U.S. debate over invading Iraq has so far focused on only one part of
the nuclear danger. George W. Bush has pushed an emotional hot button
by alleging Saddam Hussein is close to having a nuclear bomb and is
ready to share it with terrorists.
Speaking to the United Nations the day after the
first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush raised the prospect
that Iraq passing a nuclear bomb to terrorist allies would make the
World Trade Center slaughter a prelude to far greater horrors.
But what has not been examined in any detail is
whether invading Iraq might actually hasten the day when nuclear
weapons fall into the hands of anti-American terrorists. Indeed, that
nightmare scenario might be as likely or even more likely if Bush gets
his way on an invasion.
One reason a war with Iraq might increase, rather
than decrease, the danger to the American people is that the invasion
could spread instability across the Middle East and throughout the
Muslim world. That instability could put at risk shaky pro-American
governments, most notably the dictatorship of Gen. Pervez Musharraf in
Pakistan, a government that already possesses nuclear weapons.
In the 1990s, Pakistans intelligence services
helped organize a group of young Islamic fundamentalists from
Afghanistan into the Taliban movement that, in turn, protected Osama
bin-Laden's al-Qaeda network as it plotted the Sept. 11 terror
attacks. Today, even as Musharraf cooperates with the U.S. war on
terror, his regime is confronted by pro-al-Qaeda factions both inside
and outside his government. Many
past and present Pakistani military officers continue to sympathize
with the fundamentalists.
So, what happens if the U.S. invasion of Iraq
leads to the killing of thousands of Muslim civilians from errant air
attacks or if there is bloody street-to-street fighting in Baghdad
like the "Black Hawk Down" scenes in Mogadishu, Somalia.
Neither is a farfetched possibility, according to military analysts.
And the sight of widespread killings at the heart of the Arab world
could inflame the earths one billion Muslims.
If rioting swept away Musharrafs fragile
government, its nuclear weapons could immediately fall into the hands
of Islamic extremists. In such a scenario, its not hard to envision
one or more nuclear weapons passed on to Osama bin Ladens suicide
bombers. A radicalized Pakistan also would represent a greater threat
to India, which is lined up with its own nuclear weapons on the other
side of the disputed province of Kashmir.
Then, rather than a hypothetical case of Iraq
possibly developing nuclear weapons years down the road, Bushs
prelude to far greater horrors could become an immediate
reality. Instead of forestalling the possibility of Islamic terrorists
getting the Bomb, a U.S. invasion has the potential for speeding up
While such a scenario might not occur the
U.S. invasion might succeed quickly with little loss of civilian life
and the rest of the Middle East might stay calm a less
satisfactory outcome seems at least as likely.
Theres also questionable reasoning behind
Bushs claim that even if Iraq developed nuclear weapons that it
would share one with Islamic fundamentalists, who have long been
bitter opponents of Saddam Hussein's secular state. Though the Bush
administration has asserted that ties exist between Iraq's government
and al-Qaeda, scant evidence has been presented to support the charge.
The ties between Pakistani intelligence and al-Qaeda are far more
obvious and direct.
Bushs alarmist rhetoric also has given many
Americans the wrong impression that Iraq already has the Bomb or is
very close to getting it. Outside studies, including two British
reports favorably cited by the Bush administration, offer a much less
The assessment of British intelligence agencies,
released by Prime Minister Tony Blair on Sept. 24, found that the
existing U.N. embargo against Iraq has succeeded in hindering the
import of crucial goods for the production of fissile material,
such as highly enriched uranium needed for nuclear weapons.
The British intelligence chiefs judged that
while sanctions remain effective, Iraq would not be able to produce a
nuclear weapon. [NYT, Sept. 25, 2002]
The London-based International Institute for Strategic
Studies reached a similar conclusion in a "dossier"
on Iraq's weapons capabilities that was released Sept. 9. "Iraq
does not possess facilities to produce fissile material in sufficient
amounts for nuclear weapons," the IISS concluded. "It would
require several years and extensive foreign assistance to build such
fissile material production facilities."
In other words, these studies show that a
continued strategy of arms embargoes, backed by international
inspections, would likely keep Iraq from developing a nuclear weapon
for the foreseeable future. If true, the Bush administration's push
for an invasion might replace a manageable danger of Iraq's unlikely
development of a nuclear weapon over a number of years with an
immediate threat that a destabilized Pakistan might hand over a
nuclear device to Islamic radicals prepared to use it.
There is another doomsday scenario that so far
has gotten short shrift in the truncated American debate on Iraq. It
is the possibility that the war will lead to U.S. forces firing off
tactical nuclear weapons against Iraq or to Israel going nuclear in
reaction to a biological or chemical attack from Iraq.
A U.S. escalation to nuclear weapons could occur
under the Bush administrations new nuclear posture review if
Iraq moves to fire biological or chemical weapons at U.S. forces or
takes aim at Israel.
