The Reality of Saddam’s Threat
The U.S. could not have delayed dealing with Saddam Hussein.


David B. Rivkin Jr.

On Friday, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released its “Report on the U.S. Intelligence Community’s Pre-war Intelligence Assessment on Iraq.” Although this report concluded that the Bush administration did not seek to “coerce, influence or pressure analysts to change their judgments related to Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction capabilities,” thereby decisively rebutting the oft-invoked charge that the administration had pushed the intelligence community to find a threat from Iraq, the president’s opponents have been busy spinning the report’s conclusions as evidence that Saddam Hussein simply posed no meaningful threat to the United States. They now assert that Saddam’s Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), was so weak in conventional military forces that it presented no threat even to some of its smaller neighbors, and that, overall, the regime could have been safely contained for years to come.

Emboldened by the report, the Democrat political establishment, including presidential candidate John Kerry, and his recently announced running mate John Edwards, have now broadened their attacks on the president’s Iraq policy. Having spent months arguing that the problem was not with the fact that the United States effected a regime change in Iraq, but rather with how the administration went about it–not enough international support and insufficient planning for the postwar period have been Kerry’s favorite allegations–now they have begun to claim that the whole enterprise was flawed.

These arguments are fundamentally wrong. They both underestimate the threat posed to the United States by Iraq’s WMD programs, erroneously equating the absence of WMD stockpiles at a particular point in time with the absence of a WMD threat, and trivialize other aspects of the unique strategic challenge of Saddam Hussein. They also ignore compelling evidence that the international sanctions regime was collapsing and that the real strategic choice facing the United States was not between a regime change and containment, but between a regime change and Saddam Hussein’s continuation in power, free from any meaningful constraints. More generally, the critics apparent belief that there is such a thing as perfect intelligence, and that the United States should not use force against a dangerous foe until and unless such perfect intelligence has been secured, is both historically unfounded and a prescription for a strategic disaster.

Saddam’s Dream

Both the reality and enduring nature of Saddam’s WMD ambitions are well-known. Since proclaimed intentions and declaratory policy have always driven weapons acquisition, the fact that, for years, Saddam Hussein proclaimed his desire to become a new Saladin, and maintained that the possession of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons by Iraq was an indispensable foundation for any resurgence of Arab power, is extremely important. Declaratory policy aside, Saddam spent billions of dollars developing WMDs and their delivery systems. Post-Desert Storm weapons inspections revealed the existence of a massive Iraqi stockpile of chemical and biological agents, a large portion of which were fully weaponized, as well as a mature nuclear weapons program, perhaps a year or two away from completion. Significantly, Saddam also demonstrated his willingness to use chemical weapons on a large scale, both against the Iranians and his own people. This strongly suggests that, once his WMD forces fully matured, maintaining a robust deterrence against him would have been a difficult, if not impossible, enterprise. Indeed, if nothing else, a nuclear Iraq would have been able to intimidate and dominate his neighbors, since the United States’ ability to use its conventional forces to aid threatened Gulf states, like it did in 1991, would have been severely compromised.

To be sure, Saddam Hussein was not the only dictator seeking to develop WMD capabilities, and to use them to help underwrite his anti-American foreign policies. Both North Korea and Iran also pose serious threats in this area. However, the argument by the administration’s critics that, since we are not actively pursuing a regime change option in either Iran or North Korea, we should have done nothing to replace Hussein, is incoherent. It appears to be based in some notion that the United States must treat all of its foreign enemies equally, and that to topple one dictator is somehow unfair when others are left standing. However, this all-or-nothing approach is neither good foreign policy nor a sensible military strategy. International law contains no “equal protection” clause benefiting rogue regimes, and dealing with threats sequentially, and focusing on the one that is both grave and the most manageable is the essence of good statecraft.

Moreover, Saddam’s Iraq posed a sufficiently unique challenge to make dealing with it a priority. If Saddam had succeeded in surviving the sanctions, his ability to have turned a military defeat into a long-term strategic success would have greatly bolstered his standing in the Arab world. This would have been particularly dangerous in the post-September 11 environment, because it would have reinforced the perception, embraced by Osama bin Laden among others, that the United States is a “weak horse.” Unlike its critics, who have been focusing on the relatively trivial issue of whether Saddam Hussein had actually aided al Qaeda’s September 11 attacks against the United States, the administration clearly understood the pivotal importance, in the new threat environment, of the Islamicist assessment of America’s willpower.

