reality, or bad news; it still drives him to try to acquire the military and political power that would enable him to become the leader of a new “Arab Union”—even the liberator of Jerusalem. If the United States were to pull its forces out of the region, he would be a serious threat to his neighbors. In 1990, at 1.4 million strong, his army was the fourth largest in the world. Even reduced to the present estimate of a somewhat bedraggled 430,000, it is more powerful than all of Iraq’s Arab Gulf neighbors combined.

Despite his frantic denials that Iraq has any weapons of mass destruction,1 there is little question that Saddam Hussein is convinced that his security and survival depend on the possession of such weapons, both as a deterrent and as a means of domestic control. They are also, in his eyes, the ultimate symbol and source of influence of a great and powerful state. Chemical weapons and missiles saved him from defeat by Iran and helped him to subdue the Kurds. Weapons of mass destruction are also his last resort. In August 1990, according to Pollack, Saddam ordered a crash program to produce a single nuclear warhead to be targeted on Israel if his regime was threatened (the warhead could not be produced). During Desert Storm he ordered biological and chemical warfare shells and missiles to be ready for use if the coalition forces marched on Baghdad. He apparently believes that this is the reason why they didn’t. He has also said that it was a mistake to invade Kuwait before he had nuclear weapons.

Saddam’s potential nuclear weapons are the basic argument for invading Iraq. By 1998 the International Atomic Energy Agency’s inspectors had accounted for, and eliminated, most, if not all, of the Iraqi nuclear weapons program, especially facilities to enrich uranium, but such activities are thought to have been resumed at full speed since then. Pollack estimates that Saddam can produce a nuclear weapon in three to six years if he has to enrich the uranium himself, or in one to two years if he can get fissile material from abroad.2 Nuclear weapons would give Saddam Hussein, if he was threatened, the capacity to lash out in desperation against Israel or his neighbors in a way that could deter the United States and everyone else.


Pollack feels that the policy of containment is too far gone to save. The UN sanctions are now so leaky that illegal goods flow into Iraq, and no one knows exactly what they are. The profits of smuggling are too enticing—even economically too important—to Iraq’s neighbors to be cut off by a new and stricter sanctions regime. There is, Pollack believes, no hope of stronger and more enforceable sanctions. He also believes that the UN arms inspections, as an element of containment, are a trap and that the new inspection team, the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), is inferior to the old one (UNSCOM). Moreover, he argues, proving that Iraq has not complied with the Security Council’s resolutions is a virtually impossible task. (It was only through defectors that the old inspection team got an accurate idea of the extent of Saddam’s programs for producing weapons of mass destruction.)

The greatly enhanced support and authority given to the UN inspectors by the Security Council resolution of November 8, 2002, might, or might not, have made Pollack more optimistic about their chances of success. The terms of that resolution are specifically designed to discourage Saddam from playing “cheat and retreat” as he did before, because any act of noncompliance with the inspectors will be considered by the Security Council, with the possibility of “serious consequences” for Iraq.

If containment is not an effective option, the choice, in Pollack’s view, is between deterrence and “regime change.” A policy of pure deterrence, as he conceives it, would mean that containment in the form of sanctions, inspections, even No-Fly Zones, would be allowed to lapse; Saddam Hussein would rebuild his program for weapons of mass destruction and eventually acquire nuclear weapons; and the United States would proclaim that any military move by Saddam beyond Iraq’s borders would set off an immediate and massive US military response. External aggression would be the only concern. (This is the classic form of deterrence as practiced against the Soviet Union in the cold war.)

The question is whether Saddam would be deterred after he had acquired nuclear weapons, i.e., his own counterdeterrent. Pollack comments that “all of the arguments in favor of deterrence are flawed in that they overstate the certainty that any leader in possession of nuclear weapons can be deterred at all times.” Although it seems to be widely believed that Saddam would not use nuclear weapons unless provoked, they would give him a powerful means to blackmail those wishing to deter him.

