The Wrong Question

6 February 2003

The Wrong Question

By Gwynne Dyer

US Secretary of State Colin Powell did a good job at the United Nations on Wednesday of laying out the evidence that Saddam Hussein has kept some of the chemical and biological weapons that he had before the Gulf War of 1990-91, and maybe even made more since then. If you doubted it before, then you shouldn’t doubt it any more. But it was the right answer to the wrong question.

Saddam should be forced to comply with his obligations and destroy all those weapons, but if you are planning to launch a war next month that will probably snuff out tens of thousands of lives, then you have to answer a different question. Is there a big enough risk that Saddam will use those weapons himself in the near future, or give them to terrorists to use, to justify pulling the inspectors out and killing all those people now?

No, there is not. Saddam Hussein has had these weapons for at least twenty years, and he hasn’t given them to anyone in all that time. And why would terrorists need to get these weapons from Iraq anyway, when they could just steal their poison gas from the huge, poorly guarded stocks in Russia (secured, in some cases, with bicycle padlocks) — or mix them up in the kitchen sink like the Aum Shinrikyo cult did for its attacks on the Tokyo subway in 1995?

Besides, Saddam Hussein is no friend of al-Qaeda. He is the kind of Arab leader the Islamists hate most: a secular, westernising socialist who liberates women and makes deals with the West. Osama bin Laden says he is an ‘infidel’ and has been calling for his overthrow for years.

But, says Mr Bush, he’s a mad, expansionist dictator, a mini-Hitler who wants to overrun the Middle East and will stop at nothing. We must not appease him by waiting three months (always the Munich analogies). We have to take him down now.

Saddam is a thoroughly nasty dictator, but he is neither mad nor expansionist. In fact, if you were looking for a European parallel to Saddam Hussein’s regime, it would be something like Nicolae Ceasescu’s long reign in Communist Romania — except that Ceasescu, safely contained within the Soviet bloc, never had a war with his neighbours.

Saddam Hussein, who is 66 this year, comes from the Arab generation that believed in modernisation through revolutionary socialism on the Eastern European model. During the 1970s he behaved like a classic Communist leader, eliminating his rivals but taking the task of raising people’s living standards quite seriously. With abundant oil revenues available, he built an Iraq where most people had decent jobs, the children were all in school, and women were freer than anywhere else in the Arab world. Then came the war with Iran, and everything went wrong.

Saddam always dreamed of becoming the hero-leader of the Arab world on the model of Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser, which is why he had a nuclear weapons programme. (The first Arab leader to acquire a deterrent against Israel’s nuclear monopoly automatically becomes an Arab hero.) He never showed any desire to conquer his neighbours, but Iraq did have territorial disputes with Iran and Kuwait, both dating back to before he was born — and he did not manage them well.

He signed a treaty with Iran in 1975 settling the dispute over the Iraq-Iran border, but it unravelled after the Shah was overthrown in 1978, and the new Islamic government of Ayatollah Khomeini began inciting the majority of Iraqi Arabs who share Iran’s Shia religious heritage to throw off Saddam’s godless socialist rule. In the great blunder of his life, Saddam went to war with Iran in 1980. Iranians outnumber Iraqis three-to-one, and without huge amounts of US aid and those chemical weapons we keep hearing about (which the Reagan administration knew all about), he would not have survived.

Iraq emerged from that war in 1988 with hundreds of thousands dead, the welfare state in ruins — and $60 billion in debt to its Gulf Arab neighbours. Saddam asked them to cancel the debt, since Iraq’s sacrifices had ‘saved’ them from revolutionary Iran. When they refused, he invaded Kuwait (which all the rulers of independent Iraqi have claimed as part of Iraq) in August, 1990. He thought he had cleared this with his American allies, but neither party understood what the other was saying in his famous conversation with the US ambassador in Baghdad.

When Saddam Hussein contacted President George H.W. Bush four days after the invasion and offered the US unlimited Kuwaiti oil at one-third of world market price in return for a deal on Kuwaiti sovereignty, Bush senior coldly ordered him out of Kuwait. He refused, the Gulf war followed, and he has been under UN sanctions ever since, clinging to power in the ruins of the country he once raised to prosperity. He has been a disaster for Iraq, but he is not the new Hitler. He is not even a visceral anti-American, though US-Iraqi relations have been bitterly hostile since 1990.

So the right questions are: is Saddam likely to give chemical or biological weapons to the Islamist terrorists he loathes this month or next, when he has not done so in the past twenty years? If not, why do we need a war with Iraq now that will kill a great many people with old-fashioned high explosives?


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 9. (“But…now”, and “Saddam…well”)