In any case, the psychological aspects of the threat assessment aside, given Iraq’s enormous oil wealth, Saddam Hussein clearly had the potential to become a far greater threat than the impoverished North Korean regime, and had proven himself to be far less cautious than Iran’s mullahs have been–so far. Last, but not least, the notion that the U.S. could have delayed dealing with this problem is self-evidently false. Once the sanctions regime collapsed, and Iraq was no longer viewed as a pariah state, the United States would have found it even more difficult to secure any regional or international support for the regime change.

Saddam’s Record

There is no question that, even after the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam Hussein refused to abandon his WMD aspirations. Although some of Iraq ’s WMD stockpiles were destroyed by the time Saddam Hussein expelled the U.N. inspectors in 1998, the situation with the rest of his arsenal was much more complicated. For years, Iraq played a cat-and-mouse game with the U.N. inspectors. Even after Security Council Resolution 1441, giving Hussein one last chance to cure his material breaches of the previous resolutions and come into full compliance, was enacted, Iraq continued this strategy. Indeed, Iraq ’s submission to the Security Council of a patently false December 2002 weapons declaration, combined with an arrogant assertion that its WMD stockpiles were destroyed without any record of that fact, signaled Saddam’s clear intention never to meet the obligations he undertook at the close of the Gulf War. These were, among other things, to himself prove that Iraq’s WMD stockpiles had been destroyed and its programs dismantled. (The notion that Iraq ’s totalitarian regime, obsessed as it was with controlling all aspects of public and private life, would have destroyed its WMD arsenal without generating some paperwork in the process is laughable–unless this was by design. After all, Coalition forces have discovered rooms full of documentation detailing the Iraqis tortured and murdered by Saddam’s regime.)

Thus, despite a clear legal obligation requiring Saddam Hussein to destroy his WMD stockpiles and programs, and to prove it, he refused to provide any reliable accounting. This deception went on for years, despite the high cost of the international sanctions regime. Even when he had numerous opportunities to dispel American anxiety about his WMD capabilities–through “arranged” defections or the use of favored French or Russian interlocutors (who could have been discretely given the kind of access to Iraq’s facilities denied to the U.N. inspectors)–he declined (a point raised by Michael Schrage in the Washington Post). Instead, a stream of Iraqi defectors and information gleaned from electronic intercepts and signal intelligence reinforced the conclusion that Iraq still maintained a substantial WMD capability. This was fully borne out by the discoveries made by Coalition forces that the Iraqi military establishment maintained elaborate chemical-warfare-related paraphernalia, including protective gear, detoxification equipment, and a stockpile of antidotes.

Ironically, although Saddam Hussein consistently refused to present adequate proof that his WMD stockpiles had been eliminated, it now appears that they had been. By the end of the 1990s, it appears that the immediate value of WMDs, from Saddam’s perspective, was not necessarily in their potential use on the battlefield. Rather, it was in the status such weapons gave him in the Arab world, and in the potential deterrence value they produced vis-à-vis the United States and Israel. As a result, he was able to adopt a middle course–evidently destroying much of his stockpile (thus avoiding inconvenient discoveries by U.N. inspection teams), while maintaining the capacity to recreate chemical and biological weapons on a “just in time” basis, and pursuing additional research and development efforts on nuclear weapons. Saddam’s strategic gamble, while creative, is not entirely unprecedented, and closely resembles Nikita Khrushchev’s exploitation of what came to be known as the “missile gap.”

The Two Strategic Gambles

As readers of a certain age will recall, by the late 1950s the Soviet Union was locked in a strategic arms competition with the United States, and it was loosing badly. America enjoyed a considerable and growing advantage in both long- and intermediate-range nuclear forces. Yet, having embarked on an ambitious foreign policy designed to test American resolve, and possibly drive U.S. forces out of Berlin, Khrushchev was not prepared to curtail his aspirations. To enhance his military capabilities vis-à-vis the U.S., he could have deployed a number of costly, inaccurate and vulnerable first generation ICBMs. Alternatively, he could invest the USSR’s large, but not unlimited, resources in the development of more advanced missiles (with deployment many years in the future) and other, more reliable, strategic weapons systems that might actually move the nuclear balance in his favor. Sensibly enough, he chose the latter course. However, to maintain the highest quality “deterrence” against the West and, even more to the point, to support the enhanced Soviet prestige necessary for an ambitious foreign policy, Khrushchev also engaged in an elaborate deception designed to make the West believe that Moscow had already fielded strategically meaningful numbers of advanced ICBMs. The Soviet leader’s public statements were supported by a carefully tailored intelligence disinformation campaign.

