In his speech at Cincinnati on October 7, President George W. Bush, seeking to rally support for his authorization to launch a military invasion of Iraq, portrayed the threat posed by the Iraqi regime in lurid terms. The Iraqis, he asserted, possess dreaded chemical and biological “weapons of mass destruction,” and they seek to develop a nuclear weapon. “If the Iraqi regime is able to produce, buy, or steal an amount of highly enriched uranium a little larger than a single softball,” the president warned, “it could have a nuclear weapon in less than a year.” And then? “Saddam Hussein would be in a position to blackmail anyone who opposes his aggression. He would be in a position to dominate the Middle East. He would be in a position to threaten America.”
Bush urged that “we cannot wait for the final proof — the smoking gun — that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.” Reiterating that Saddam can “develop a nuclear weapon to blackmail the world,” the president opined that “the situation could hardly get worse” and therefore that the United States must eliminate the grave Iraqi threat before it comes to fruition.
This view of the world is so grotesquely out of proportion, so preposterously hyperbolic, that one scarcely knows what to make of it. The president, along with all those who find his presentation compelling, seems to have forgotten everything about the long Cold War, and he seems oblivious to nearly everything about the current world situation.
For some forty years, the United States lived under constant threat of nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. For those who have forgotten, the Soviet regime was not composed of poets and flower peddlers. If Saddam Hussein is, as the president insists, “a ruthless and aggressive dictator,” what was Joseph Stalin? What was Leonid Brezhnev?
Nor did the rulers of the USSR play single-softball with respect to nuclear warheads. By the mid-1980s, the Soviet arsenal contained more than 10,000 strategic nuclear warheads and some 30,000 nonstrategic nuclear warheads. Unlike Iraq, which has no capability to deliver a nuclear weapon at long range, the USSR had more than 6,000 nuclear warheads mounted on more than a thousand intercontinental ballistic missiles, most of them programmed to strike targets in the United States within half an hour of launch. In addition, thousands of submarine-launched nuclear weapons and more than a thousand nuclear bombs carried by long-range jet aircraft augmented the Soviet threat.
Yet, notwithstanding the tens of thousands of Soviet nuclear warheads and their sophisticated delivery vehicles kept in constant readiness, the United States was not “blackmailed” by the USSR. Odd that now the United States should quake at the prospect of a single Iraqi softball of fissionable material.
The United States itself, of course, created an awesome nuclear arsenal (not to speak of its vast stocks of chemical and biological weapons). Even today, after substantial post-Cold War cutbacks, the US nuclear arsenal contains more than 3,000 strategic nuclear warheads and thousands of nonstrategic nuclear weapons. Given that the United States is the only country ever to have used nuclear weapons in warfare, its willingness to use such weapons cannot be doubted.
Whereas Saddam Hussein has never threatened to use nuclear weapons against the United States, the United States has threatened to use such weapons against Iraq, most notably when President George H. W. Bush sent a letter to Saddam Hussein in January 1991, warning him against using chemical or biological weapons to fight the US and other forces about to attack Iraq, and not so subtly suggesting that nuclear retaliation might ensue if he did.
The Iraqi dictator was deterred in 1991; he can be deterred just as well in 2002 or any future year. He understands fully that any use of weapons of mass destruction — suitcase nukes, deadly germs, nerve gas, or anything else — by him or any agent of his against the United States will elicit his immediate destruction, most likely by means of US nuclear retaliation. Nothing in his history suggests that he is suicidal; on the contrary, he works extraordinarily hard at personal survival.
If the Iraqis understand the nuclear threat they face from the Americans, other regimes now understand that they too might become targets. According to the Bush administration’s secret Nuclear Posture Review provided to Congress by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in January 2002, a partial copy of which was obtained by the Los Angeles Times, “The Bush administration has directed the military to prepare contingency plans to use nuclear weapons against at least seven countries [China, Russia, Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Libya, and Syria] and to build smaller nuclear weapons for use in certain battlefield situations.” Leaders around the world have taken note of the new US nuclear posture. They surely understand that although the United States does not speak softly, it does carry a big stick.
Clearly, then, given the constellation of forces and the understandings of all the parties regarding action and reaction, Iraq poses no nuclear threat to the American people or anyone else. President Bush’s hyperventilation about the “mushroom cloud” is nothing but hot air, intended to inspire fear where such fear has no rational basis.
Unfortunately, we cannot say the same about nuclear threats from other quarters. The continuing existence of vast nuclear-weapons stockpiles and delivery systems in Russia constitutes a tremendous threat to the safety of humankind. Even if the Russians resist the deliberate employment of those weapons, the likelihood of accidental launches or catastrophic failures of their command-and-control system remains far from trivial. If President Bush really wanted to do something to allay the nuclear threat to the American people, he would put the full weight of his administration behind the most expeditious dismantling of as many of the Russian weapons as possible. The $1 billion a year the United States is spending currently to improve the security of Russian nuclear storage facilities is pathetically slight in proportion to the seriousness of the threat those ill-secured facilities pose to the world.
Also significant, though seldom mentioned by the establishment media, are the more than 100 nuclear warheads believed to be in the Israeli arsenal. Little imagination is required to conceive of the targets the Israelis probably have in mind for those weapons. Bush seeks to inspire fear of nuclear attack in the residents of New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, but the residents of Baghdad, Damascus, and Teheran have far more reason to be afraid of finding themselves on the receiving end of such an attack.
Nor should we overlook the nuclear warheads and long-range missiles in the hands of the Pakistanis. Unlike Iraq, Pakistan has spawned, nurtured, and harbored countless thousands of Muslim holy warriors keen to harm the United States. Evidently, the Bush administration feels comfortable with Pakistani dictator General Pervez Musharraf because he is “our son of a bitch,” but today’s military strongman may be tomorrow’s deposed dictator, and nobody knows how friendly toward the United States the replacement son of a bitch will be. A hostile, nuclear-armed, Islamist regime in Pakistan might make the Taliban look like cute kindergarteners.
In sum, a nuclear threat does exist, in fact, several of them, but the mythical softball in Baghdad is not among them. That President Bush and his warmongering advisers are hellbent to invade Iraq is all too clear. That Iraq’s nuclear program justifies such an invasion is the sheerest nonsense.
Robert Higgs [send him mail] is senior fellow in political economy at the Independent Institute, editor of The Independent Review, and author of Crisis and Leviathan and the editor of Arms, Politics, and the Economy.