Pollack provides frightening examples of how Saddam Hussein might challenge nuclear deterrence if he had nuclear weapons. One well-placed nuclear explosion, and the attendant radiation, could halt indefinitely 90 percent of Saudi oil production—15 percent of the global oil supply. Because the world economy depends on cheap oil, a global depression would result even if the Iraqi regime were destroyed by a retaliatory strike. The cities within Iraqi missile range could also become convenient hostages against United States action. Pollack writes that with a leader so weird, ruthless, and even messianic, no scenario can be ruled out, and he concludes that if Saddam had nuclear weapons, deterrence would be the most dangerous of all options because there is no knowing whether in extremity Saddam would be willing to risk total destruction.

Pollack then considers other forms of direct intervention. He dismisses covert action or a coup by Iraqi opposition groups as pipe dreams in the light of Saddam’s formidable security apparatus and the divisions among the various Iraqi expatriate opposition groups. The choice then is between an Afghan-style operation with heavy bombing and relatively small numbers of US forces, along with increasing support from indigenous forces, and a full-scale invasion by US forces. An Afghan-style operation would depend overwhelmingly on internal Iraqi support and on regional allies. But could they be counted on? Fearing a popular backlash in their own countries, nearby governments already insist that any battle should not last a day longer than absolutely necessary. Moreover it would be necessary to station ground forces immediately in western Iraq to prevent Saddam from hitting Israel with his twenty or thirty Scud missiles carrying chemical or biological warheads.

Pollack feels that only a full-scale invasion provides a realistic approach to dealing with Saddam Hussein. He is confident that a full-scale invasion of Iraq, requiring in all some 300,000 troops and up to 1,000 aircraft, would be successful. He believes that speed, momentum, and initiative would win the day, although he admits that there is no clear evidence about how the Iraqi army, and especially the Republican Guard, which rings Baghdad, would fight or how the invasion would fare if there were street fighting, which was not a problem with Desert Storm. Nor is it known how Iraq’s existing chemical and biological weapons might come into play. One cannot help thinking that with the advantage of the avalanche of information and speculation about a US invasion provided by the Western media, Saddam Hussein must have had the time, and the incentive, to think up a few surprises of his own.

The key to the speedy success of an invasion, Pollack says, will be to convince large numbers of Iraqis that Saddam is finished and that further fighting is futile. He estimates that at worst the operation might take three to six months and 10,000 US combat deaths, and at best four to eight weeks with between 500 and 1,000 US dead.3 The agreement and cooperation of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States will be especially necessary. Pollack believes that, before agreeing to cooperate, the Saudis will demand a cease-fire and some sense of progress toward a settlement, and American evenhandedness, in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.4 They will also want the assurance that Saddam Hussein will be removed quickly and forever, as well as consultation about United States plans for rebuilding post-invasion Iraq.

Other Gulf States, Pollack says, would probably have similar demands. To preserve Arab cooperation it would be necessary, as in Desert Storm, to keep Israel out of the war and to protect Jordan, which is in too exposed a position to be actively involved. Since Saddam Hussein is too canny to provide a specific pretext for the invasion of Iraq, the rationale for the action will have to be based on “the unique threat posed by Saddam Hussein—the serial aggressor and mass murderer—and his pursuit of nuclear weapons.”

If the invasion succeeds, the US, and the world, will be faced with the even more perplexing, and much longer, task of rebuilding Iraq. Like other apparently insoluble problems created by imperial Britain around the world (Palestine, Kashmir, and Cyprus, to name only three) modern Iraq, which was set up after World War I—60 percent Shia, 20 percent Kurd, and about 20 percent Sunni, the ruling minority—has always presented a strong challenge to orderly government. Saddam has solved this problem by ruthlessness and sheer terror. Providing security after Saddam’s hoped-for demise and building a functioning economy and an inclusive political system are immensely ambitious goals. They will require large resources, patience, and great tact, determination, and understanding, as well as full cooperation from neighboring states and the international community. The problems are formidable, including the need not to add to the perception of United States imperialism that is already widespread in the Middle East. In this context, lightheaded notions of creating in Iraq a new, pluralist, “Arab-style democracy” that would eventually transform the political culture of the entire Arab world seem premature, to say the least.5

In his concluding chapter, “Not Whether, but When?,” Pollack castigates other nations in the United Nations for gravely weakening collective security, multilateral diplomacy, the UN Security Council, and international law by walking away from the problem of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. He believes that if the world passes up the opportunity to take action, it will not get another chance, and that the policies of containment and deterrence are dangerous traps, particularly after Saddam gets nuclear weapons. Invasion, with all its risks, is, he writes, the only way to ensure that Saddam Hussein will never again threaten the region or cause an international nuclear crisis. The risks of not invading—nuclear war or the destruction of the oil production of the Persian Gulf—are infinitely greater than even the worst projection of the costs of invasion.

