With the Bush administration set to put a resolution on Iraq before the United Nations Security Council next week, those opposed to war will rally around the notion that Saddam Hussein can be deterred from aggression. They will continue to say that the mere presence of United Nations inspectors will prevent him from building nuclear weapons, and that even if he were to acquire them he could still be contained.
Unfortunately, these claims fly in the face of 12 years—and in truth more like 30 years—of history.
Observers have a very poor track record in predicting the progress of the Iraqi nuclear weapons program. In the late 1980’s, the nuclear experts of the American intelligence services were convinced that the Iraqis were at least 5 and probably 10 years away from having a nuclear weapon. For its part, the International Atomic Energy Agency did not even believe that Iraq had a nuclear weapons program. After the 1991 Persian Gulf war, United Nations inspectors found that not only did Iraq have a program far more extensive than anyone had realized, but it was also less than two years away from producing a weapon.
Four years later, the international agency was so certain that it had eradicated the Iraqi nuclear program that it wanted to end aggressive inspections in favor of passive “monitoring.” Then a slew of defectors came out of Iraq—including Hussein Kamel al-Majid, the son-in-law of Saddam Hussein who led the Iraqi program to build weapons of mass destruction; Wafiq al-Samarrai, one of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence chiefs; and Khidhir Hamza, a leading scientist with the nuclear weapons program. These defectors reported that outside pressure had not only failed to eradicate the nuclear program, it was bigger and more cleverly spread out and concealed than anyone had imagined it to be.
In the late 1990’s, American and international nuclear experts again concluded that the Iraqi nuclear program was dormant: yes, the scientists were still working in teams; yes, they still had all of the plans; and yes, they probably were hiding some machinery—but they were not making any progress. Then another batch of important defectors escaped to Europe and told Western intelligence services that after the inspectors left Iraq in 1998, Saddam Hussein had started a crash program to build a nuclear weapon and that the Iraqis had devised methods to hide the effort.
The reports of these defectors prompted the German intelligence service in 2001 to conclude that Iraq was only three to six years away from having one or more nuclear weapons. Today, the American, British and Israeli intelligence services believe that unless he is stopped, Saddam Hussein is likely to acquire a nuclear weapon in the second half of this decade.
Even this estimate may be overly optimistic. While it’s true that the presence of weapons inspectors does hamper the Iraqis, there are some critical caveats. We simply do not know how close Iraq is to acquiring a nuclear weapon, nor do we know to what extent the inspectors’ presence is slowing the Iraqi program. What we do know is that for more than a decade we have consistently overestimated the ability of inspectors to impede the Iraqi efforts and we have consistently underestimated how far along Iraq has been toward acquiring a nuclear weapon.
Former Brookings Expert
Resident Scholar - AEI
For all of these reasons the assurances from Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, that he has Iraq’s nuclear program well in hand should be less than comforting.
Nor is there reason to be confident about how Saddam Hussein will behave once he has acquired a nuclear weapon.
He has been anything but circumspect about his aspirations: He has stated that he wants to turn Iraq into a “superpower” that will dominate the Middle East, to liberate Jerusalem and to drive the United States out of the region. He has said he believes the only way he can achieve his goals is through the use of force. Indeed, his half-brother and former chief of intelligence, Barzan al-Tikriti, was reported to say that Iraq needs nuclear weapons because it wants “a strong hand in order to redraw the map of the Middle East.”
It is probably true that fear of retaliation kept Iraq from using chemical weapons against coalition forces during the gulf war. However, this should give us little comfort that he will be similarly deterred in the future. Before the 1991 war, Secretary of State James Baker warned his Iraqi counterpart, Tariq Aziz, that Iraq faced “terrible consequences” if it used weapons of mass destruction, mounted terrorist attacks or destroyed Kuwaiti oil fields.
Yet despite this warning, Saddam Hussein tried to send terrorist teams to America and did blow up the Kuwaiti oil fields—he simply gambled on which two of the three things Mr. Baker mentioned were unlikely to result in America ending the regime. (Many officials from that Bush administration have suggested, in fact, that Saddam Hussein didn’t even make the right calculation.)
Proponents of deterrence also argue that since nobody has ever actually tried to deter Saddam Hussein from attacking another country, how can we claim that doing so will be difficult in the future? The example most often cited is the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, where the common wisdom holds that because of the botched messages he received from the American ambassador, April Glaspie, Iraq had no reason to believe we would fight.
