As Coalition forces draw nearer to launching the climactic Battle of Baghdad, the question of whether Saddam Hussein will resort to using weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) becomes more acute. It was the topic of a discussion I participated in last night with some other national-security professionals. Here is our risk analysis:
First, does Saddam have WMDs? Let’s assume he does — not only is it prudent from an analytical standpoint, but if he doesn’t I have no essay. He probably has chemical weapons, perhaps also biological weapons, probably not nuclear weapons (though it is not impossible, perhaps they are hidden elsewhere) and maybe radiological weapons (e.g., dirty bombs).
Next, does he have means of delivery? Sure. They could be fired by artillery, or hidden in a building or the remains of a vehicle near a route Coalition forces are likely to take and command detonated. Perhaps they could be deployed by UAV (using the so-called Zubaidy Device, a sophisticated crop duster that can spread chemical or biological death). Coalition special-operations forces are reportedly hard at work detecting and destroying these weapons, and maybe will get them all, which also ends the discussion. So let’s assume some weapons survive the hunt.
Next, is Saddam likely to use them? He has before. He can’t hate the Coalition any less than he did the Iranians. I can’t see him having moral qualms about it. And firing off some WMDs might make him feel less impotent in the face of the Coalition onslaught, not to mention serve as a symbolic response to the attempted decapitation strike.
Are WMDs effective? It depends on the weapon, on the weather, on the means of delivery, and the defensive capabilities of the target, among other factors. Do we have defenses? Yes, Coalition troops have MOPP gear, are well trained, and in a heightened state of awareness of the threat. Many vehicles are chem-bio resistant. The defensive means are by no means 100 percent effective, but they are far beyond anything the Iranians had when faced with the same threat in the 1980s. Also, generally speaking, these weapons are of limited battlefield utility. They are imprecise and difficult to control. This is an important reason why they were used in WWI but not WWII. They are best employed as area-denial weapons to prevent or slow enemy advances, or to attack troop concentrations just behind the frontlines or deeper in the rear. Yet despite their unwieldiness they are effective terror weapons, and would instill sheer panic particularly among the embedded media, which would translate to real-time turmoil on the home front.
Can the Coalition deter Saddam from using these weapons? Deterrence is only possible under specific circumstances. First, the opponent has to be a rational actor. For all his faults, it would be a mistake to assume Saddam is irrational. He could not have maintained his rule as long as he has unless he was very intelligent, not to mention cunning and ruthless. But deterrence also requires that the opponent be threatened with losing something of value if he misbehaves. Considering that the stated objective of the Coalition is regime change, and that the opening salvo of the war was intended to land on Saddam’s head, it is hard to threaten escalation if he resorts to WMDs. What greater threats are there? The Coalition is already trying very hard to kill him, and he can only die once.
Deterrence also requires a credible counter-threat, which leads to the next question: If deterrence fails, how can the Coalition respond? The president has threatened “fearful consequences” would befall any who attacked us. What does that mean, exactly? From Saddam’s point of view, being blown apart in a bunker is a pretty fearful consequence in itself. But it could imply retaliation in kind. A similar threat was made in 1991 by the previous President Bush; yet after the war, members of the administration admitted that he would not have carried it out. (This was a very bad move, since the revelation reduced US credibility for no specific advantage.) In addition to retaliation, the commanders and subcommanders who push the buttons unleashing the weapons will be charged with war crimes. The latter threat is credible, because trials are easily enough held, and Iraqi troops at those command levels are not otherwise necessarily under a death sentence. But they could also face immediate consequences for not following orders, for example summary execution at the hands of Saddam’s enforcers. Those who openly disobey will be shot and more pliant underlings take their place. Some might be willing to gamble, but others would not. At least some weapons would be used.
Is the retaliatory threat credible? The Coalition definitely has the capability, and perhaps even the inclination, all things being equal. But all things are not equal. There are both utilitarian and humanitarian arguments against a Coalition WMD response. First, what military objective would such a strike achieve? Probably not killing Saddam, since it is hard to locate him, and even nuclear weapons require some degree of targeting. It would establish Coalition credibility, that much is certain. But the humanitarian costs would be immense. It is in the nature of a WMD that it causes mass destruction, and any military target worth firing at would probably generate unacceptable levels of collateral damage. Dropping a nuclear weapon on Baghdad for example would create scores of thousands of deaths, many more others sick and wounded, a humanitarian-aid nightmare and a diplomatic disaster. And there are few useful targets outside urban areas, unless the Coalition wants to loose a WMD on a truckload of Fedayeen.
So it is not certain that the Coalition has a credible in-kind response to an Iraqi WMD attack. Because of this, and the fact that Saddam has little to nothing to lose by using these weapons, it seems he has a free ride. He could seek to make a dramatic and deadly gesture, sow fear and dissention among the members of the Coalition, and strike fear among the folks on the home front. Speaking of that, a related question — would Saddam use WMDs against population centers in the U.S. if he could? With his palaces in flames, his country being occupied, his regime, and even his life hanging by a thread? And a target-rich environment in which collateral damage is a zealously desired objective? Count on it.
— James S. Robbins is a national-security analyst & NRO contributor.