The Washington Times

The main reason for going to war in Iraq, in my view then and now, was the danger posed by Saddam Hussein going forward. This is a view I came to only after starting to think about the nexus of rogue states [such as Saddam’s Iraq], terrorist organizations [such as al Qaeda] and weapons of mass destruction [WMD] that might be produced using the resources of states but transferred to terrorist organizations for release.

Before that, I tended to regard Saddam as contained – which is to say, dangerous but deterred from making serious trouble by international [especially American and British] vigilance. What September 11 revealed was that it was no longer adequate to think about state actors who are internationally accountable for their actions without also thinking about what states may be doing covertly in relation to the capabilities of non-state actors who don’t have a return address at which we can hold them accountable.

The best solution to this vexing problem will at times involve taking pre-emptive action, or more precisely preventive action, against certain states where the nexus with terrorist organizations and WMD is strong. It is fair to ask how often a situation justifying recourse to prevention is likely to arise. My hope is that such circumstances will not arise very often. But that is no mere hope. It is based as well on what I take to be the message the United States sent by attacking and toppling Saddam Hussein [a message that stands in its own right quite apart from issues having to do with the aftermath of the fall of his regime].

The message is that, in some cases at least, the United States regards an apparent desire to possess weapons of mass destruction as cause for grave suspicion. In such cases, a state’s continued pursuit of such capabilities after having been warned off internationally by the United States and others may indeed lead to military action by the United States. And henceforth, the military action under contemplation by the United States will not end with limited strikes against specific targets of concern but will include pursuit of “regime change,” by which is meant first and foremost the destruction of the old regime.

In the case of Iraq, in other words, the United States added some muscle to the proposition implicit in a decade’s worth of Security Council resolutions insisting that Saddam disarm and show evidence of having done so: Some regimes are too dangerous, based on their records at home and abroad, to be allowed to possess weapons of the worst sort. We seek to deter not merely the use of weapons of mass destruction but also in certain cases the possession or acquisition of weapons of mass destruction.

Thus, while the first-order security objective was to prevent Saddam from doing anything with WMD going forward, the second-order security objective – of vastly greater consequence, but establishable only by the achievement of the first-order goal – was to prevent the emergence of future Saddam Husseins: namely, leaders willing to leave the impression that they are in possession of or in hot pursuit of these especially nasty weapons.

To return to my hope, I would hope that we had established in the minds of others that it would be dangerous for them for the United States to come to the conclusion that they are the next Saddam Hussein. If they understand this and fear the result, the surest way for them to avoid the fate of Saddam is to conduct themselves in such a fashion as to ensure that the United States and the international community couldn’t possibly mistake them for a Saddam.

Did it work? It is, of course, too soon to offer anything like a conclusive judgment. On the negative side of the ledger, we have the ongoing nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran. These programs, however, long predate the Iraq war, and in both cases, diplomatic efforts to persuade the two regimes to abandon their nuclear aspirations are works in progress. But one can hardly point to a sudden change in heart as a result of the Iraq example. North Korea seems genuinely to believe that the risk of acquiring nuclear weapons is worth taking because the result will be greater safety for the regime.

On the positive side of the ledger, there is Libya. Moammar Gadhafi conspicuously abandoned his WMD programs on the eve of the Iraq war. He apparently has concluded that the safer course for him is to do without the weapons programs. This led in turn to an intelligence windfall on the nuclear trade from Pakistan’s chief weapons scientist.

I think we may also be able to take into consideration a number of dogs that aren’t barking, if not now, then soon. Are other states of concern rushing to develop weapons programs – or are they keeping their heads down? The answer to that question, which depends as well on U.S. resolve going forward, not least in North Korea, is the real test of success for a policy of prevention.