The Washington Times

At a conference here on trans-Atlantic relations jointly sponsored by the Potomac Foundation and the Hanns-Seidel-Stiftung, when the subject turns to Iraq, the question quickly becomes broader: How much faith is it possible to place in the idea of deterrence, the proposition that states, including Iraq, will refrain from the use [if not the acquisition] of weapons of mass destruction because they know that if they do resort to them, they will meet with massive retaliation that their current political leadership will not survive?

The corollary proposition, bolstered recently by a CIA assessment that appeared in the press, is that in the event the political leadership of such a state is faced with a challenge to its survival – “regime change” orchestrated by the United States – the likelihood of the use of weapons of mass destruction is higher, as the government feels it has nothing to lose.

In this reading, Saddam Hussein is deterred. This is so first of all because he values his own survival above anything else: He knows what the consequences of his use of such weapons would be, namely, his removal by force. The record from the first Gulf War to the present buttresses this proposition, say those who argue it. In the war itself, Saddam refrained from attacking coalition troops with chemical agents because he had been warned by officials from the first Bush administration that he would face overwhelming retaliation – by implication, nuclear. And although Saddam struck at Israel with Scud missiles, they were outfitted with conventional warheads, not the chemical or biological kind Saddam even then had at his disposal.

Saddam also knew that the objective of the Gulf War coalition was the ejection of Iraqi occupying forces from Kuwait: a limited objective that was not necessarily a matter of life or death for him and his government. Although some voices in the United States advocated continuing the march of U.S. forces on to Baghdad, the first Bush administration never seriously considered that course at the time [though some clearly regret not having done so now]. One retired American general noted that as U.S. forces swept through Kuwait to the Iraq border, their commanders viewed themselves as liberators; had they crossed the line into Iraq, that sense of the mission would have changed: They would be aggressors waging offensive war. This view was hardly confined to military ranks.

Saddam Hussein has remained deterred since then. As for the possibility of his transfer of weapons to third party non-state actors, proponents of this view ask why he would do that. In the first place, he would run the risk that such parties might turn the weapons back on him. In the second place, he would be keenly aware of the possibility that any use of such weapons might be traced back to him, unleashing a massive retaliatory strike that he could not expect to survive. In the end, Saddam is rational; he would not provide the occasion for his own demise; deterrence works.

This is a serious argument. During the 1990s, I viewed the containment of Saddam, as pursued by the Clinton administration, as a reasonable policy jeopardized only by the possibility of the erosion of the will necessary to pursue it seriously.

But two grave problems have since become clear. First is the now-certain knowledge that at least one non-state actor, al Qaeda, has the determination and [at least on occasion] the ability to reach targets in the United States. Deterrence, to the extent it holds, holds in relation to states. Al Qaeda and the like cannot be deterred.

Second, the rationality that is a precondition for deterrence is problematic. It is all too plausible that a state may be deterred with regard to its outward relations with other states yet covertly pursue a very different course. The assumption underlying deterrence is that covert action can have no decisive effect. But is that true? In Saddam, we have someone who is determined to acquire weapons of mass destruction covertly, in defiance of his agreement to disarm. How can we read this to support the proposition that we need not be too bothered about his covert intentions? If deterrence worked as well as advertised, Saddam wouldn’t be pursuing these weapons so assiduously in the first place. He would see it as a waste of time and money.

The combination of a dubious state actor with robust covert capabilities and non-state actors with proven global reach is simply too dangerous for complacency.

Nor should the United States despair of making its case. One German general noted that while “pre-emption” is a proposition that meets stiff resistance because it gets mired in the question of how imminent a threat is, the proposition that it is better to prevent disaster than to deal with its effects is something people respond to. He drew an analogy between the strategic shift from deterrence to “crisis prevention” and the shift in military doctrine from “massive retaliation” to “flexible response” to a possible Soviet invasion of Western Europe. At first, Europeans worried, but eventually, they came along.