Iraq debate: Cheney ducks Scowcroft.

Iraq debate: Cheney ducks Scowcroft.

Iraq debate: Cheney ducks Scowcroft.

Politics and policy.
Aug. 27 2002 6:21 PM

Cheney vs. Scowcroft

How to duck the arguments against attacking Iraq.

Two weeks ago, Brent Scowcroft, the former national security adviser to President Bush's father, wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal arguing against a near-term U.S. attack on Iraq. This week, in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Vice President Dick Cheney fired back. Like an Iraqi official facing a weapons inspector, Cheney doesn't directly answer the questions put to him. He evades, obfuscates, changes the subject, and moves things around.

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Scowcroft writes that "there is scant evidence to tie Saddam to terrorist organizations, and even less to the Sept. 11 attacks." What evidence does Cheney produce in answer? None. "Containment is not possible when dictators obtain weapons of mass destruction and are prepared to share them with terrorists who intend to inflict catastrophic casualties on the United States," says the vice president. He rephrases his assertion as an assumption.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Scowcroft argues that such a scenario is illogical. Saddam "is unlikely to risk his investment in weapons of mass destruction, much less his country, by handing such weapons to terrorists who would use them for their own purposes and leave Baghdad as the return address," Scowcroft writes. "There is little evidence to indicate that the United States itself is an object of his aggression. … He seeks weapons of mass destruction not to arm terrorists, but to deter us from intervening to block his aggressive designs."

How does Cheney show that the use of Iraqi nukes against the United States is logical? He doesn't. He simply moves the goal posts. Never mind whether it's logical for Saddam to use nukes; his possession of them, by itself, is unacceptable. A nuclear-armed Iraq would "seek domination of the entire Middle East, take control of a great portion of the world's energy supplies … and subject the United States or any other nation to nuclear blackmail," says Cheney. "This nation will not live at the mercy of terrorists or terror regimes."

This is an important change of rationale, which Cheney glosses over in order to make Iraq look like a logical extension of the war on terror. Implicitly, Cheney accepts Scowcroft's premise: The purpose of ousting Saddam isn't to prevent a likely terrorist attack but to prevent Saddam from getting weapons that could deter us from intervening the next time he invades a neighbor. In other words, Bush's preparation for war with Iraq isn't a continuation of the war on terror. It's a continuation of the Persian Gulf War.

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In that context, Scowcroft argues that nuclear blackmail by Saddam doesn't make sense because American nuclear retaliation would destroy him and Saddam's first priority is self-preservation. This is an old principle of deterrence: Your threat of nukes against an enemy is impotent unless your use of nukes against that enemy is plausible. Cheney never addresses this point.

Scowcroft writes that he has yet to see "compelling evidence that Saddam had acquired nuclear-weapons capability." What evidence does Cheney produce of such capability? None. "Many of us are convinced that Saddam will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon," says the vice president. Bill Clinton felt your pain; Cheney invites you to feel his certainty. When will Saddam get these weapons? Cheney concludes, "Just how soon, we cannot really gauge. Intelligence is an uncertain business, even in the best of circumstances."

Well, not exactly. In the best of circumstances—often, in fact—intelligence is quite certain. As we know from Afghanistan, a notebook, a computer hard drive, or a satellite picture can tell you exactly what weapons the enemy has. Cheney would love to have such evidence about the Iraqi nuclear program, but he doesn't. So, instead of proving that Iraq has nukes, he suggests that the expectation of proof is unreasonable.

When the debate turns to weapons inspections, however, Cheney and Scowcroft switch sides. Now it's Scowcroft who thinks proof is unnecessary. Rather than attack Iraq, "we should be pressing the United Nations Security Council to insist on an effective no-notice inspection regime for Iraq—any time, anywhere, no permission required," Scowcroft writes. "[Such] inspections would [keep Saddam] off balance and under close observation, even if all his weapons of mass destruction capabilities were not uncovered." Conversely, Cheney drops his apologies for the "uncertain business" of intelligence and demands verification. "A return of inspectors would provide no assurance whatsoever of [Saddam's] compliance with U.N. resolutions," warns the vice president.

Cheney also switches standards on the question of when to measure the Iraqi nuclear program and the weapons inspections. Unable to show that Saddam has nukes today, Cheney argues that the potency of Iraq's program should be measured by the expectation that it will succeed eventually. Meanwhile, Cheney argues that the potency of inspections should be measured not by their demonstrated long-term success but by their short-term failures. During the 1990s, the inspectors "in time discovered that Saddam had kept them largely in the dark about the extent" of his poison gas program, the vice president recalls. They also "found that Saddam had continued to test [prohibited] missiles, almost literally under the noses of the U.N. inspectors." Cheney offers these ruses as evidence that the inspectors failed, ignoring the fact that it was the inspectors who discovered them.

Reaching for precedents to back up his speculations, Cheney again selects what's convenient. If we don't attack Saddam, he suggests, we may look back at the consequences, as we do at Pearl Harbor. But if we do attack Saddam, we'll elicit from Iraqis the same "joy" we engendered in Kuwait and Afghanistan. Other analogies, such as Vietnam or Somalia, are no less plausible but don't serve Cheney's purpose. So he leaves them out.

Above all, Cheney tries to smother Scowcroft's policy by disguising it as the absence of a policy. Cheney equates "opposing Saddam Hussein" with pre-emptive military action and dismisses the alternative as "a course of inaction"—a decision to "look away, hope for the best, and leave the matter for some future administration to resolve." Inspections are meaningless; satellite surveillance, no-fly zones, radar-site bombings, and U.N. restrictions on Iraqi imports and exports don't exist. If you like the way Saddam hides weapons, you'll love the way politicians masquerading as his only true enemies hide debate about how to defeat him.