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Bush's Nuclear Gamble

By Robert Parry
September 30, 2002

The U.S. debate over invading Iraq has so far focused on only one part of the nuclear danger. George W. Bush has pushed an emotional hot button by alleging Saddam Hussein is close to having a nuclear bomb and is ready to share it with terrorists.


Speaking to the United Nations the day after the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush raised the prospect that Iraq passing a nuclear bomb to terrorist allies would make the World Trade Center slaughter “a prelude to far greater horrors.”

But what has not been examined in any detail is whether invading Iraq might actually hasten the day when nuclear weapons fall into the hands of anti-American terrorists. Indeed, that nightmare scenario might be as likely or even more likely if Bush gets his way on an invasion.

One reason a war with Iraq might increase, rather than decrease, the danger to the American people is that the invasion could spread instability across the Middle East and throughout the Muslim world. That instability could put at risk shaky pro-American governments, most notably the dictatorship of Gen. Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan, a government that already possesses nuclear weapons.

In the 1990s, Pakistan’s intelligence services helped organize a group of young Islamic fundamentalists from Afghanistan into the Taliban movement that, in turn, protected Osama bin-Laden's al-Qaeda network as it plotted the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Today, even as Musharraf cooperates with the U.S. war on terror, his regime is confronted by pro-al-Qaeda factions both inside and outside his government.  Many past and present Pakistani military officers continue to sympathize with the fundamentalists.

So, what happens if the U.S. invasion of Iraq leads to the killing of thousands of Muslim civilians from errant air attacks or if there is bloody street-to-street fighting in Baghdad like the "Black Hawk Down" scenes in Mogadishu, Somalia. Neither is a farfetched possibility, according to military analysts. And the sight of widespread killings at the heart of the Arab world could inflame the earth’s one billion Muslims.

If rioting swept away Musharraf’s fragile government, its nuclear weapons could immediately fall into the hands of Islamic extremists. In such a scenario, it’s not hard to envision one or more nuclear weapons passed on to Osama bin Laden’s suicide bombers. A radicalized Pakistan also would represent a greater threat to India, which is lined up with its own nuclear weapons on the other side of the disputed province of Kashmir.

Then, rather than a hypothetical case of Iraq possibly developing nuclear weapons years down the road, Bush’s “prelude to far greater horrors” could become an immediate reality. Instead of forestalling the possibility of Islamic terrorists getting the Bomb, a U.S. invasion has the potential for speeding up the process.

While such a scenario might not occur – the U.S. invasion might succeed quickly with little loss of civilian life and the rest of the Middle East might stay calm – a less satisfactory outcome seems at least as likely.

There’s also questionable reasoning behind Bush’s claim that even if Iraq developed nuclear weapons that it would share one with Islamic fundamentalists, who have long been bitter opponents of Saddam Hussein's secular state. Though the Bush administration has asserted that ties exist between Iraq's government and al-Qaeda, scant evidence has been presented to support the charge. The ties between Pakistani intelligence and al-Qaeda are far more obvious and direct.

Alarmist Rhetoric

Bush’s alarmist rhetoric also has given many Americans the wrong impression that Iraq already has the Bomb or is very close to getting it. Outside studies, including two British reports favorably cited by the Bush administration, offer a much less frightening picture.

The assessment of British intelligence agencies, released by Prime Minister Tony Blair on Sept. 24, found that the existing U.N. embargo against Iraq has succeeded in “hindering the import of crucial goods for the production of fissile material,” such as highly enriched uranium needed for nuclear weapons.

The British intelligence chiefs “judged that while sanctions remain effective, Iraq would not be able to produce a nuclear weapon.” [NYT, Sept. 25, 2002]

The London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies reached a similar conclusion in a "dossier" on Iraq's weapons capabilities that was released Sept. 9. "Iraq does not possess facilities to produce fissile material in sufficient amounts for nuclear weapons," the IISS concluded. "It would require several years and extensive foreign assistance to build such fissile material production facilities."

In other words, these studies show that a continued strategy of arms embargoes, backed by international inspections, would likely keep Iraq from developing a nuclear weapon for the foreseeable future. If true, the Bush administration's push for an invasion might replace a manageable danger of Iraq's unlikely development of a nuclear weapon over a number of years with an immediate threat that a destabilized Pakistan might hand over a nuclear device to Islamic radicals prepared to use it.

Nuclear Posture

There is another doomsday scenario that so far has gotten short shrift in the truncated American debate on Iraq. It is the possibility that the war will lead to U.S. forces firing off tactical nuclear weapons against Iraq or to Israel going nuclear in reaction to a biological or chemical attack from Iraq.

A U.S. escalation to nuclear weapons could occur under the Bush administration’s new “nuclear posture review” if Iraq moves to fire biological or chemical weapons at U.S. forces or takes aim at Israel.

