Saddam Does Not Have "Weapons of Mass Destruction"
Unless he already has nukes that we don't know about.
If virulent BW materials were to be widely distributed over an exposed population, then the ratio of potential lethality to the total weight of the material could be comparable to that of nuclear weapons. However, for this horrifying scenario to occur, the materials cannot be dispersed by a single-point explosion, but instead must be spread by an appropriate mechanism such as spray tanks or by "fractionating" a missile's payload and dispersing separate mini-munitions over a wide area. Moreover, survival of BW material depends critically on local meteorological and other conditions which define the delivery environment. The survival of agents is generally of short duration and effects are delayed for days. … There is little question that the lethality of chemical weapons—as measured by per unit weight of delivered munitions—is lower by many orders of magnitude than it is for nuclear weapons or the undemonstrated and inherently uncertain potential of biological weapons.
Cheney's claim that Saddam "has already shown his willingness" to use weapons of mass destruction and the New Republic's claim that Saddam is the "only leader in the world with weapons of mass destruction who has used them" undermine the extremely valuable concept of nuclear exceptionalism. The New Republic's claim is also just plain wrong. Saddam is the only living leader in the world with weapons of mass destruction who has used them. The only leader in the world with nuclear weapons who ever used them was Harry Truman. If you agree that biological and chemical weapons deserve to be called "weapons of mass destruction," then the New Republic's condemnation may be extended to include Woodrow Wilson and many others who deployed chemical warfare during World War I.
Is Chatterbox saying that Harry Truman and Woodrow Wilson were no better than Saddam Hussein? Of course not. Saddam is a brutal dictator, while Truman and Wilson are justly admired presidents. But it remains true that Wilson and Truman allowed use of weapons in their time that today are judged beyond the pale within the international community. Quite rightly, the international consensus further holds that nuclear warfare is much more dangerous, and therefore much more reprehensible, than chemical and biological warfare. This is a distinction that the phrase "weapons of mass destruction" undermines. If Saddam has already used "weapons of mass destruction" (and, moreover, suffered little for it), what deters him from using nukes in the future? They're all "weapons of mass destruction," aren't they?
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.