The Washington Times

The pre-Christmas announcement that Libya’s ruler, Moammar Gadhafi, has decided to end his development programs for and destroy his stocks of weapons of mass destruction [WMD] marks a watershed moment in the new Bush administration strategy of prevention. Make no mistake about what has happened, thanks to deft diplomacy by the administration and Tony Blair’s government in Britain: Col. Gadhafi has concluded that he is safer without such weapons.

Some are trying mightily, but it is very difficult to understand Col. Gadhafi’s decision without reference to the regime change in Iraq. At the time U.S. and British forces entered Iraq, Saddam Hussein was widely believed to possess substantial stocks of chemical and biological weapons, to be working on delivery systems and to have nuclear ambitions. Where are the weapons, critics have asked, and it’s an important question with regard to Western intelligence capabilities. It also misses an important point.

If Saddam had really meant to give up on WMDs once and for all, he could easily have demonstrated it by cooperating fully with inspectors [long before matters reached a head in the U.N. Security Council a year ago], producing documentation that all his stocks had been eliminated and inviting an ongoing inspections/verification process involving the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Instead, he behaved furtively. The reports coming from senior regime scientists and military figures reveal massive confusion within Iraq about the state of play on WMD. As for forward deployment in Iraqi military units, no one had chemicals, but most seemed to think that others did. Saddam repeatedly asked his officials how long it would take to develop certain chemical and biological weapons, creating the impression within his government that he had every intention of beginning new programs when he felt he could safely do so. And defectors delivered messages about ongoing weapons programs, apparently in a disinformation campaign designed to discredit, over time, Western intelligence reports on Iraq [a ruse that one must concede was rather effective, albeit not with the result Saddam presumably intended, namely, getting out from under the U.N. sanctions].

The reason he behaved furtively is also becoming increasingly clear from former regime officials: He wanted certain people within Iraq and outside to think that he had these weapons. Creating this impression was valuable to him. It should perhaps not come as a surprise that a ruler who has maintained himself in power through the brutality of terror and repression should find it useful to his reputation for ruthlessness to be thought to possess the world’s worst weapons [along with a track record of using them against his own people]. Indeed, according to the statements of some former regime officials, Saddam thought the belief that he possessed such weapons would itself deter the United States from trying to topple him.

This is exactly the problem. The more that unsavory rulers around the world get the impression that possession of nuclear or chemical or biological weapons deters the United States, the more ambitious they may become in pursuit of such weapons. They will see these weapons as a net contribution to their own safety.

Now, the United States is unwilling to sit back idly while such a world comes into being, not only on the grounds that nuclear and other WMD proliferation by states is inherently bad, but also because of the possible nexus between states’ development of such weapons and terrorist organizations’ acquisition of them. So, the Bush administration announced a policy of preemption [more precisely, “prevention”] meant not only to deter the use of WMD but also to deter the acquisition and possession of WMD.

Hence, the action against Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq. The most important implication of that action outside Iraq was to be the creation of the impression that a determination to have WMD capabilities was, in turn, precisely the sort of impression that dictators would not want to give the United States. Rather than enhancing their security, the pursuit of such weapons would put them at grave risk, and even in the end, their possession would offer no guarantee of security and safety: There could be no certainty that the United States would be deterred from taking action even then, and the risk that the United States would take action to prevent the acquisition of a WMD capability by regime change would not be negligible.

Saddam Hussein does not get his government back because we have found no stocks of chemical and biological weapons. Instead, he has to live with the consequences of the impression he created.

When the Bush and Blair governments secretly confronted Libya with evidence of its WMD programs, Col. Gadhafi – who knew perfectly well that in his case, the intelligence was accurate – had a choice to make. He could either disarm conspicuously. Or he could face highly uncertain consequences.

He chose to disarm. That is exactly the point of a policy of prevention. It is designed to make the costs of pursuing WMD prohibitive, perhaps existentially so. And it’s working.