Nix "weapons of mass destruction."

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Aug. 27 2002 5:56 PM

Saddam Does Not Have "Weapons of Mass Destruction"

Unless he already has nukes that we don't know about.

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.

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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:

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 weaponsas measured by per unit weight of delivered munitionsis 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.

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