Week of Decisions

23 January 2003

Week of Decisions

By Gwynne Dyer

By this time next week, we’ll know whether the chief United Nations arms inspectors in Iraq, Hans Blix and Mohammed El Baradei, have asked the Security Council for another 60 days to go on looking for Saddam Hussein’s elusive ‘weapons of mass destruction’ (almost certainly yes). We will know whether President George W. Bush told the American public he wants to go to war right now in his State of the Union speech (probably another yes). However, we will still be waiting to learn whether President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the only two Western leaders who think a war is necessary, decide in their scheduled meeting at Camp David at the end of the month to ignore the United Nations and their allies and go it alone.

That’s the key question — and the answer is a maybe. For all the bald assertions about Iraqi ‘weapons of mass destruction’ coming out of Washington, there is no meaningful proof, and over two-thirds of the Americans questioned in a Washington Post/ABC News poll last week said that the inspectors should be given months more before military action is considered.

All the other major powers apart from ultra-loyal Britain certainly think that. As France’s foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, said last Tuesday: “Since we can disarm Iraq through peaceful means, we should not take the risk to endanger the lives of innocent civilians or soldiers, to jeopardise the stability of the region,…to fuel terrorism.” Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder chimed in at once: “Do not expect that Germany (which holds the rotating presidency of the Security Council next month) will agree to a resolution that legitimises war.”

But President Bush is seething with impatience: “Surely we have learned how this man (Saddam Hussein) deceives and delays,” he said on Wednesday. “This business about more time. How much more time do we need to see clearly that he’s not disarming? This looks like a re-run of a bad movie and I’m not interested in watching.” His sidekick Tony Blair then chipped in with some of the deliberate confusion that implicitly (but falsely) links al-Qaeda to Saddam Hussein, and Saddam to nuclear weapons: “Do we really doubt that if these terrorists could get hold of these weapons of mass destruction they would not use them? The most frightening thing is the coming together of fanaticism and the technology capable of mass destruction and mass death.”

One of the falsehoods in this farrago of illogic is obvious enough: why would a brutal but entirely secular dictator like Saddam Hussein, whose whole life has been spent in the Ba’ath Party (more or less the Arab Communist party), want to give anything to a bunch of fanatical Islamist terrorists except a lingering death in his torture chambers? After all, they have been trying to kill him for a long time now. But the subtler bit is this constantly repeated guff about Saddam’s ‘weapons of mass destruction’.

To the person in the street, that means nukes — but Saddam doesn’t have any nuclear weapons. He had an ambitious nuclear weapons programme before the Gulf War in 1990-91 (to create an Arab deterrent to Israel’s nuclear monopoly, not to give them to terrorists), but it never got close to an actual weapon, and it was comprehensively dismantled by the UN inspection teams afterwards. There was a four-year gap in 1998-2002 when the inspectors weren’t there, but given the strict embargo Iraq was under, there is no chance that they could have got the programme into high gear again. NO Western intelligence service, including the American ones, believes that Saddam Hussein has nuclear weapons.

He might, on the other hand, have more old chemical shells and warheads lying around like the eleven (unfilled) ones the inspectors found recently, because Iraq made and used tens of thousands of them during the war with Iran in 1980-88. The US knew and tacitly approved of their use at the time, because Washington became Saddam’s de facto ally in its eagerness to prevent an Iranian victory. It even provided Saddam with US satellite intelligence and air force photo-interpreters to help Iraq plan its attacks on the Iranians. That was naughty of the US government, but it reflects the truth that chemical weapons are not really ‘weapons of mass destruction’ at all. They are battlefield weapons, first used in the First World War and only really useful in situations of trench warfare like the latter stages of the Iran-Iraq war.

Nuclear weapons are the only true weapons of mass destruction: a single one can kill a quarter million, a half million, even a million people. Biological weapons can’t do that (the anthrax attacks in the US in 2001 killed five people), and neither can chemical weapons. When Aum Shinrikyo terrorists released nerve gas in the Tokyo subway in 1995, a dozen people died, not millions. An airliner loaded with fuel, or even a big nail bomb, is a far more terrifying weapon than poison gas.

The phrase ‘weapons of mass destruction’ is merely a catch-all category for all non-conventional weapons, legal or illegal. Nobody would want to go to war because Iraq might have a few old poison gas shells left over from a war that ended fifteen years ago, but that’s the shell game that is being played. So why is the White House so eager for a war with Iraq?

I dunno. Maybe it has some resource that Washington wants.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 5. (“All…war”; and”One…destruction”)