Taking Apart Iraq’s Nuclear Threat
By Ehud Barak
Published: September 4, 2002
President Bush’s policy of ousting Saddam Hussein creates an extraordinary standard of strategic and moral clarity. Millions in the Middle East, including many Iraqis, are praying that the in-depth, genuine — and so typically American — public debate that is developing before our eyes about Iraq will not dilute this clarity.
On a practical level, the whole debate can be reduced to three questions: whether a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for an inspection regime of the greatest rigor is needed now; whether unilateral or multilateral action against Saddam Hussein would need to honor the timetable of such a resolution; and whether the resolution’s wording or timetable would provide Mr. Hussein with the means to postpone or cancel a future attack against him.
Saddam Hussein’s nuclear-weapons program provides the urgent need for his removal. His previous violations of United Nations Security Council resolutions already provide the legal ground and legitimacy to remove him before it becomes too late. But at the end of the day, given the world as it is, a Security Council resolution is a must. Every choice has its risks, but ignoring the Security Council in this case would make the goal of removing Saddam Hussein much harder to achieve.
Such a resolution should not, however, paralyze the Bush administration. The timetables for compliance by Iraq should be short and the deadlines nonnegotiable. The risks of a resolution would be minimized by a clear American message that the United States will be ready to act and will expect the Security Council to back it if immediate and full Iraqi compliance is not forthcoming. If the United States does need to act, it will be in a much stronger position for having consulted first.
Those who prefer to wait and hope for the best should contemplate the following: no one really knows how close Saddam Hussein is to building a crude nuclear device — and it was a crude device that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Few will doubt Mr. Hussein’s readiness to use a nuclear weapon against American assets or against Israel, if only under extreme circumstances. Once Iraq becomes a nuclear power, the very decision to go to war against it would become a totally different ball game.
If Saddam Hussein is allowed to cheat the inspectors and the world for another year or two, we might end up making an unforgivable mistake. We in Israel have already been through this. Prime Minister Menachem Begin ordered the destruction of an Iraqi nuclear reactor near Baghdad in 1981. This action delayed an Iraqi bomb by at least 15 years. The whole world condemned Israel — only to realize later how farsighted it had been. Saddam Hussein now is much more cautious. His military-nuclear infrastructure is geographically spread out and protected to avoid a repetition of the 1981 defeat.
For a successful invasion of Iraq, two operational options are basically valid: a surgical operation to hit the core of the regime, and a full-scale operation to include major airborne and ground forces, perhaps 300,000 soldiers.
The interrelationship between these two options should be well understood. The surgical operation needs high-quality and timely intelligence and superb quick-response operational capabilities. The right thing to do is to have this option ready to go, because no one can know when or if the right moment will come to execute it.
If a surgical operation is launched and somehow fails, the point of no return has been reached and the United States will need to launch the wider operation immediately. When you launch a surgical operation, you must already be well deployed to follow it through with larger forces. That complicates matters: you need to be ready for a full-fledged campaign on the operational level and have the diplomatic backing lined up as well.
The ”morning after” issue is also not simple. Many serious observers of the Middle East doubt whether a stable Iraq will emerge after Saddam Hussein’s removal. They have a point. But so do those who argue that after 75 years of modern Iraq, a nation has been established that will stand the challenge.
Turkey will never support the effort to remove Saddam Hussein unless a firm commitment is made, in advance, not to allow a Kurdish state in northern Iraq. In regard to Iran, it may well see the benefits of having America, risking American lives, defeat Iran’s major rival for the second time in 15 years. Whatever happens, some turbulence will result from Saddam Hussein’s demise. But if he is removed decisively, it might accelerate positive internal processes within Iran — and not simply excite Shiites in the south of Iraq to shake off government from Baghdad.
Finally, it is clear to me that putting an end to Saddam Hussein’s regime will change the geopolitical landscape of the Arab world. No Arab leader can afford admitting it now, even behind closed doors. But they are wise enough to see how much better off they will be once the Hussein regime is gone. Saddam Hussein has set an example of defiance, especially against the first President Bush, that other Arab leaders cannot and should not emulate; the example leads only to empty gestures and developmental stagnation, both of which the Arab nations have had enough of already. There is a generation of Arab leaders about to come into power who do not need to put themselves through yet another version of secularist Nasserite despotism. An Arab world without Saddam Hussein would enable many from this generation to embrace the gradual democratic opening that some of the Persian Gulf states and Jordan have begun to enjoy.
Freeing the region of Saddam Hussein would also create an opening for forward movement on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was only after Mr. Hussein’s supporter, Yasir Arafat, found himself beaten and isolated in 1991 that he was willing to go to Madrid and enter fully into the Oslo peace process.
Nothing can be assured in advance. But the opportunities far exceed the dangers. The greatest risk now lies in inaction. The history of the last century showed us clearly what the price of paralysis can be. The public debate over Iraq policy must continue. But the readiness to act, once the time is ripe, should not fade away.
Drawing (Tim Lane)
Ehud Barak was prime minister of Israel from 1999 to 2001.