From Khrushchev’s perspective, the entire plan worked like a charm. The alleged “missile gap” between the United States and the USSR was seized upon by a young Democratic Senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, to discredit the Eisenhower Administration and to defeat then-Vice President Richard M. Nixon in the 1960 presidential election. Not only did the Soviet Union save billions of rubles, but Khrushchev now believed he could best the inexperienced Kennedy.

In the end, however, he had been too clever by half. The deception was discovered through the use of U-2 surveillance flights and confirmed by intelligence provided by Colonel Oleg Penkovsky. When Khrushchev proceeded to place short and medium-range nuclear missiles in Cuba in October 1962, in order to cover his blunder, Kennedy bested him. Backing down from a confrontation the Soviet Union could not win, the humiliated Khrushchev was “retired” within two years.

Although the details of Saddam’s WMD deception were different, his basic strategic bluff was virtually identical to Khrushchev’s gambit. Having concluded, in the aftermath of Desert Storm, that the possession of a WMD arsenal was an indispensable guarantee of his regime’s survival, but not wanting to repudiate openly–in the manner of Kim Jong-Il–his international obligations, Saddam chose to continue to perfect his WMD systems, with a particular emphasis on the development of a nuclear capability, while actually drawing down the number of deployed WMDs. In many respects, this elaborate deception, about the existence of his deployed WMDs, was easier than Khrushchev’s, since no amount of intelligence gathering or U.N. inspections could prove the negative. Thus, the world was left with the impression that Saddam had WMD capabilities, but there was no “smoking gun.” Certainly, there was nothing that could produce an “Adlai Stevenson moment” (when President Kennedy’s U.N. ambassador was able, using U-2 generated photographs, actually to show Soviet missile sites in Cuba ).

A Just-in-Time Arsenal

Yet, the existence of this state of affairs in 2003 does not, contrary to the claims of the administration’s critics, validate the wisdom of the U.N. sanctions/inspections strategy or demonstrate that the U.S.-preferred regime change strategy was unnecessary and unwise. To begin with, a “virtual” WMD strategy enabled Saddam to wait out the sanctions/inspections regime, which, by the late 1990s, was already beginning to break down–with claims (by France among others) that the innocent Iraqi people were suffering more than the guilty Saddam regime. It should be recalled that the administration’s pre-September 11, 2001 efforts to bolster and “smarten” anti-Saddam sanctions were met with strong opposition from Russia, China and France, all of which were arguing that Iraq should be allowed to rejoin the international community as a normal sovereign state. There were no indications that those who have been critical of “regime change” as the most effective means for dealing with the threat posed by Saddam would have had the bureaucratic and political staying power of sustaining for years, and even decades, a policy of de facto international trusteeship, enforced by weapons inspectors, to be imposed over Iraq (as well as on other WMD-aspiring, rogue regimes).

Moreover, to the extent that Saddam felt confident about his ability to control the timing of events (to be the initiator, rather than the victim, of any renewed military operations), thereby being able to reconstitute his arsenal when needed, retaining a small WMD stockpile was not an optimal strategic choice for Iraq. It did not provide a substantial enough war-fighting capability, yet posed an ever-present risk of detection–it would have been difficult, for example, to conceal an accident akin to the one that took place in Chelyabinsk in the Urals in 1979, when an accidental release of anthrax killed scores of people (and confirmed the existence of the Soviet bio-weapons program despite the Kremlin’s denials).

Significantly, this “just-in-time” approach to WMD deployment was no less dangerous, from the U.S. perspective, than possession of a WMD stockpile. At least with respect to chemical and biological agents, the most important assets appear to be the availability of suitable expertise and the necessary industrial base. Both of these Saddam had in plenty. Thus, a rogue state, capable of reconstituting its WMD arsenal at a time of its own choosing, poses as much of a threat as a regime with the WMD forces in being.

Finally, an Iraqi just-in-time strategy may have been even more dangerous to the United States because of the possibility that Saddam would share either existing WMD, or technical expertise, with a terrorist group. In fact, a rogue regime which has adopted a virtual arsenal approach, while disclaiming its intent to field WMDs, might well feel that it has more plausible deniability and, therefore, would actually be more likely to transfer WMDs to a third party. There is even a possibility that Iraq may have combined its WMD-related efforts with other rogue regimes (Syria in particular) and intended to develop a “distributed” arsenal, which would have been more difficult to both detect and target.