Pollack does not advocate immediate invasion; he believes only that action must be taken before Saddam gets nuclear weapons. He argues that an invasion of Iraq would be unwise at the present stage when monthly warnings of al-Qaeda terrorist attacks are still coming in thick and fast. “In the immediate wake of 9/11,” he writes, “we rightly devoted all of the United States’ diplomatic, intelligence, and military attention to eradicating the threat from al-Qa’eda, and as long as that remains the case we should not indulge in a distraction as great as toppling Saddam.” Only when President Bush can assure the public that the Iraq operation will not diminish or distract the nation’s vigilance against al-Qaeda should he initiate the invasion of Iraq. Time is also needed to start a serious process of mediation in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. These conclusions would seem to impose a veritable judgment of Solomon on President Bush.


I have tried, at some length, to summarize Kenneth Pollack’s argument, because his book—comprehensive, well-informed, and for the most part down- to-earth—provides an invaluable antidote to the simplistic and sometimes emotional rhetoric from all sides that obscures this difficult question.

Plans for military campaigns are usually based on a calculation of the risks involved, and in the case of Iraq the risks, both from action and from inaction, are extremely hard to assess. An invasion of Iraq by the United States and Britain alone, even if it was a military success, could still have disastrous consequences. It could distract and divide the international effort in the war on terrorism at a particularly dangerous moment. It would almost certainly provide a new generation of recruits for al-Qaeda, as well as give substance to the myth already prevalent in the Muslim world that the United States is making war on Islam, thus substantially increasing the danger to Americans in many parts of the world, including their own.

An invasion also might well destabilize some weaker governments in the region and give a new impetus to Islamic extremism. This could be particularly serious in Pakistan, which has nuclear weapons, a rapidly growing Islamic militant movement, a chronic economic and unemployment crisis, and is reported to be providing, in Karachi, a new base for al-Qaeda. The possible financial and economic costs of an invasion are ominously spelled out in Professor William D. Nordhaus’s recent article in these pages.6 Among unexpected problems, there is the possibility that in the confusion of the battlefield, the chemical and biological weapons that are spread around Iraq for their concealment will easily fall into the hands of terrorists who would be under no restraints from using them.7 And finally, as Kenneth Pollack himself and others have pointed out,8 the most likely cause for Saddam Hussein to use his weapons of mass destruction would be a direct threat to himself and his regime. On the other hand, failure to take timely action to prevent Saddam Hussein from acquiring nuclear weapons presents an equally dismaying series of possibilities, vividly set out in Pollack’s book.

The question now is whether the Security Council resolution of November 8, which has been considered a major breakthrough by virtually all governments except Iraq, can really provide a workable alternative to war. Saddam Hussein has accepted the resolution with bad grace and the UN inspectors have returned to Iraq with a very tough new mandate that, theoretically at least, will empower them to go anywhere, see whatever they want, and talk to anyone they wish. By December 8, Iraq is required to provide a complete declaration of all its weapons of mass destruction—a task that may well be complicated by the denial on November 13 that Iraq has any weapons of mass destruction at all.

The UN inspectors will have to check this declaration. If they are obstructed, or if, by February 21, 2003, their findings fail to confirm the elimination of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, the “serious consequences” mentioned in the resolution will presumably include the approval of the use of force. If it does not, the US will probably go ahead on its own. As President Bush put it on November 8, “The United States has agreed to discuss any material breach [of Iraq’s obligations] with the Security Council, but without jeopardizing our freedom of action to defend our country.”9 With the current US policy of “zero tolerance” for Iraqi noncooperation, there is likely to be strong disagreement in the Security Council about the degree of “material breach” by Iraq that would justify “serious consequences,” i.e., war. The current atmosphere of qualified, “so-far-so-good” general satisfaction was well captured in the New York Times editorial of November 9. “The council’s unified stand maximizes the possibility, admittedly slim, that Iraq can be disarmed without war.”10

One striking feature of the days following November 8 has been the absence of talk about “regime change.” Another is that by its recent unanimous resolution the Security Council seems to accept the possibility of forceful preemptive action, and for the first time in years the entire membership has united around a strong position on Iraq. In the period before February 21, 2003, it must be hoped that the inspectors will be able to provide a clear and nonspeculative picture of Iraq’s programs for weapons of mass destruction and especially of nuclear activity. That picture is urgently needed if the present, apparent international solidarity is to be maintained.

