Give war a chance.

Give war a chance.

Give war a chance.

Politics and policy.
Nov. 21 2002 5:53 PM

Saddam's Paradox

Why reserving war as a last resort is self-defeating.

Throughout the debate over Iraq, President Bush and his spokesmen have stressed that war must be the last resort. That line is good PR, but it makes no sense. Saddam Hussein never does what's necessary to avoid war until war is about to begin. Therefore, everything we try before war is pointless. We might as well cut to the chase.


American and British officials keep saying that Saddam has run out of time. "There must be no more games, no more deceit," British Prime Minister Tony Blair warned Saddam on Nov. 8. Six days later, White House spokesman Scott McClellan reiterated, "No more games, no more cheat and retreat, no more deny and deceive, no more rope-a-dope in the desert with inspectors. No negotiation. It is now time for Saddam Hussein to comply or face serious consequences. … This is a final opportunity for Saddam Hussein to disarm."

William Saletan William Saletan

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

What if Iraq blows this opportunity? "In the event of Saddam refusing to cooperate or being in breach, there will be a further U.N. discussion," Blair said on Nov. 8. The U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing severe consequences in the event of Iraqi cheating wasn't "an automatic trigger point without any further discussion," Blair insisted, adding that force was "a last resort." McClellan pledged that the United States would "go back … for consultations and discussion with the Security Council when there is another material breach reported. … The president continues to seek a peaceful resolution. War is a last resort."

In short, the "final opportunity" isn't really final. As long as there's another hoop to jump through—a debate in the Security Council, a vote in the U.S. Congress, a last-ditch peace mission by Scott Ritter or Jimmy Carter or Kofi Annan—Saddam can keep feinting and stringing us along. That's what he's done for more than a decade. He never gets serious until we cock the gun or pull the trigger.

In his book The Threatening Storm, Ken Pollack, a former CIA analyst and National Security Council staffer in the Clinton administration, recounts Saddam's history of exploiting procedural delays and capitulating only under fire. It took force to drive Saddam out of Kuwait in 1991. At the outset of the U.N. inspections, he "felt no obligation to comply except under threat of force," writes Pollack. Missile strikes and troop mobilizations were necessary to halt Saddam's adventurism several times: in 1993, after he tried to kill George H.W. Bush; in 1994, when he threatened to reinvade Kuwait; and in 1995, when he tried to crush the Kurds. Saddam drove inspectors out of Iraq in 1998 by making their job impossible, and he didn't let them return until this year, when George W. Bush made clear that that the alternative was an American invasion.

At every turn, Saddam used intervening deliberations to hint at conciliation and sow discord in the Security Council. He learned "that there were issues on which Security Council opinion was divided and that by pressing on those issues, he could deepen the rifts among the members," Pollack writes. In 1997, he lulled France, Russia, and China away from the U.S.-British alliance against him. Early in 1998, he used Annan's peace overture to thwart American and British military strikes. That fall, he pulled off another 11th-hour escape: "With American and British planes in the air and headed toward Iraq," Saddam's right-hand man "appeared on CNN and announced that Iraq would allow inspectors back in. Secretary-General Annan immediately accepted the overture," and the United States had to call off the attack. "Naturally, Saddam reneged right away."

This is Saddam's genius. As long as war isn't the next resort—as long as there's some vote, consultation, or authorization that has to take place before the bombs begin to fall—he'll wait until that moment and fake compliance in order to kill the momentum against him. After he reneges and a new countdown begins, he pulls the same stunt. It's Zeno's paradox: The war never begins, because Saddam keeps intervening halfway between where you are and where you're threatening to go.

Shooting Saddam may prove to be unnecessary. But don't expect him to hand over his weapons till our gun is a lot closer to his head. Inevitably, the next time we catch him fibbing or concealing or interfering in the inspections, there will be calls for more talk about what to do. Here's an idea: Stop talking and start doing.