Saddam Hussein
Saddam Hussein; drawing by David Levine

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.

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.

This Issue

December 19, 2002