Saturday, August 10, 2002


One line of reasoning against destroying Saddam Hussein’s regime is that we should simply deter him. Such advocates point out we deterred a much more powerful Soviet Union until it collapsed. Why can’t we do this with Iraq? This is a perfectly reasonable argument. It is also wrong.

Just what did we deter the Soviet Union from doing during the Cold War? We deterred the Soviet Union from doing two things: they did not dare launch a nuclear first strike on the United States for fear we would retaliate; and they did not invade Western Europe for fear we would respond with nuclear weapons. We did not deter all hostile actions.

What we did not deter was the below the radar screen action. The Soviets sponsored states to oppose us, revolutionary groups to overthrow allies, terrorist groups who targeted Americans and our allies, and supplied our enemies. Never was there any consideration that we might nuke the Soviets in retaliation for any of these hostile activities. Even bloody wars in Korea and Vietnam did not lead to serious discussions of nuking anybody.

It also did not deter Moscow’s desire to destroy us. The Soviets prepared horrible weapons (much of which we only discovered after the Soviet Union collapsed) and prepared to strike should they ever get the chance. We had to be ready always because we could never count on their mercy if we weakened.

Arguing for deterrence against Iraq also ignores that we were deterred in the Cold War as well. This deterrence is masked by the fact that we were a status quo power in the Cold War and essentially sought to defend what we had. We did not try to roll back the Soviets in Eastern Europe. If we had wanted to intervene to support revolts against the Soviets in East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, or Czechoslovakia in 1968, or Poland in 1980, we would have been deterred by Soviet nuclear weapons. Do we want an Iraq that can deter us? What kind of conventional presence in the Middle East would we need to keep him from invading a neighbor yet again?

Clearly, if Iraq possessed nuclear weapons, we could deter a direct nuclear strike by Iraq against us or our allies. We would be in a far weaker position to deter his support for terrorism than we have now (which is minimal as it is). A nuclear shield would likely embolden him. What weapons would Saddam give to terrorists in order to strike us, confident we could not trace it back to us or that the losses would not be worth risking nuclear war with Iraq over? We would also have a smaller ability to deter a conventional attack south into the Gulf. With nuclear weapons, he could think of attacking a small American presence to overrun Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, knowing he could go nuclear if we shipped in troops to eject him from his conquests.

Deterrence is not an option with Iraq. We could basically deter direct nuclear attack and Saddam can do too much damage under the level of pain that would prompt a nuclear strike by us. Take him down now. Talk about deterrence. Other rogues would fear us as they’ve never feared us.