Nuclear threat overplays hand

January 02, 2003|By Lee Feinstein

WASHINGTON - Any good parent, boss or poker player knows the dangers of an exaggerated threat. The rule is simple. When you make a threat, be prepared to carry it out, otherwise the bluff will undercut your credibility the next time.

It is a point the Bush administration seems to have forgotten in the release recently of a "National Security Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction." The new policy, as explained to reporters, is to respond to the possible use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) by rogue regimes, such as Iraq, "with overwhelming force - including through resort to all our options." That means nuclear weapons.

At first glance, the announcement of the policy seems to be a welcome reflection of the administration's deadly seriousness in the effort to deter the use of WMD. In truth, nuclear threats add little to the ability to deter rogues such as Saddam Hussein and erode the ability to deter future attacks by other potential adversaries.

For most of the past 25 years, including during the 1991 Persian Gulf war, the United States did not specify how it would respond to a rogue attack with WMD other than to describe the response as "overwhelming" or "devastating." At the same time, Washington maintained a policy, still technically in place, that the United States would not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against nations that renounced them.

This was an intentionally ambiguous policy. It allowed potential adversaries and WMD proliferators to interpret U.S. actions in their own way. Some foes saw this as a nuclear warning while others saw it as a threat to respond with massive conventional force. The point was to be unspecific though credible in the exact response so that the United States could be viewed as carrying out its threat if challenged while providing incentive and space for nations seeking a face-saving way to renounce the nuclear option.

In dealing with Mr. Hussein in 1991, the first President Bush determined that "the best deterrent of the use of weapons of mass destruction by Iraq would be a threat to go after the Baath regime itself," according to the memoirs of then-Secretary of State James A. Baker III.

The United States made the necessary threat of the "strongest possible response" in the event Mr. Hussein used WMDs. But the danger that really mattered to Mr. Hussein was the threat to himself and his regime. The hint of other consequences, such as a nuclear attack, was probably a helpful indication of U.S. seriousness but, according to the then-president and Mr. Baker, of secondary importance in the Iraqi leader`s calculations.

President Bush had, in fact, privately decided to rule out the use of nuclear weapons, and U.S. officials at the time publicly reiterated the longstanding policy of not threatening to use nuclear weapons against states that don't have nuclear weapons, without saying whether that policy applied to Iraq.

The approach of the first Bush administration worked. As far as we know, Mr. Hussein did not authorize WMD use. Apart from traces of poison gas detected by Czech and other coalition forces, there is no evidence Mr. Hussein ordered the use of chemical weapons.

The question for the present Bush administration is this: What is gained by making a more explicit threat of nuclear retaliation now?

It is hoped that Mr. Hussein will interpret it as a further indication of U.S. seriousness, reinforcing the message that his only hope of remaining in power is to disarm.

But what if Mr. Hussein determines his regime will be terminated regardless and decides to unleash a chemical attack on U.S. troops or launches a chemical-tipped Scud missile against Israel, possibilities the CIA has said are more likely in the event of a military confrontation with Iraq?

The right answer is to follow the policies set by the first President Bush: Respond to the attacks with resolute conventional force and terminate Mr. Hussein's rule once and for all.

The paradoxical impact of the administration's new policy is that it undercuts what deterrent value nuclear weapons have because it threatens a response the United States would not carry out. To the degree nuclear weapons have value in deterring a potential rogue like Mr. Hussein, Washington undercuts its security by overplaying its hand.

Lee Feinstein is director for strategic policy at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. He was a senior State Department official during the Clinton administration.

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