Commentary

Missing the Point: Bush’s Speech to the U.N.

This article was published in the Orange County Register, Sept. 15, 2002.

In his speech to the U.N. General Assembly, President Bush challenged the world body to enforce the various resolutions that it had passed since 1991 requiring Iraq to unconditionally accept the dismantling of its chemical and biological weapons and nuclear research facilities. If the U.N. proves unwilling or unable to enforce those resolutions, Bush indicated that the United States would take action on its own.

Bush’s speech was a classic case of missing the point. The pertinent issue is whether Saddam Hussein poses a serious threat to the security of the United States. If he does, this country is justified in taking whatever steps are necessary to terminate that threat. Whether the U.N. approves of Washington’s course is irrelevant. Although it might be desirable to have the U.N.’s endorsement, America’s security cannot be held hostage to the vagaries of multilateral diplomacy.

But does Iraq pose a serious, credible threat to America? If President Bush were a prosecutor in a criminal case, the evidence that he has presented thus far would not be sufficient to secure an indictment, much less a conviction. The administration’s case essentially argues that: 1) Saddam Hussein is intent on acquiring nuclear weapons; 2) he is on the verge of success in that effort; and 3) if he does develop nuclear weapons, he will use them against the United States or its allies.

The administration may be right on the first point, but its other two allegations are dubious. Recent reports from two prominent think tanks concluded that Iraq is years away from being able to build even a crude nuclear weapon, much less deploy a usable arsenal. Moreover, even if Iraq is able someday to deploy a small arsenal, the administration has yet to explain why the United States would be unable to deter an attack.

That professed loss of faith in deterrence seems disingenuous. The United States successfully deterred the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin and his successors. We were able to do so for decades, even though the USSR ultimately acquired thousands of nuclear weapons. The United States also deterred China when that country developed a nuclear weapons capability beginning in the mid-1960s.

Given that historical record, why does Washington conclude that Saddam Hussein would be undeterrable? The president and his advisers cannot believe that Saddam is more brutal than the totalitarian dictators the United States deterred in the past. Stalin and Mao were genocidal monsters who make Saddam look like a rank amateur. Moreover, brutality is not the same as irrationality. Stalin and Mao butchered millions of their own people — 70 million combined — but they also understood that they would be signing their own death warrants if they ever attacked the United States.

Saddam likewise understands that the consequence of attacking the United States would be political and personal annihilation. Notably, he refrained from using chemical weapons against U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf war. Furthermore, a man who sleeps in a different location each night to maximize his chances of survival does not seem the suicidal type.

Even the argument that Saddam might pass along a nuclear weapon to al Qaeda or another terrorist group is not credible. Saddam knows that if terrorists detonated such a weapon against an American target, he would be at the top of a short list of suspects. Terrorists are far more likely to get a weapon of mass destruction on the black market from the Russian mafia than they are to get it from Iraq.

The administration’s most plausible argument is that Baghdad might threaten its neighbors with nuclear weapons. But even that scenario is fairly remote — and it is not directly relevant to America’s security. An attack on Israel is highly unlikely because Israel has an arsenal of 200 to 300 nuclear bombs and warheads. Iraq’s other neighbors are somewhat more vulnerable. But collectively they have far more military power than does Baghdad and that should act as a credible deterrent.

Taking the United States into war is a very serious matter, and it is a path that should be taken only if there is no reasonable alternative. That is especially true in the current case. An attack on Iraq would be a high-risk venture with significant potential to destabilize the entire Middle East-Persian Gulf region. The one scenario in which Saddam might use chemical or biological weapons in his possession is if the United States invades his country to overthrow his regime and kill him. At that point, he would have nothing to lose, and the logic of deterrence would no longer apply.

Even if we manage to avoid that nightmare and the war goes quickly and easily, victory simply means that the United States would undertake another long and futile nation-building mission. Almost all experts agree that U.S. troops would have to stay in Iraq for years to stabilize the situation. That presence would be seen as flagrant U.S. imperialism throughout the Islamic world. And the United States would become even more of a lightning rod for Muslim anger than it is already.

The burden of proof is rightly on those who contend that we must adopt such a perilous course. President Bush did not meet that burden of proof in his speech to the United Nations. Indeed, he and his advisors have failed to make a compelling case in any setting.

Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and is the author or editor of 14 books on international affairs including the new book, “Peace & Freedom: Foreign Policy for a Constitutional Republic.”