Sent to Congress several months after the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush’s “nuclear posture review” lowered the threshold for use of U.S. nuclear weapons. Bush’s strategy puts nuclear, chemical and biological weapons under the umbrella of “weapons of mass destruction” and thus makes explicit the possibility that a biological or chemical attack – or the threat of one – may trigger a U.S. nuclear strike.

In the British government's recent report, Blair asserted that Iraq could launch a biological or chemical attack in 45 minutes on the orders of Saddam Hussein or his son. That means the decision by U.S. forces how to respond would be at a hair trigger.

Bush’s “nuclear posture review” also envisions use of nuclear weapons to destroy hardened underground bunkers, another situation that could arise in Iraq.

 “Nuclear weapons could be employed against targets able to withstand non-nuclear attack, (for example, deep underground bunkers or bio-weapons facilities),” according to a summary of Bush’s nuclear strategy that was leaked to the news media earlier this year. “New capabilities must be developed to defeat emerging threats such as hard and deeply buried targets, to find and attack mobile and relocatable targets, to defeat chemical or biological agents, and to improve accuracy and limit collateral damage,” Bush’s nuclear posture review says

By contrast, President Clinton vowed no U.S. first-use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states, as a way to encourage non-proliferation. Bush’s nuclear posture review opens the door to a U.S. first use of nuclear weapons against an adversary armed only with chemical or biological agents.

Persian Gulf Warning

In brandishing nuclear weapons at Iraq, Bush may think he is following in his father’s footsteps. The elder Bush delivered a veiled threat to Saddam Hussein in 1991 that use of biological and chemical weapons against U.S. troops during the Persian Gulf War would prompt a devastating U.S. military response. That warning was widely interpreted as meaning a nuclear strike.

That possibility of escalation in 1991 may have come closer to reality than many observers understood. According to the report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Iraq assembled “rudimentary” biological weapons after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait and in anticipation of a U.S. counter-strike.

“These weapons were distributed to military units, who were delegated to use them if coalition forces advanced on Baghdad or used nuclear weapons,” the IISS report said.

President George H.W. Bush averted this confrontation by halting the U.S. military advance after a 100-hour ground campaign that routed Iraqi troops from Kuwait. One of several factors in the elder Bush’s decision not to chase the Iraqi troops back to Baghdad was the prospect that cornering Saddam Hussein and his elite forces might have forced the Iraqi hand on biological and chemical weapons – and then the senior Bush’s hand on retaliating.

Now, George W. Bush is ignoring the advice of his father's former aides, such as former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft. While Scowcroft and other senior figures from the first Bush administration have counseled against rushing to war with Iraq, Bush has made clear his determination to eliminate Saddam Hussein, whom Bush recently has called “the guy that tried to kill my dad.”

This time, there's no doubt that the goal of U.S. forces will be to corner and destroy the Iraqi leader and his loyal troops. If they react by firing off what biological and chemical weapons they may have and if U.S. forces or the Israelis respond with a nuclear strike, the chances for violent repercussions throughout the Muslim world would increase exponentially. So would the odds for fundamentalists ousting Musharraf and getting control of Pakistan's nuclear bombs.

`Copycat' Wars

Another risk from a U.S. invasion would be the possibility of  “copycat” interventions by other nuclear powers against their own “terrorists.” The Russians already are eyeing an invasion of Georgia to wipe out Chechen rebels hiding in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge. Farther east, the Indians want to wipe out Pakistani-backed Islamic extremists fighting in Kashmir. Communist China sees challenges from nationalist groups on the mainland and in Taiwan.

By throwing away international rules against invading other countries, the Bush administration might find it difficult to enforce the same rules when other countries are caught in their own wars against "terrorism."

For instance, what might the Russians do if thousands of their troops are trapped in the Pankisi Gorge and tactical nuclear weapons are the only way to save them? What moral or legal standing would Washington have to object to Russia acting in its perceived self-interest near its own borders when the Bush administration sent troops halfway around the world to eliminate a hypothetical future threat and settle an old family score?

Bush and other members of his administration have argued that in the case of Iraq, inaction is a bigger risk than action. “To assume this regime’s good faith is to bet the lives of millions and the peace of the world in a reckless gamble,” Bush told the United Nations on Sept. 12.

Bush's argument has appeal to many can-do Americans who would like to see an adversary taken out rather than contained and managed.

But it is a truism, too, that ill-advised action can be worse than no action – or certainly worse than taking measured steps. Another bitter truth that arrogant leaders have learned throughout history is that war and its unintended consequences can prove to be the ultimate gamble.

In the 1980s, as a correspondent for the Associated Press and Newsweek, Robert Parry broke many of the investigative stories now known as the Iran-Contra Affair. 

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