Sent to Congress several months after the Sept.
11 attacks, Bushs nuclear
posture review lowered the threshold for use of U.S. nuclear
weapons. Bushs strategy puts nuclear, chemical and biological
weapons under the umbrella of weapons of mass destruction and
thus makes explicit the possibility that a biological or chemical
attack or the threat of one may trigger a U.S. nuclear strike.
In the British government's recent report, Blair
asserted that Iraq could launch a biological or chemical attack in 45
minutes on the orders of Saddam Hussein or his son. That means the
decision by U.S. forces how to respond would be at
a hair trigger.
Bushs nuclear posture review also envisions
use of nuclear weapons to destroy hardened underground bunkers, another
situation that could arise in Iraq.
weapons could be employed against targets able to withstand
non-nuclear attack, (for example, deep underground bunkers or
bio-weapons facilities), according to a summary of Bushs nuclear
strategy that was leaked to the news media earlier this year. New
capabilities must be developed to defeat emerging threats such as hard
and deeply buried targets, to find and attack mobile and relocatable
targets, to defeat chemical or biological agents, and to improve
accuracy and limit collateral damage, Bushs nuclear posture
By contrast, President Clinton vowed no U.S.
first-use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states, as a way to
encourage non-proliferation. Bushs nuclear posture review opens the
door to a U.S. first use of nuclear weapons against an adversary armed
only with chemical or biological agents.
Persian Gulf Warning
In brandishing nuclear weapons at Iraq, Bush may
think he is following in his fathers footsteps. The elder Bush
delivered a veiled threat to Saddam Hussein in 1991 that use of
biological and chemical weapons against U.S. troops during the Persian
Gulf War would prompt a devastating U.S. military response. That
warning was widely interpreted as meaning a nuclear strike.
That possibility of escalation in 1991 may have
come closer to reality than many observers understood. According to
the report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Iraq
assembled rudimentary biological weapons after its 1990 invasion
of Kuwait and in anticipation of a U.S. counter-strike.
These weapons were distributed to military
units, who were delegated to use them if coalition forces advanced on
Baghdad or used nuclear weapons, the IISS report said.
President George H.W. Bush averted this
confrontation by halting the U.S. military advance after a 100-hour
ground campaign that routed Iraqi troops from Kuwait. One of several
factors in the elder Bushs decision not to chase the Iraqi troops
back to Baghdad was the prospect that cornering Saddam Hussein and his
elite forces might have forced the Iraqi hand on biological and
chemical weapons and then the senior Bushs hand on retaliating.
Now, George W. Bush is ignoring the advice of his
father's former aides, such as former national security adviser Brent
Scowcroft. While Scowcroft and other senior figures from the first
Bush administration have counseled against rushing to war with Iraq,
Bush has made clear his determination to eliminate Saddam Hussein,
whom Bush recently has called the guy that tried to kill my dad.
This time, there's no doubt that the goal of U.S.
forces will be to corner and destroy the Iraqi leader and his loyal
troops. If they react by firing off what biological and chemical
weapons they may have and if U.S. forces or the Israelis respond with
a nuclear strike, the chances for violent repercussions throughout the
Muslim world would increase exponentially. So would the odds for
fundamentalists ousting Musharraf and getting control of Pakistan's
Another risk from a U.S. invasion would be the
possibility of copycat
interventions by other nuclear powers against their own
terrorists. The Russians already are eyeing an invasion of
Georgia to wipe out Chechen rebels hiding in Georgias Pankisi
Gorge. Farther east, the Indians want to wipe out Pakistani-backed
Islamic extremists fighting in Kashmir. Communist China sees
challenges from nationalist groups on the mainland and in Taiwan.
By throwing away international rules against
invading other countries, the Bush administration might find it
difficult to enforce the same rules when other countries are caught in
their own wars against "terrorism."
For instance, what might the Russians do if
thousands of their troops are trapped in the Pankisi Gorge and
tactical nuclear weapons are the only way to save them? What moral or
legal standing would Washington have to object to Russia acting in its
perceived self-interest near its own borders when the Bush
administration sent troops halfway around the world to eliminate a
hypothetical future threat and settle an old family score?
Bush and other members of his administration have
argued that in the case of Iraq, inaction is a bigger risk than
action. To assume this regimes good faith is to bet the lives of
millions and the peace of the world in a reckless gamble, Bush told
the United Nations on Sept. 12.
Bush's argument has appeal to many can-do
Americans who would like to see an adversary taken out rather than
contained and managed.
But it is a truism, too, that ill-advised action
can be worse than no action or certainly worse than taking
measured steps. Another bitter truth that arrogant leaders have
learned throughout history is that war and its unintended consequences
can prove to be the ultimate gamble.
In the 1980s, as a correspondent for the
Associated Press and Newsweek, Robert Parry broke many of the
investigative stories now known as the Iran-Contra Affair.