A Pair of Mass Destruction Wild Cards

Geoffrey Aronson is director of the Foundation for Middle East Peace.

On Sept. 5, the first shot in the second Gulf War was fired. That day, a posse of U.S. and British aircraft attacked a command-and-control facility of the Iraqi air defense network at H-3--an Iraqi airbase 240 miles west of Baghdad.

During the first Gulf War, Iraq launched 39 conventionally armed surface-to-surface missiles against Israel from H-3. Israel, under the leadership of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, bowed to U.S. entreaties not to return fire and left the unsuccessful hunt for Iraq’s mobile launchers to British and U.S. commandos.

As the Bush administration commences a second round of hostilities, a central concern is, once again, the possibility that Iraq will use nonconventional weapons to attack Israel, which would then feel compelled to enter the battle against Baghdad with its own sophisticated array of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons.

Undermining Washington’s strategy is the least of the calamities that the use of such weapons would unleash. To maintain its control over the war to come, the Bush administration will try to prevent Iraq’s use of its vast western expanses for missile launches against Israel, and it will lean on the Sharon government to keep its bombs “in the basement.”


Though the conduct of war can be unpredictable, there is less chance today than in 1991 that either Iraq or Israel will cross the nonconventional “red line.”

The use of such extraordinary weapons is a function not only of intentions but also of capabilities.

It is widely acknowledged that Iraq’s capabilities are far reduced from what they were in the first Gulf War.

The inspection regime imposed after the war destroyed more missiles, stocks of chemical weapons and nuclear material than the war itself. The postwar sanctions imposed on Iraqi trade and the inability to train and test have clearly reduced Iraq’s nonconventional capabilities.

At the same time, U.S. and Israeli efforts since the war have focused on improving the intelligence and technical capabilities necessary to preempt, detect, intercept and destroy Iraq’s reduced arsenal.

Both countries today know far more about the critical region surrounding H-3 and are far better equipped to neutralize attacks of the conventional or nonconventional variety than they were a decade ago.

Yet when intentions are assessed, any complacency about the prospects of the coming war not spinning out of control disappears. Chemical warheads were found at H-3 after the first Gulf War.

The extensive infrastructure for the production and deployment of chemical and biological weapons uncovered suggested that Iraq’s decision not to use such weapons was a function not of incapability but rather of intention.

Iraq was deterred from crossing the nonconventional threshold because both U.S. and Israeli leaders made it clear that Iraq’s use of such weapons would be met with a response aimed at decapitating the regime.

Saddam Hussein, whose instincts for self-preservation are notable, behaved rationally. He refused to cross the red line and thus preserved his autocracy despite his battlefield defeat.

Israel’s response was, and is, more nuanced. Israel was persuaded to stay out of the war in 1991 because it was not attacked with chemical weapons and because the missiles that did strike spread more panic than destruction and death.

Shamir was convinced that coalition forces would be more effective in destroying Iraqi capabilities in the H-3 region and that restraint would be rewarded with an enhanced relationship and coordination of postwar diplomacy with Washington. These calculations remain relevant today.

But unlike a decade ago, Washington’s war aims are now focused on the ouster of Hussein and his regime. The Bush administration in 2002 is not offering the Iraqi leader any incentive to forgo use of his reduced nonconventional capabilities against Israel or U.S. forces. Washington hopes that even if Hussein himself won’t be deterred from using nonconventional weapons, his followers, facing the prospect of a war crimes trial in The Hague, will.

Yet even in the face of a U.S. policy aiming at his ouster, the forces deterring Hussein’s use of chemical weapons remain considerable. First is his all-encompassing instinct for self-preservation, the chances for which will be enhanced if he continues to observe the weapons of mass destruction taboo. Using such weapons would give lie to Iraqi protestations denying their existence. And just as Hussein refrained in 1991 from targeting Jerusalem because of his fear of harming Islam’s holy shrines, he may not want his parting legacy to focus on the multitudes of Arabs killed by his chemical weapons in the Holy Land.

Bush’s expectations for a manageable conflict depend in large part on constraining the actions of two leaders--Hussein and Ariel Sharon--who are not noted for their fealty to American preferences. Any number of circumstances could cause Iraq or Israel to attempt a devastating attack against the other, laying waste to Bush’s plans for a quick and unambiguous victory.