Commentary

Why Didn’t Iraq Use Chemical and Biological Weapons Against U.S. Troops?

As U.S. troops continue to search for evidence of Iraq’s alleged arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, an important question needs to be asked: Why didn’t Iraq use those weapons on invading coalition forces? That such weapons were not used was one of the biggest (and most pleasant) surprises of the war.

There are four possible explanations.

Saddam Hussein’s regime had the weapons but decided to refrain from using them.
Although that is a possibility, it is a remote one. The Iraqi government exhibited no such restraint during its war with Iran in the 1980s, using chemical weapons both on Iranian troops and on Kurdish civilians Baghdad suspected of aiding Tehran. It strains credulity to suppose that Saddam’s regime would have respected international law this time around, especially when the regime faced the certainty of being overthrown in any case. To be blunt, Saddam had nothing to lose by unleashing such weapons on coalition forces.

Iraq’s command and control system broke down so quickly that the weapons could not be used.
That explanation seems improbable as well. Although the victory of U.S. and British forces was rapid, it wasn’t that rapid. The war went on for 3 weeks, and Iraqi units mounted a credible resistance with conventional forces. Moreover, Baghdad had months to prepare for the U.S.-led assault. That seems more than enough time to prepare attacks with unconventional weapons.

Iraq no longer had chemical and biological weapons. They were destroyed in the 1990s.
That was, in fact, Baghdad’s official position in the months leading up to the war. Most experts scoffed at such assertions. But the absence of use during the conflict enhances the credibility of that explanation. If Saddam Hussein ordered the destruction of his arsenal of chemical and biological weapons in the hope that such cooperation, with the demands of the United Nations, would allow his regime to remain in power, he obviously made a miscalculation. But if U.S. inspectors continue to be unable to locate the alleged arsenal, that explanation cannot be ruled out.

As a final act of revenge, Saddam transferred the weapons to Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
This is the most chilling possibility. It also would be bitterly ironic. The principal rationale for the Bush administration’s campaign to overthrow Saddam was that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and might pass them along to terrorists. But as CIA Director George Tenet admitted in September 2002, Iraq would have little incentive under normal circumstances to take such a reckless step. Tenet further admitted, though, that if the United States attacked Iraq, all bets were off. Did U.S. leaders create a self-fulfilling prophecy by moving to overthrow Saddam’s regime? With nothing to lose, did Saddam set in motion developments that would wreak a terrible revenge on those who triumphed over him in conventional war? We may not know the answer for months or years to come, but that explanation possesses a horrifying logic.

If either the third or the fourth explanation proves to be true, it is bad news for the Bush administration and all Americans. If Iraq no longer had chemical and biological weapons, the primary justification for the war was erroneous, thousands of people died needlessly, and America’s reputation will suffer a severe blow throughout the world. Conversely, if Baghdad did have such weapons and passed them along to extremist organizations, the blowback from the military victory in Iraq could be more terrible than we wish to contemplate.

Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and is the author or editor of 15 books on international affairs, including “Peace & Freedom: Foreign Policy for a Constitutional Republic.”