Should the U.S. Invade Iraq? Week 3

What Could Saddam Really Do? 
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Oct. 7 2002 2:33 PM

Should the U.S. Invade Iraq? Week 3

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Jeffrey Goldberg may be a good reporter, and good reporting is valuable to have, but his attitude amounts to "I've been there and you haven't, so I must be right and you must be wrong." Condescension is not an argument. "I admire writers who inhabit the realm of pure thought" is the sort of thing you say when you're losing a debate. I have trouble understanding how Jeff can be so well-traveled in the Middle East and so sure that Saddam poses "a singular danger" but can't actually explain why he is such a threat to the United States or its allies. In neither of his posts does he offer a scenario in which Saddam might actually make use of the bomb.

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It's not exactly a scoop to point out that Saddam has a fondness for fiendish weapons and that he's even used poison gas against Iran and against the Kurds. His willingness to use horrific armaments against a weak enemy doesn't mean he would use them against a superpower with a vast nuclear arsenal. He had the chance in 1991, after all, and passed it up. Jeff says weaponized aflatoxin is "a tool of mass murder and nothing else." But nuclear weapons are also tools of mass murder, which doesn't mean we have them because we plan to commit mass murder. We have them for deterrence. The advocates of pre-emptive war can't believe Saddam would acquire nukes or aflatoxin just for deterrence and insist that he would actually use these weapons. But they can't seem to decide how. So, let me consider one forecast: that he would wield his nukes to facilitate local conquest. He could invade a neighboring country and then forestall American intervention by threatening to go nuclear. The question the advocates of war like to ask is: Would we have dared to try to liberate Kuwait if we had faced a nuclear-armed foe?

But a lot has changed since 1990. When he rolled into Kuwait, Saddam had a large and well-equipped army, seasoned by years of combat in Iran. He was able to mass troops on the border without attracting much notice. And when he crossed over, he had only the Kuwaiti army to squash. The obstacles to conventional aggression are much greater now. To start with, we now are committed to protecting Kuwait—in contrast to the ambiguous position we took before the 1990 invasion, which gave Saddam the idea we'd let him get away with it. He can't make a move without the United States knowing about it instantly. If he were to move troops toward one of his frontiers, alarms would go off around the world and vigorous preventive steps would ensue. Some have already been taken: The United States now has some 8,000 troops stationed in Kuwait, just in case any trouble arises.

Another daunting hurdle is that Saddam's army is a battered remnant of what he once commanded. His troop strength is from one-third to half what it was in 1990, and most of his tanks, armored personnel carriers, and heavy artillery were blown to pieces in the Gulf War. For all that time, he's been under economic sanctions that have kept him from purchasing new weaponry or even getting spare parts for the old. His army has been limited in the amount of time it can spend training for the simple reason that field exercises produce wear and tear on his scarce, aging equipment. His technological capabilities are, at best, the same as they were 12 years ago—"trapped in amber," in the words of John Pike, director of globalsecurity.org. Even against the American technology he faced then, his army was hopelessly outclassed. Things have only gotten worse for Iraq since, as the technology employed by the U.S. military has raced into the 21st century. Going to war with what he has now would be like pitting a team of over-40 Sunday morning softball players against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Saddam poured some 350,000 troops into Kuwait. Today, says University of Chicago defense scholar Robert Pape, he probably couldn't come up with more than 100,000. The chief current function of his soldiers is to contain domestic dangers—in the north, where Kurds have resisted his rule for 30 years, in the south, where Shiite separatists stir up trouble against his Sunni regime, and in the area of Baghdad, where Saddam's person requires constant vigilance. Marching troops off in search of conquest means loosening Saddam's control at home. It would invite uprisings that could topple him from power.

He can hardly imagine that the United States would wait patiently for him to concentrate his forces and conduct an offensive. On their journey to the border, the Iraqi invaders would be strung out across the desert, practically begging to be demolished by American air power. Even if we waited until Saddam's forces actually crossed the boundary line, the result would be the same: an all-out turkey shoot that would stop the Iraqi army in its tracks and then cut it to ribbons. Once the shooting starts, a lot of Iraqi soldiers are apt to lose their interest in battle. "They know how that story ends," says Pike, who notes that desertion rates were exceedingly high the last time—before the Iraqis fully understood how overmatched they were. Back then, Saddam was dug in, with the inherent advantages of the defense, and we had to spend weeks pounding his army from the air. This time, he'd have the harder task of assaulting our prepared positions.

All these facts suggest that Saddam will no have no use for nuclear weapons except the same one as other nuclear states, which is to deter attack. Maybe the United States would have let the 1990 invasion stand if Saddam had waited until he could threaten us with nukes. But he didn't—and now his chance is gone for good.

—Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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