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Sunday, September 29, 2002

E-mail Ken Hirsch

Don't expect any regular blog here. I rarely have anything to say and almost never have time to say it! But I did email Eugene Volokh a response to his speculation about Saddam Hussein threatening the U.S. with nuclear weapons. Professor Volokh asked if he could post it on his blog. I said sure, but then realized that this would be the only thing people ever read about my views on Iraq. Out of context, people might group me with Fisk or Chomsky! So I decided to expand on it here.

Before getting down to business, let me say that The Volokh Conspiracy is an excellent blog and I agree with Eugene & Co. most of the time. I even respect Eugene Volokh as a programmer--I regularly use a computer program that he wrote when he was just a child prodigy programmer and not yet a rising star of Constitutional scholarship.

But now I must disagree. First, I will stipulate that Saddam is an evil, loathsome, ruthless, dangerous, unrepentant, lying dictator. He has thwarted the weapons inspectors at every step. He still has some missiles and chemical weapons and will scheme to acquire more. He will try to build nuclear weapons and may succeed. The world would be a much better place without him and a case can be made that it is worth going to war to rid our planet of him.

However, when Eugene Volokh suggests that Saddam would threaten the United States with nuclear weapons, I must protest. Saddam is not suicidal. Our response to Saddam is predictable and would be along the lines of this, which is what I emailed to Eugene:

Dear Saddam,

As you may have gathered by now, your largest military base and "presidential palace" are missing. We are sure that everybody within is dead, because we were sure to use our 10 megaton warheads. We will not be intimidated.

For every nuclear explosion in the United States, at least two targets in Iraq will be completely destroyed. The first two targets on the list are Baghdad and your hometown of Takrit. Our bombers are flying in a holding pattern nearby, awaiting my orders. No more than twenty minutes will elapse between my orders and the bombs falling.

Simultaneously with our demonstration in Iraq, we broadcast the follow offer in the United States, that all Iraqi operatives who turn themselves in within twenty-four hours will have their lives spared and that the first person to reveal the location of each nuclear bomb in the United States will be able to name a ten mile-radius zone in Iraq that will be spared nuclear annihilation.

Your "trusted agents" now have to weigh the fear that you might survive to seek reprisal against their families with the certainty that every last relative of theirs will be vaporized if they obey you. We think the choice is easy.

You have twenty-four hours to reveal the locations of all warheads. Our only offer is that if you comply, the death penalty will not be sought when you are brought to trial. We think this is a very generous offer.

Saddam cannot expect any lesser reply and would never use nuclear weapons overtly against the United States.

In reality, the threat from bombs hidden in our cities is not that much different from what we always faced from the Soviet Union. If Time Magazine's Hugh Sidey is to be believed, President Kennedy suspected a nuclear bomb hidden in the Soviet's Washington, D.C. Embassy even while he faced down the Russians during the Cuban missile crisis.

What Volokh is arguing, I think, is that America is so soft and Saddam so tough that we would back down from any confrontation with Saddam if he could detonate even one weapon on our soil, even if our response is total annihilation. Yet for decades we have been staring down the barrel of nuclear holocaust and did not blink.

Steven Den Beste echoes Volokh's argument, although he also considers Volokh's particular scenario as not credible. Den Beste claims rather dubiously that deterrence worked against the Soviet Union because "the leaders there had approximately the same kind of attitude about damage to their nation as we did about ours" and he credits the development of the "mutually assured destruction" doctrine to John Von Neumann.

The actual history is somewhat different. The MAD doctrine was developed while Stalin was in power, a leader to whom Saddam bears more than a passing resemblance. Stalin actively murdered, starved, and militarily sacrificed tens of millions of his own citizens, and could credibly claim that he would do it again. His reign of terror and internal purges seem to the very model of Saddam's own practice. Von Neumann did indeed propose and analyze MAD among many other policy options, but he famously summarized his own preference this way: "If you say why not bomb them tomorrow, I say why not today? If you say today at 5 o'clock, I say why not one o'clock?" The preventive war doctrine was actively considered in the 1940s and 1950s and was a cause for concern among our allies. Sound familiar?

Thus concludes my disagreement with Eugene Volokh. While there are some threats from Iraq worth worrying about, their actually using nuclear weapons against the United States is not one of them.


What about other scenarios?

Some have suggested that Saddam might smuggle weapons into the United States and explode them without taking credit. Or that he might give one to Islamic zealots who would carry out the attack. Well, that is a remote possibility, but one that I cannot entirely rule out. The chance of discovery, before or after the attack, is very real and it's unclear what benefit Saddam would gain from an anonymous attack.

Mostly, Saddam is rational. The war against Iran and the takeover of Kuwait were both ill-fated, but there was real gain to be had in both and the expectation of success was not unreasonable. Saddam never did use his chemical weapons against the U.S. or Israel, because he feared retaliation.

On the other hand, I have to admit, Saddam did try to assassinate ex-President Bush. There was nothing to gain from that but revenge, and a big risk of retaliation.

"Aha!" various blogsters exclaim, "given the dire consequences, no matter how unlikely, we are compelled to act! If you can't guarantee this won't happen, we just can't take the chance." And they're serious about this.

Well, if going to war had no costs and no risks, they'd be right. But there are many real costs to war and many risks that are much more likely than Saddam trying to sneak nuclear weapons across borders.

If we are going to take far-fetched scenarios as guides to policies, how about Saddam spreading smallpox in our cities if we do invade? "If you can't guarantee this won't happen, we just can't take the chance." You see, that reasoning works both ways.

This has always been the biggest problem with Pascal's Wager. Blaise Pascal argued that the consequences of eternal damnation were so great that no matter how small the likelihood of God's existence, it was foolish not to devote own's life to God. Unfortunately, it's not clear to which God one should devote one's life.

Though the threat of nuclear terrorism from Iraq is scary indeed, there are so many other speculative threats that could justify a preemptive attack. Surely anyone who has thought about the problem realizes that the greatest threat of nuclear terrorism comes not from Iraq, but from Pakistan. Pakistan already has nuclear weapons and its military and intelligence operations have many known links to the Islamo-fascist nutcases who have already attacked us. Yes, the régime-du-jour has been most cooperative, but how long will they last and can they really guarantee that the weapons won't fall into the hands of those whose suicidal fanaticism has already been so memorably demonstrated?

Or, if it's too late to deal with Pakistan, how about Iran? They haven't yet had the pleasure of hosting even one visit from arms inspectors and it is widely believed that they are even closer to developing nuclear weapons. Their active support for Islamic terrorists is widely known. How can we risk leaving them in power? "If you can't guarantee this won't happen, we just can't take the chance." This argument is just too broad to be taken seriously.


What Saddam actually wants nuclear weapons for is to threaten to use them. If he had had them back in 1990, it's doubtful that Saudi Arabia would have agreed to allow American troops on their soil. Saddam would have had effective control of the entire Arabian Peninsula and incredible leverage in OPEC. He would be a major regional power.

If he got them now, he would no longer have to fear invasion, since that's one case where we can be sure he would use nuclear weapons. The already leaky sanctions would evaporate as his neighbors would fear Iraq more than us. He would be able to sell oil and rebuild his military. Those are likely consequences and should be at the center of the debate.

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