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Column: Saddam and his worthless nukes

As the rhetoric surrounding the Iraq question intensifies, it has become fashionable for White House insiders to compare this debate to that which took place in pre-World War II Britain. In this delightful Churchillian fantasy, President George W. Bush's prophetic vision is destined to save the western world from the fallacies of appeasement. What a tantalizing thought--Bush as the second Churchill!

Before Bush starts demanding his knighthood, it is only sensible to debunk this whole parable. As a tremendous admirer of Sir Winston, I dare say that it is more than a little disingenuous to liken the current president, as capable as he may be, to the greatest wartime statesman of the last century.

More importantly, it is ludicrous to suppose that the threat currently posed to the United States by Iraq is anything like that posed by Germany to global security in 1939. The Wehrmacht was the most powerful military in the world, had taken over much of central Europe, and represented a clear existential threat to Britain.

Iraq's army, at only a third of its 1991 strength and largely made up of hungry conscripts, makes Saddam the head of a middling regional power. Iraq failed to defeat Iran in the 1980s--despite its use, as everyone hastens to point out, of chemical weapons--and as things stand, Saudi Arabia alone could probably knock over the corrupt Baghdad regime. Iraq has no navy or air force to speak of, and no-fly zones mean that half of his own country is out of Saddam's reach.

Ah yes, the hawks declare, but Saddam has chemical weapons--and what's more, he is the only living world leader to have actually used them! Yes, he did, there is no doubt about that, but that fact says nothing about his willingness to use them against the United States. Consider the targets against whom he used these weapons. What did Iran and Iraqi Kurds have in common? Both lacked any serious retaliatory capability, and Saddam knew it.

Now, note the targets he did not attack with nonconventional weapons when he had the chance--Israel, U.S. bases around the gulf and the coalition forces that massed on Iraq's borders in 1991. Saddam had at his disposal anthrax, VX, mustard gas and all the other parts of his maniacal toolkit. He had publicly threatened to "burn half of Israel."

But he didn't do that. He didn't even try. Why not? Because unlike Iran and the Kurds, the potential targets listed above were capable of massive retaliation, and that is something Saddam cannot afford not to fear.

Dick Cheney, then Secretary of Defense, warned in 1991 that "we have a wide range of military capabilities that will let us respond with overwhelming force--should he be foolish enough to use chemical weapons." British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd added that such a move on Iraq's part would "provoke a response that would completely destroy that country."

The Israelis had nuclear missiles on alert and were ready to launch on warning. It is not hard to discern Saddam's modus operandi under these circumstances. He blustered and blustered, as all petty despots tend to do, but at the eleventh hour��the moment of truth--he blinked. Self-preservation, rather than the alternative, was his preferred choice. It usually is for people who make decisions based on a simple dichotomy--do they gain, or do they lose?

The fear now is that Saddam is only a few years away from developing a workable nuclear device, armed with which he could extort concessions from his neighbors and the West. That may be his aim, but I fail to see how nukes will strengthen his hand. If nuclear blackmail were effective, Taiwan would ruled by Beijing, and Berliners would be learning Russian instead of listening to Kennedy speeches. More firepower will not give Saddam what he most wants--hegemony in the Arab world--because the balance of power is still tilted against him and always will be.

The strongest argument for war is that Iraq might give (or, more likely, sell) his nukes to a group like al Qaeda. Admittedly, this is a far more credible threat than launching missiles at Riyadh. While there can be no guarantee that he won't engage in such dirty commerce, there is no evidence that he ever did, since ruling the gulf is at odds with Islamic radicals. I would also argue that Saddam and his advisors are smart enough to understand the consequences of a nuclear attack on New York or London. Having seen the utter destruction of the Taliban, they should assume that a far worse fate would befall any country determined to have sponsored terror with weapons of mass destruction.

As serious as this threat may be, it is less terrifying than the prospect of a war gone awry--a risk that cannot be discounted. Imagine this nightmare scenario. Once U.S. forces invade Iraq with the stated objective of regime change, Saddam knows that the game is over unconstrained by the fear of retaliation, uses his last hours in power to attack the closest U.S. ally, Israel, with toxin-armed warheads. We all know how Israel would respond. If Bush goes ahead with his plan, there will be a plausible threat of a regional nuclear war. This is far too high a price to pay for ending an uncomfortable, though stable, status quo.

Regime change would be justified only if Saddam did one of the following in the future: provoke a confrontation by attacking a neighbor; threaten the United States or its allies with nonconventional weapons; or sponsor acts of terror and groups that plan them.

For now, inspectors need to do their job, and I am inclined to believe that the Iraqi leadership has done some thinking and is now serious about complying. Let us give it an opportunity to follow through. Any other course of action, to use the words of the president's father, just wouldn't be prudent.

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