In fact, all the evidence indicates the opposite: Saddam Hussein believed it was highly likely that the United States would try to liberate Kuwait, but convinced himself that we would send only lightly armed, rapidly deployable forces that would be quickly destroyed by his 120,000-man Republican Guard. After this, he assumed, Washington would acquiesce to his conquest.
Much of the evidence for this remains classified, but at least two points can be made using public material: Tariq Aziz has told reporters that this was what Saddam Hussein thought at the time; and we know that when the Republican Guards invaded Kuwait they moved quickly—even before they had consolidated control over the country—to set up defenses along Kuwait’s borders and against amphibious and airborne landings.
In other words, Saddam Hussein thinks we tried to deter him, and that we failed. He was ready and willing to fight the United States for Kuwait.
Even that crushing defeat, however, didn’t dim his adventurism. Just two years later he attempted to assassinate the emir of Kuwait and former President Bush. This was not a rational act but a meaningless bid for revenge. And he is lucky that the attempts failed. If they had succeeded, there is no question that the United States would have obliterated his regime.
Then, in October 2000, he dispatched five divisions to western Iraq. All of the evidence available to the American government indicated that, with the acquiescence of Damascus, he intended to move them through through Syria and into the Golan Heights. In response, Washington began preparing a military strike far greater than Desert Fox of 1999 (which itself prompted revolts throughout Iraq for six months), and the Israeli military planned its own crushing response. Only American and Saudi diplomatic intervention with Syria, combined with the Iraqi military’s logistical problems, quashed the adventure.
Most ominous today, we have heard from many intelligence sources—including some of the highest-level defectors now in America and abroad—that Saddam Hussein believes that once he has acquired nuclear weapons it is the United States that will be deterred. He apparently believes that America will be so terrified of getting into a nuclear confrontation that it would not dare to stop him should he decide to invade, threaten or blackmail his neighbors.
America has never encountered a country that saw nuclear weapons as a tool for aggression. During the cold war we feared that the Russians thought this way, but we eventually learned that they were far more conservative. Our experts may be split on how to handle North Korea, but they agree that the Pyongyang regime wants nuclear weapons for defensive purposes—to stave off the perceived threat of an American attack. The worst that anyone can suggest is that North Korea might blackmail us for economic aid or sell such weapons to someone else (with Iraq being near the top of that list). Only Saddam Hussein sees these weapons as offensive—as enabling aggression.
Finally, we cannot forget that all evidence has shown Saddam Hussein to be an incorrigible optimist who willfully ignores signs of danger. Consider that on at least five occasions over the last three decades, he has embarked on foreign policy adventures that nearly destroyed him: his attack on Iraq’s Kurds in 1974 (which might have ended in an Iranian assault on Baghdad if the shah of Iran had not unexpectedly decided to double-cross the Kurds instead); his invasion of Iran in 1980; his invasion of Kuwait in 1990; his assassination attempt against former President Bush in 1993; and his threatened attack on Kuwait in 1994. In each case, he took a course of action that we know even his closest advisers considered extremely dangerous.
This is the problem with Saddam Hussein. The assertion that he is not intentionally suicidal may be true, but it is irrelevant. In the end, he has frequently proven inadvertently suicidal.
And he seems to be doing it again. With more than 150,000 American soldiers taking positions on his borders he continues to run the international inspectors in circles, foolishly confident that his minor concessions will stave off an invasion. Is there any other person on earth who wouldn’t turn his country inside out to prove that he did not have more weapons of mass destruction? Once again, he seems to be betting his life that the game is not as dangerous as everyone else thinks it is.
Given Saddam Hussein’s current behavior, his track record, his aspirations and his terrifying beliefs about the utility of nuclear weapons, it would be reckless for us to assume that he can be deterred. Yes, we must weigh the costs of a war with Iraq today, but on the other side of the balance we must place the cost of a war with a nuclear-armed Iraq tomorrow.
For all of us who care about preventing an Iranian nuclear bomb, what’s the best way to keep preventing that? [The JCPOA is] not perfect, but it’s something. These conventions are never based on the premise that all the parties are telling the truth, it’s about enforcement mechanisms. No arms control agreement is based in trust.
Pompeo undoubtedly will rely on his shared political perspective and his personal relationship with the president, but given the way this president plays this role, it’s hard to see how you’re not going to have some degree of daylight.