#17 - JRL 7023
January 17, 2003
ODDS OF ATTACKING IRAQ
The WMD paradox
By Stanislav Menshikov
Two recent statements on Iraq stand out among a multitude of others. One, belonging to George W. Bush, sounds scary. He says that "time is running out on Saddam Hussein" to avert an American attack by voluntarily eliminating the Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) that he allegedly possesses. On Bush's orders more than a 100,000 US troops are being concentrated in the Persian Gulf area ready to invade Iraq when the word comes.
The other statement is by Mohamed ElBaradei, Director-General of IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, who together with Hans Blix heads the UN group of inspectors in Iraq. So far, the team has found no sign of those weapons or programs to create them but say that to be on the safe side they would need to work at least another year.
ElBaradei is quite specific. According to his information (and he should certainly know a lot), Iraq is "very far" from making its own nukes. It is very hard for that country to conceal a full-fledged program of creating nuclear weapons. If, however, as the US claims, there is such a program then the inspectors should be given that concrete evidence. But even if Baghdad has been able to secretly import and hide the necessary components, it is still six months to a year away from producing a nuke. Information on chemical and biological weapons is equally uncertain.
The two statements are apparently in contradiction with each other. Iraq is either in possession of those weapons or not. It either has no stocks of previously produced WDM and no programs to produce new ones or is hiding them from the outside world. Because it has not tested nukes so far, they will hardly be found there today. Whether they will appear there and when is an open question that even qualified experts find difficult to answer.
As matters stand, most governments around the world tend to rely on the inspectors and to disagree with the US president. According to UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, American military pressure on Iraq has been useful in inducing Saddam Hussein to co-operate with UN Security Council's resolution 1441. But preparations for war (which are not authorised or approved by that resolution) have a force of inertia of their own. At least, the Bush administration will have to do a lot of explaining if at some point of time it is forced to back down and agree to a peaceful solution. To part of the US public it will look like defeat - not military, but certainly political. For that reason alone, chances are that Bush will opt for war even if no incriminating evidence is found by the inspectors.
The potential negative consequences of war for stability in the Middle East, for the fight against international terrorism and for US reputation in the Arab world and with his own allies is a price Bush may be willing to pay if a crushing overseas military victory assures his re-election in 2004.
However, available expert scenarios of the war in Iraq, though all ending up in Saddam Hussein's defeat, differ in the length of military operations from a month if the regime disintegrates promptly to half a year or more if Iraq puts up strong resistance and particularly if it uses WMD against the invading armies. In this case, the war would not only be politically de-stabilising for the region and amount to ecological catastrophe, but would also be immensely unpopular in the US due to numerous casualties among American soldiers.
The risk of that scenario coming true is high if current US claims that Iraq does possess WMD are correct. But is the Bush administration indeed prepared to wage war against an enemy that might respond with chemical or biological weapons or even unsophisticated nukes? Is a change of regime in Baghdad or control over Iraqi oil worth all those lives lost? So far, there has been no serious public discussion of this aspect in America or, for that matter, around the world.
If, however, WMD are absent or scarce to the point of being practically non-usable, then the prospects of a victorious US blitzkrieg are high and the risks of an unpopular war relatively low.
So the question is whether Bush believes his own intelligence sources when they provide him with "evidence" to substantiate anti-Saddam propaganda? If he has any doubts about the veracity of those reports then logically he has to be very much interested in what the UN inspectors come to discover. And the less evidence of WMD they find, the more he will be convinced of the low risks in waging the war. That is the paradox of the current situation: clearing Saddam of accusations of hiding those weapons opens the door for unilateral military action. If there are no WMD in Iraq then attacking it is safe.
It will be difficult, probably impossible to obtain a UN resolution authorising military action under those circumstances. But with Bush's love for rhetoric, finding a suitable pretext is not too difficult.