Many governments, including at least two permanent members of the Security Council—France and Russia—have important economic and financial ties with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. While the United States is at present continuing to seek the legitimizing authority of the Security Council and multilateral cooperation before taking military action, those governments must surely be in a special position to influence Saddam Hussein to comply with the council’s resolutions. Neighboring countries in Asia are now trying to make the other current aspirant to nuclear weapons, North Korea, another weird and ruthless tyranny, see sense about its nuclear weapons programs. Presumably similar approaches could be made to Saddam Hussein.

Acquiring fissile materials from abroad is the key to accelerating Iraq’s nuclear weapons programs. Paragraph 10 of the November 8 resolution requests all states to cooperate, among other ways, by providing information on Iraq’s attempts “to acquire prohibited items.” Both the war on terrorism and the threat of Iraq require that all governments with nuclear capacity do all they can to safeguard fissile materials and cooperate with each other in this effort. It would be helpful if the public could be reassured, with facts, about this particularly unnerving aspect of both problems.

The only government that benefits from highly public disagreement over Iraq is Saddam Hussein’s regime. For the moment, almost miraculously, governments seem to be united around a common understanding of a potential threat to the peace and a plan of action that is somewhere between the ostrich-like policies of those who hope to avoid trouble and even make short-term gains, and those who demand immediate action regardless of its possibly calamitous consequences. That unity, however tenuous, must be maintained, especially if and when there is to be military action. If such action is not to have catastrophic consequences, it must be genuinely multilateral. There are other serious threats to peace and stability in the world, some of them involving nuclear weapons, and the unity of the governments in the United Nations is needed to deal with them as well. The problem of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, real as it is, should not monopolize attention or be blown out of proportion. To have become the obsession of so much of the world is an achievement that this squalid tyrant would not, even in his wildest dreams, have dared to hope for.

  1. 1

    See letter of November 13, 2002, from Iraq’s foreign minister, Nafi Sabrí, to Secretary-General Kofi Annan, The New York Times, November 14, p. 20.

  2. 2

    Other sources put it slightly differently. British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s intelligence dossier, Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Assessment of the British Government (London: Stationery Office, September 2002), says that Iraq might have nuclear weapons in five years if they had to produce fissile material on their own, “between one and two years” if they obtain such material from foreign sources. The report of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction: A Net Assessment, states that Iraq will “require several more years” to develop the capacity to produce fissile material, but that “if, somehow, Iraq were able to acquire sufficient nuclear material from foreign sources, it could probably produce nuclear weapons on short order, perhaps in a matter of months.”

  3. 3

    US casualties in Desert Storm were 79 killed in action (including friendly fire), 212 wounded, and 45 missing. See James Chace, “New World Disorder,” The New York Review, December 17, 1998.

  4. 4

    The report that Benjamin Netanyahu has announced his opposition to a Palestinian state (The New York Times, November 4, 2002) will not help in this matter.

  5. 5

    For a thoughtful critique of this idea, see Marina Ottaway, Thomas Carothers, Amy Hawthorne, and Daniel Brumberg, Democratic Mirage in the Middle East (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Policy Brief, October 20, 2002.)

  6. 6

    Iraq: The Economic Consequences of War,” The New York Review, December 5, 2002.

  7. 7

    See Daniel Benjamin, “In the Fog of War, a Greater Threat,” The Washington Post, October 31, 2002.

  8. 8

    See, for example, the letter dated October 7, 2002, from the director of central intelligence, George J. Tenet, to Senator Bob Graham, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. The New York Times, October 9, 2002.

  9. 9

    Remarks by the President on the Security Council’s Resolution, the Rose Garden, November 8, 2002.

  10. 10

    A Unified Message to Iraq,” The New York Times, November 9, 2002.

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