In articulating the case for going to war with Iraq, the Bush administration emphasizes that Saddam Hussein possesses and has used "weapons of mass destruction." In an Aug. 26 speech, Vice President Dick Cheney said that Saddam wants
more time to husband his resources, to invest in his ongoing chemical and biological weapons programs, and to gain possession of nuclear arms. Should all his ambitions be realized, the implications would be enormous for the Middle East, for the United States, and for the peace of the world. The whole range of weapons of mass destruction then would rest in the hands of a dictator who has already shown his willingness to use such weapons[italics Chatterbox's], and has done so, both in his war with Iran and against his own people.
In the Sept. 2 NewRepublic, an editorial headlined "Best Case" states this more starkly:
What is it, then, about the villain in Baghdad that should provoke the United States to rid the world of him? One spectacular thing: He is the only leader in the world with weapons of mass destruction who has used them. He used them against Iranian troops and against Kurdish civilians. This is what makes Saddam Hussein so distinguished in the field of evil.
The trouble with this distinction is that it rests on the long-standing dubious convention of classifying chemical and biological weapons as "weapons of mass destruction." Saddam has indeed used mustard gas and chemical agents to commit genocide "against his own people," and that is indeed a horror. (For details, see Chatterbox's earlier item, "Jude Wanniski's Genocide Denial.") Were Saddam to use them against anybody now, the U.S. would probably be justified in declaring immediate war on Iraq. But to call chemical and biological agents "weapons of mass destruction" is to blur the crucial distinction between these weapons and nuclear weapons, the use of which would be a far greater horror, both because it would kill many more people and because it would open the door to further, and deadlier, nuclear warfare.
That chemical and biological weapons don't deserve to be called "weapons of mass destruction" is a point long familiar to arms control experts. Here, for example, is Gert G. Harigel of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:
The term "weapons of mass destruction" (WMD), used to encompass nuclear (NW), biological (BW), and chemical weapons (CW), is misleading, politically dangerous, and cannot be justified on grounds of military efficiency. …Whereas protection with various degrees of efficiency is possible against chemical and biological weapons, however inconvenient it might be for military forces on the battlefield and for civilians at home, it is not feasible at all against nuclear weapons.
Wolfgang K.H. Panofsky spells out the comparative lethality of nuclear versus chemical and biological weapons in the April 1998 issue of Arms Control Today, in an article headlined "Dismantling the Concept of 'Weapons of Mass Destruction' ":
The weapons detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which killed about a quarter of a million people, had an explosive power about one-tenth that carried by a modern nuclear weapon. … If a 1-megaton thermonuclear warhead exploded at optimum altitude over a large city, little would be left standing or alive within five miles. A firestorm could be ignited, further extending the range of destruction. In a large-scale exchange, lethal fallout would cover an entire region.
Biological and chemical weapons, though certainly very nasty, are not nearly so deadly: