Foreign Policy

Deterring the Egomaniac du Jour

War is not necessary to keep a street thug in check.

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Brink Lindsey wants to argue that Saddam Hussein is reckless, but even he now concedes that "No country, not even one as rash as Iraq, would dare to use weapons of mass destruction against the United States because of the threat of overwhelming retaliation."

That is, Iraq is entirely capable of being deterred. It is reasonable to extrapolate to suggest that this deterrent would surely hold for an attack on Israel, which has an enormous retaliatory capacity and an even greater incentive to respond. And, I would suggest, it holds as well for just about any substantial military provocation that Saddam might think about engineering.

It is true that much of the world managed to contain its outrage when Iraq invaded Iran in 1980. However, that was because the attack was directed against Khomeini's seemingly expansionary theocracy, which was seen to be a bigger threat at the time. It is simply not true that "the world" was "all too happy to acquiesce in Kuwait's disappearance" when Iraq invaded it in 1990. There was almost universal condemnation of the attack, even from Iraq's erstwhile friend and ally, the Soviet Union, and the debate was over tactics: whether to use war immediately to push back the aggression or to wait longer to see if sanctions could do the trick.

Reaction to a third Saddam adventure would surely follow the Kuwait pattern except that the troops would now go all the way to Baghdad. Moreover, as I've suggested, Saddam's army, which even he finds unreliable, would be unlikely to carry out patently suicidal orders even if they were issued—as it showed in the Gulf War of 1991.

Lindsey's appreciation for Saddam's egomania is fully justified. It's just that egomania is standard equipment for your average Third World tyrant. Indonesia's Sukarno haughtily withdrew from the United Nations and set up his own competing operation in Djakarta (only China joined); Egypt's Nasser (Saddam's sometime inspiration) planned to unite and dominate the Arab world and died quietly in bed after being humiliated by Israeli arms; Khomeini's global revolution has essentially been voted out even in its Iranian homeland, and Cuba's Castro probably still hopes to become the new Simon Bolivar of Latin America. Self-important street thugs like Saddam Hussein love to flail and fume in the company of sycophants, but that doesn't make them any less pathetic.

We are left with the warning that Saddam will palm off weapons of mass destruction to shadowy terrorists to deliver for him. Lindsey is rather unusual in suggesting that Saddam might do this with nuclear weapons (which, of course, he doesn't have and perhaps never will have). Most assume he would selfishly keep them himself to help deter an attack on Iraq.

The case is more plausible for chemical or biological weapons—which, however, have proven to be so difficult to deploy effectively that it is questionable whether they should be considered weapons of "mass destruction" at all, as Gregg Easterbrook points out in the October 7, 2002 issue of The New Republic. But terrorists may be after these weapons anyway, and the question is whether it is worth a war to inconvenience just one of many potential sources. Moreover, as Daniel Benjamin pointed out in the Washington Post yesterday, the best CIA assessment is that Saddam and al Qaeda are most likely to bed together if his regime is imminently threatened by the preventive war (it would be in no reasonable sense an act of preemption) that Lindsey so ardently advocates.