Delusions of Arms Control
Reports that Saddam Hussein has ordered 1.25 million doses of the chemical-weapons antidote atropine, as well as colloidal silicon dioxide, which can be used to make “dusty” chemical arms capable of penetrating U.S. protective gear, came as a shock to many Americans, but probably for the wrong reason.
These are, after all, just the latest in a series of indicators that the Iraqi despot might use chemical or biological weapons if the United States has to disarm his regime by force. As such, it reinforces the need for the careful military planning now underway aimed at minimizing the chances that such attacks will occur or be effective.
What should really get our attention about such indicators, however, is the insight they offer into the utter bankruptcy of what passed for serious national security policymaking since the late 1980s.
Specifically, Hussein’s evident capacity to use chemical and biological weapons illuminates the folly of arms control agreements that were supposed to “rid the world” of such deadly means of mass destruction.
The U.S. signed on to two accords banning biological and chemical weapons and, pursuant to those treaties, has eliminated all offensive viruses and toxins and is in the process of destroying its stocks of chemical munitions.
Successive U.S. administrations assumed that these arms control agreements would create “international norms” that would govern the behavior of all. That hope was certainly fostered by the appearance of nearly universal adherence to the Biological Weapons Convention; Iraq signed on in 1972.
Unfortunately, under Hussein’s regime, Iraq -- along with the Soviet Union/Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, Syria and Cuba -- has systematically violated the convention’s provisions. Hussein did not even bother to sign the 1989 chemical weapons ban.
The growing evidence that the U.S. disarmed, while nations that might use chemical or biological weapons against us did not, was only one of the dangerous absurdities of the arms control delusion. The expectation that such weapons had been dealt with effectively through these bans contributed to the belief that we need not worry about protecting against such scourges. Our vulnerability to incalculably destructive smallpox attacks is a manifestation of the sorry state of American preparedness.
Worse yet, the biological and chemical weapons conventions obliged signatories with advanced biotech and chemical manufacturing industries to share the technology with others who did not have such capabilities. To put it bluntly, the idea was to bribe the have-nots to forgo biological and chemical arms by making available access to sophisticated means of producing pharmaceuticals, fertilizers and pesticides.
The problem is that anyone who can produce modern drugs, vaccines and chemicals for agricultural and industrial use also can produce deadly viruses, toxins and nerve agents.
As a consequence, the trade in such technologies, legitimated and encouraged by the bans, has provided a perfect cover for the proliferation of mass-destruction capabilities around the globe.
This underscores the futility of trying to disarm Iraq without removing Hussein and his ruling clique from power.
Even if one makes the heroic assumption that inspections actually result in the elimination of all Iraqi chemical and biological weapons, Hussein will be back in that business in no time if he is allowed to retain or rebuild his nominally civilian chemical and biotech industries.
Hussein’s attempt to purchase vast quantities of atropine and colloidal silicon dioxide should sound an alarm for all of us. Our troops certainly need to be prepared to deal with his battlefield use of chemical and biological weapons.
Meanwhile, we at home also must take urgent action to reduce our vulnerability to a threat that has only been compounded by the delusion that ill-conceived and unverifiable arms control agreements offer us protection.