Iraq's threat to U.S. exaggerated

September 26, 2002|By Michael O'Hanlon

WASHINGTON -- The claims of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney that Iraq might join with terrorists to strike the United States at any time are far-fetched.

Very little about the historical record or current intelligence lends credence to that view. It cannot be fully dismissed as a possibility, but it appears to be a remote one at worst.

There is a serious argument for overthrowing Saddam Hussein, but it is not as conclusive as Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr. Cheney argue. And it has more to do with how an Iraqi nuclear weapon might change Mr. Hussein's behavior in the region than with terrorism.

Consider the record. Mr. Hussein has not used weapons of mass destruction since the 1980s -- a time when he knew the United States would turn a blind eye to any such action. During Desert Storm and at all times since, he has rightly recognized that to use weapons of mass destruction against the United States, his neighbors, or even his own minority populations would almost surely lead to his own destruction.

Mr. Hussein's other behavior is also consistent with the picture of a tyrant who values his own life more than the pursuit of adventure or aggrandizement. He moved several brigades of forces south toward Kuwait in 1994, at a time when the Clinton administration seemed distracted and feckless to many, yet backed off when Defense Secretary William Perry announced the deployment of tens of thousands of U.S. forces in Operation Vigilant Warrior.

Even Mr. Hussein's ruthless and risky behavior since 1991 is consistent with a deterrable enemy. He has funded terrorists, but as best we can tell they have been exclusively anti-Israeli terrorists rather than groups such as Hezbollah or al-Qaida that make a habit of attacking Western targets.

Al-Qaida operatives in Iraq are found in parts of the country Mr. Hussein does not control, according to Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.

There is admittedly a possibility that Mr. Hussein might think he could give weapons of mass destruction to al-Qaida or Hezbollah and get away with it in the hope that they would strike U.S. targets. But even this scenario seems unlikely.

First, as best we can tell, Mr. Hussein has not given such weapons to terrorists to date.

Second, he knows he would be suspect No. 1 as the source of terrorists' weapons of mass destruction, should they ever conduct such an attack.

Third, he knows we can follow many of the meetings of his intelligence operatives with terrorists with at least some confidence of knowing who is working with whom.

Fourth, although our forensic analysis techniques are imperfect, we are capable of narrowing the sources of biological agents (the more dangerous of the two types of easily transported weapons of mass destruction) based on their DNA and other properties.

All that said, there is a case for overthrowing Mr. Hussein if we cannot re-establish and improve the inspections and disarmament process in Iraq. But it has more to do with the region's security than with any unlikely Hussein-al Qaida link.

If Mr. Hussein had a nuclear weapon, he would still almost surely be deterred from directly attacking the United States. But he might take greater risks in the Middle East and Persian Gulf in the belief that his nuke was a guaranteed regime survival card, making U.S. intervention to thwart his regional ambitions less likely except in the most extreme of circumstances.

For example, Mr. Hussein might seize the oil field on his border with Kuwait that was the purported original cause of the 1990 Iraq-Kuwait crisis. He might violate the safe haven in his country's Kurd region and seek to re-establish brutal Baath party rule over that minority population. He might escalate his support for anti-Israeli terrorism or increase his bluster at Israel's expense, stoking radicals and suicide bombers and trying to provoke Israel into an overreaction.

Given his propensity for miscalculation, he might think he could get away with actions that we would in fact find unacceptable, causing a breakdown of deterrence and a much greater risk of war.

But this worry, however real, is a far cry from another march to Munich of the type that the vice president and defense secretary have been warning us against. Mr. Cheney and Mr. Rumsfeld would be more credible and more effective in making their case for threatening force against Mr. Hussein if they cut back on the overdramatizations and stuck to the facts.

Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

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