Saddam's Containability

Should the U.S. Invade Iraq? Week 2

Saddam's Containability

Should the U.S. Invade Iraq? Week 2

Saddam's Containability
E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Oct. 2 2002 4:27 PM

Should the U.S. Invade Iraq? Week 2


Anne Applebaum and Will Saletan have expressed grave doubts as to whether Saddam Hussein could be deterred from using weapons of mass destruction. I have doubts about their doubts.


Will says that Saddam may be less deterrable than Stalin and Mao because Stalin and Mao were building big empires that they'd have lost in the course of a devastating American counterattack, whereas Saddam just has a dinky country. "They had a lot to lose. Saddam has less." Anne, too, suggests that maybe Saddam could bear to watch Iraq get decimated. He may be one of those dictators who doesn't have "his country's best interests at heart," she says.

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Robert Wright is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.

But the question isn't how much he loves his country—it's how much he loves his life. Does either of you really think that if Saddam lobbed a nuke at American troops, or into Kuwait, or into Israel, there is any real chance that he wouldn't ultimately be killed as a result? Do you think he thinks that? Do you think he considers his life less important than Stalin and Mao considered their lives?

If there is one theme that emerges clearly from Saddam Hussein's political career, it's that he's a survivor. In fact, that's one lesson of the Iraq hawks' staple anecdotes about the various cruelties he's inflicted on his own people: The man will do anything to survive politically. And physical survival is a prerequisite for political survival. Anne suggests that Saddam may be the kind of guy who would "risk the destruction of his country, if he thought, for some reason, that he or his regime was in danger." Precisely. He would do anything to survive—and that is the key to successful nuclear deterrence.

At one point Anne does briefly touch on the question of whether Saddam is not just ruthless but actually crazy. She says it is "folly" to believe that "megalomaniacal tyrants ... behave in the way rational people do" and brings up the example of Hitler, who committed suicide. But—even if I grant you that Saddam is in Hitler's psychological league, which I don't—the fact is that Hitler didn't choose death over life. He chose one form of death over another. He no doubt knew that we'd kill him if we caught him, and Nuremberg proved him right.

So far as I can tell, then, neither Anne nor Will has laid a glove on Steve Chapman's formidable critique of the argument that Saddam isn't containable. Having said that, let me stress that I don't think Saddam's containability settles the matter of war. In an age when governments can secretly give weapons of mass destruction to terrorists who can then deliver them without a return address, containment isn't enough. We have to somehow make sure that Iraq isn't making weapons of mass destruction. Looking further ahead, we have to (as Kate Taylor suggests) figure out a way to make sure no one else is making them either—that is, we have to start building an effective international mechanism for policing weapons of mass destruction.

It is this daunting but essential long-range goal that our Iraq policy should be subordinate to. There is no basis for the Bush administration's claim that Iraq per se poses some kind of urgent, eminent threat. I'm not aware of any reputable expert who believes that Saddam Hussein now has a true weapon of mass destruction—i.e., either a nuke or a highly contagious germ for which there is no vaccine. Besides, there's no reason to believe he'd give such things to al-Qaida, whose long-run plan is to eliminate regimes like his. So we can afford to calm down and play this thing coolly, with the long-run goal in mind.

I'd support a war against Iraq that was in the service of this goal—a war that was part of an earnest effort to a) get an intrusive inspection team into Iraq; b) shore up respect for U.N. inspections mandates generally; and c) make some progress toward the evolution of a viable international weapons policing mechanism. But I can't support a war that uses an insincere inspections ultimatum as a pretext for pre-emptive "regime change."

In other words, I'd support a war that was truly being waged on behalf of international law and its further evolution, rather than in violation of international law. So far I see no solid evidence that that's what the Bush administration has in mind. Then again, what the Bush administration has "in mind" can change on a daily basis, as the struggle for its soul continues. So I guess there's still hope.

—Robert Wright writes "The Earthling" column for Slate.