Iraq: Will Deterrence Work?

National Strategy Forum Review
Volume 11, Issue 3, Spring 2002

As the Bush administration ponders how to take the war on terrorism to Iraq, the question of deterrence is emerging as a central point of interest. Could America deter Saddam Hussein from using his chemical or biological agents against our troops, our homeland, or our allies, or would the threat to use these unconventional weapons in fact deter the United States from invading? And how much time is there before America must put these questions to the test?

Proponents of deterrence point to the long equilibrium between the United States and the Soviet Union, and history may soon provide a second example: India and Pakistan. In January, with tensions running high over Kashmir and the recent attack on India’s parliament, India seemed ready to launch a conventional war against Pakistan, apparently counting on its nuclear weapons to prevent its neighbor from using its own. This is the first time one nuclear-armed country has massed conventional forces on the border of another, believing it could achieve a military objective without triggering a nuclear war.

The outcome of this South Asian experiment is still unknown. If bullets start flying and Pakistan starts losing a conventional war, General Pervez Musharraf will have to make a big decision. If Pakistan sees Indian objectives as limited – say to taking out some training camps – then General Musharraf may decide to absorb the incursion. A limited loss might not justify nuclear war. The question, of course, is how far would Pakistani forces have to be driven back before the nuclear trigger is pulled. It is possible that if India were cautious in its conventional military objectives, its nuclear forces could indeed deter Pakistan from escalation.

How does this reasoning apply to Iraq? Some have argued that we ought to continue to contain Saddam, relying on our nuclear might to deter him from using any mass destruction weapons he may develop or acquire. Others argue it is time to send in the troops, counting on Saddam to again be deterred from going asymmetrical, as in 1991, by the threat of our nuclear might. But can deterrence work this time in Iraq? The case of Iraq is quite different from the India-Pakistan scenario. Why?

If the announced goal of the United States is to remove Saddam Hussein from power, the fundamental basis of deterrence is lacking. Saddam would have nothing to lose by using chemical or biological weapons. America’s ability to strike back is moot if his survival is on the line. A man under a death warrant, or one bent on keeping power at all costs, would not be deterrable. The only way around this result would be to offer Saddam a way to save his skin – perhaps by accepting a life in exile, provided he gives up his power and refrains from using mass destruction weapons. In effect, America would send a diplomat with the message, “if you use your bugs or gas, we’ll have to kill you; if you don’t, you can live out your life somewhere else.” With that offer on the table, the world would learn whether Saddam values his life more than his power.

Another question is whether Saddam’s troops would fight for him. If Saddam gave the order to launch biologically- or chemically-tipped missiles at US troops, would any Iraqi commander obey, knowing the consequences? Or would Iraqi troops again surrender to a powerful opponent rather than fight for Saddam?

The opposite side of the coin of deterrence is the question of who may deter whom. While the United States speaks of having deterred Saddam back in 1991, Saddam drew the opposite lesson: that we were deterred by his chemical arsenal from going to Baghdad. There was, in fact, an understanding: if Saddam didn’t use poison gas, we would allow him to survive. Now we must ask, would the fear of massive US casualties prevent us from sending ground troops into Iraq, in light of Saddam’s CBW arsenal? Saddam may threaten not just our troops, but also our homeland, as well as our allies once the war begins. What US strategy and costs would that entail? In fact, America may be more deterrable than Saddam, and this paradox might grow as Saddam’s power and military might increase.

Thus, the question arises: if the United States does not act now, will it be able to act in the future, or will it be stymied by its own aversion to casualties until the moment when the threat has finally become immediate – and harder to deal with? Over time, the risk increases that Saddam will acquire fissile material to fuel nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, his uncontrolled oil profits are growing, and the embargo on his imports – some of which have military uses – is disappearing. US policy-makers say they have determined that the question is notwhether to topple Saddam Hussein, but when. The real question may be whether America should strike now or wait until Saddam has had more time to build up mass destruction weapons.

In the end, the price of inaction may make the answer clear: dealing with Saddam either diplomatically or militarily is inevitable. The cost of doing nothing may be seen as simply too high. But before committing itself, the United States needs to decide whether it can deter Saddam from using his unconventional weapons, and whether America, in turn, is willing to face those weapons if deterrence fails.