The Myth of Perfect Intelligence

The administration’s critics have also embraced the dangerous and ahistorical notion that it is possible to develop and maintain a perfectly accurate intelligence picture of what is being done by a dangerous foe. While the CIA cannot be fully exonerated–its failure to recruit and run human intelligence sources within Iraq is particularly damning–developing consistently reliable body of intelligence, especially when dealing with a ruthless dictatorial regime, is an inherently challenging undertaking. Notably, many times in the past, the CIA’s “group think” mentality, mentioned prominently in the Senate report, has not caused it to overestimate the threat. If anything, more often than not, the CIA has underestimated the extent of the threats facing the U.S. This was certainly the case with its assessments of the Soviet nuclear build-up, Soviet expense expenditures, and many other aspects of Soviet foreign and defense policies. The CIA’s estimates of Iraq’s nuclear programs on the eve of the 1991 Gulf war were also way off. Meanwhile, the September 11 Commission is about to indict the CIA and the entire U.S. intelligence community for its failure to anticipate and predict the September 11 attacks.

While gauging accurately what is being done by a regime that is trying to hide its weapons programs, as was the case with North Korea, is difficult, doing this vis-à-vis a regime that has engaged in a deliberate strategic deception program is virtually impossible. Yet, this was precisely the case with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. For example, even if the CIA succeeded in penetrating the senior echelons of Saddam’s regime, and all of its human sources reported that no WMD stockpiles were in place, this evidence, even if one assumes that the sources involved were totally reliable, still would not have been conclusive.

After all, it is always possible that Iraq’s program was sufficiently compartmentalized to ensure that even senior regime members did not have an accurate picture of what was going on. In fact, this compartmentalization is quite typical of dictatorial and secrecy-obsessed regimes. In the Soviet case, for example, the whole nuclear weapons program was entrusted by Stalin to his secret police chief, Beria, and its specifics were not known for many years by most of the senior Soviet political and military leaders. All of this means that the availability of perfect intelligence is a myth, and the search for it is inherently self-defeating. Unfortunately, U.S. decision-makers often have to make tough choices on the basis of imperfect and ambiguous intelligence.

A Reasonable Policy

When the totality of this evidence is fairly considered, the administration’s overall assessment of the threat posed by Iraq ’s WMD program remains fully justified. Significantly, Iraq’s failure to avail itself of the one last chance to disarm, offered by Resolution 1441, coming as it did on the heels of ten years of sanctions and 16 successive Security Council resolutions, properly convinced the administration that Saddam would never give up his WMD program, no matter what economic and diplomatic pressure was brought to bear upon him. Therefore, the policy choice to effect a “regime change” was both consistent with the administration’s reasonable prospective assessments of Saddam’s WMD program and constituted the only effective way of dealing with this threat.

When dealing with authoritarian anti-American states with a demonstrated history of WMD ambitions, the only safe way, short of regime change, to ensure that they are irreversibly disarmed is to adopt a wide-range of confidence-building measures, which go way beyond the traditional inspection regime. Under this scenario, the burden of persuasion is really on the regime itself. In this regard, as was persuasively argued by the president’s national-security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, experience amassed during the “de-nuclearization” of such countries as South Africa and Ukraine demonstrates that a prerequisite to a successful nuclear disarmament is a willing host regime that is prepared to give the international community unrestricted access to its facilities and weapons installations and adopt a wide-range of confidence building measures. Indeed, Libya’s recent overture to the international community is another excellent example of this confidence-building approach.

By contrast, a rogue regime that is playing a shell game with inspectors can never be disarmed with any degree of confidence. Significantly, this concern was well recognized by the U.N. weapons inspectors; neither Hans Blix, nor any of his predecessors, have ever claimed that they were confident of their ability to disarm Iraq fully of its WMDs. What the administration’s critics are really saying is that, despite the September 11 experience, they would not use force in a situation in which strong, albeit not full-proof, arguments can be made that there is a grave and rising danger to the U.S. In a world in which perfect intelligence is but a pipe dream, this approach virtually guarantees inaction. Come November, the American people should decide whether this is the best way to protect our security in the 21st century.

David B. Rivkin Jr. & Lee A. Casey are partners in the Washington , D.C. , office of Baker & Hostetler LLP. Both of them served in the Justice Department during the Reagan and Bush Sr., administrations. This essay draws on some of their previous work, which has appeared in the Wall Street Journal Europe and In The National Interest.