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Iraq's a Loose Cannon, So U.S. Must Fire First

Western ideas of deterrence don't apply to Hussein.

September 23, 2002|AVIGDOR HASELKORN

Look for the agendas behind the words of those who came out in praise of Saddam Hussein's agreement to readmit the United Nations arms inspectors into Iraq.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, for example, sees reaffirmation of the role of the United Nations and the principle of collective security. Amr Moussa, the secretary-general of the Arab League, seeks to spare Iraq a crushing military defeat that could tip the regional strategic balance toward Israel. China, Russia and France have their own political, diplomatic and economic motives.

But all have one thing in common: Stopping Hussein is secondary to their prime interest, which is controlling the Bush administration. All are afraid that a resounding American military victory in Iraq would encourage additional such moves to consolidate U.S. global supremacy.

And yet the bottom line is that there is no way to deal with the likes of Hussein other than a preemptive strike. Here is why:

First, Hussein's actions cannot be explained using Western strategic concepts such as deterrence. For example, during the 1991 Gulf War, Hussein repeatedly attacked Israeli population centers despite grave and ominous warnings from Israel.

At the time, Lt. Gen. Charles A. Horner, commander of the U.S. Air Force in the Persian Gulf, wrote that "Saddam Hussein, in many ways, was indifferent to nuclear weapons. In fact, sometimes I wonder if he really was not looking for Israel to throw a nuclear weapon at him."

Further, months before he went into Kuwait, precipitating the Gulf crisis, Hussein declared publicly that he had delegated to his military commanders the authority to launch weapons of mass destruction against Israel. Accordingly, they were authorized to fire such weapons at Israel if they suspected an atomic attack on Iraq and could not communicate with their superiors.

While many analysts questioned the veracity of this extraordinary claim, given Hussein's notorious distrust of his military and the impact of this posture on Israel's incentive to preempt, it is now known that the Iraqi leader did indeed do this. One shudders to think what could have happened during Desert Storm, when Iraqi command and control links were systematically severed, if an Iraqi commander had misunderstood his situation.

Finally, in 1991, two weeks before the launching of the ground war by the coalition forces, Hussein started targeting the Israeli nuclear reactor in Dimona. This was not an act of last resort but one of deliberate escalation. And while Iraq's Scud missiles were too crude to hit any specific target in Israel, Hussein's actions cannot be viewed as entirely rational under the circumstances.

Little wonder that Israeli authorities have begun distributing potassium iodide pills to people residing in the vicinity of the country's two nuclear reactors, to provide some protection against radiation fallout in the event of a new Iraqi attack.

Similarly, the Sept. 11 attacks must be seen as shattering our traditional strategic concepts. The launching of devastating attacks from long distances using only primitive tactics and weapons and the zeal of martyrdom seekers puts into question our ability to rely on sophisticated militaries to defend ourselves. In contrast to Western beliefs in restraint and strategic deterrence, both Hussein and Osama bin Laden have shown that power is what one is willing to use.

And consider this about the critics of President Bush's lonely insistence on a preemptive doctrine: None faces the threat of determined zealots armed with weapons of mass destruction to the extent that the United States does. Thus the alternate diplomatic and political "solutions" advanced so far are simply irrelevant.

A strategy of preemption might be militarily risky and politically costly. Yet it is the only strategy that addresses directly the new threats facing the U.S.

While, for political reasons, the U.S. may want to be seen as acting on the basis of the collective will of the international community, this is not the best choice from a strategic perspective. The more the U.S. acts unilaterally and the greater the perception that the U.S. is an unchecked and unpredictable power, the better it is for U.S. security and for world peace.


Avigdor Haselkorn is the author of "The Continuing Storm: Iraq, Poisonous Weapons and Deterrence" (Yale University Press, 1999).

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