For months the Bush administration has been preparing the country for war with Iraq. The administration has argued that only a forcible regime change can neutralize the threat that Saddam Hussein is said to pose. But the assumptions that underlie the administration’s policy range from cautiously pessimistic to outright fallacious. First, there is a prevalent belief that if Iraq is able to obtain nuclear weapons it will inevitably use them. Second, there is a notion that Hussein is totally irrational and cannot be trusted to act in a predictable manner; and, because of that, his leadership creates a substantial risk of instability in the Middle East. Finally, many people in the United States have come to believe that war in Iraq may be the only means of nullifying the threat posed by Iraq’s nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons programs.
There are less costly strategies for dealing with Hussein than conducting a war. Hussein, while he may not act morally, is rational in the sense that economists and political scientists use the term. An examination of his past actions indicates that his principal need is to maintain his own physical and political survival. Using that knowledge, Washington can develop a strategy that would allow the United States to deter Hussein from taking actions detrimental to U.S. national security, without engaging him in warfare.
The key to neutralizing the Iraqi threat is to deter Hussein from aggressive action by sending a clear and credible message of commitment to protecting the United States against any challenge to its security; it is essential to communicate a willingness to massively retaliate in response to attacks against our homeland. This is crucially different from President Bush’s message that overthrowing Hussein must be a top priority, regardless of his actual behavior. If Hussein believes that his political survival is being threatened, and there is nothing he can do about it, he may respond in a dangerous and unpredictable manner—with weapons of mass destruction.