Conflict of Necessity

Efraim Karsh, professor of Mediterranean studies at the University of London, is a visiting scholar at Harvard. He is co-author of "Saddam Hussein: A Political Biography."

Now that we are at war with Iraq, many of the arguments advanced by those who protested around the world in recent weeks will be proved or disproved. We will see whether the war becomes, as the protest signs put it, an “unwinnable quagmire.” We will see whether the U.S. installs “a puppet government” to “do the bidding of American oil companies.” We will know whether the war sparks “a new wave of Islamic hatred of the West.” I am confident that the fears of the war’s opponents will prove unfounded.

But one argument will continue to surface for years: that war was preventable because inspections could have worked if the United Nations had just been given more time. Among the arguments advanced in opposition to the Bush administration’s policy on Iraq, few have resonated more widely, or among a more diverse set of critics, than this one. Washington’s unwillingness to delay military intervention was seen as clear evidence of “trigger happiness” at a time when, for the first time since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, weapons inspections stood a real chance of success. In years to come, even if the war is decisively won, its opponents will continue to say it was unnecessary, and that the death and destruction it caused were unconscionable.

This view, however, has little to do with reality.

The only alternative to forcefully disarming Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would be surrendering to him. The peaceful dismantling of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, so long as Hussein remains in power, was a fantasy for the simple reason that he considers them indispensable to his personal survival.


In the permanently beleaguered mind of Hussein, politics is a deadly game in which only the fittest survive. Plots lurk around every corner, necessitating constant watchfulness and ruthless actions against suspected plotters. As the Iraqi leader once told a guest: “I know that there are scores of people plotting to kill me, and this is not difficult to understand. After all, did we not seize power by plotting against our predecessors? However, I am far cleverer than they are. I know that they are conspiring to kill me long before they actually start planning to do so. This enables me to get them before they have the faintest chance of striking at me.”

It was this obsessive preoccupation with political survival that drove Hussein to transform Iraq into one of the world’s most repressive police states. His rise to the presidency was accompanied by the elimination of hundreds of Baath Party officials and military officers, including friends he thought insufficiently steadfast. During his years in power -- first as vice president in the late 1960s and 1970s and, since 1979, as president -- he has subjected the ruling party to his will, purging the country’s governing institutions of nonloyalists and reducing the national decision-making apparatus to one man surrounded by a docile flock of close associates.

Preempting any dissent, he subordinated all domestic and foreign policies to the one and only goal of political survival. In September 1980, he took Iraq to war against Iran in an attempt to deflect the lethal threat posed to his rule by the militant Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionary regime in Tehran. When the war led to an unprecedented economic crisis, which in his perception was bound to bring his undoing, Hussein invaded Kuwait with a view to incorporating its mammoth wealth into Iraq’s state structures.

In all his military campaigns, the Iraqi leader put great faith in his weapons. Ballistic missiles enabled him to break Iranian national morale through the systematic pounding of Tehran and made him the first Arab leader in a long time to strike at the heart of the “Zionist entity,” as he pejoratively calls Israel.

But it is weapons of mass destruction that have held the ultimate appeal for Hussein. Chemical weapons terrorized enemy troops during the eight-year war with Iran and played a key role in the suppression of the Kurdish insurgency in the war’s late stages. Iraq’s nuclear and biological projects, once completed, would have made his position unassailable: They would have erased Israel’s technological edge and removed once and for all any belligerent notions on the part of his enemies in Tehran and Damascus. Salvaging whatever he could from his deadly arsenal was, in Hussein’s eyes, a matter of life and death.

Though accepting the U.N. cease-fire Resolution 687 of April 3, 1991, in a desperate bid to save his tottering personal rule, Hussein had not the slightest intention to abide by its requirement that Iraq destroy, unconditionally and under international supervision, all its nuclear, chemical and biological stockpiles and research facilities.


Within weeks of the resolution’s passing, he issued a presidential directive ordering his administration to mislead U.N. inspectors, and he tapped his trusted henchman, Tarik Aziz, to head an elaborate deception scheme.

In the following years he repeatedly challenged the Security Council over the implementation of the cease-fire resolution, never giving an inch strategically but always leaving enough wriggle room for last-minute tactical concessions when confronted with the threat of force.

For the most part, this “cheat and retreat” strategy worked well, allowing Hussein to maintain and even expand his deadly arsenal under the nose of successive U.N. inspection teams.

By 1995, after numerous tussles, the inspectors were about to close the Iraq file and declare that its nuclear program was for all intents and purposes defunct. Then, in August 1995, came the defection of Hussein’s favorite son-in-law, Hussein Kamel Majid, who had long been in charge of Iraq’s nonconventional arms programs. He provided detailed information about Iraq’s weapons programs that gave the U.N. a glimpse of the enormity of Hussein’s ambitions.

Against this backdrop, there is little doubt that Iraq’s agreement to allow U.N. inspectors to return for the first time since 1998 was not designed to facilitate the dismantling of the country’s deadly arsenal in line with Security Council Resolution 1441. Weapons of mass destruction are central to Hussein’s ideas of self-preservation, and he had reason to believe -- having witnessed the huge antiwar demonstrations throughout the world -- that world opinion was with him.

Given those factors, he was likely to have continued his cat-and-mouse game with the Security Council indefinitely.


This in turn required the international community to choose between leaving Hussein’s deadly arsenal and forcibly removing him from power. In view of Hussein’s long trail of mayhem, the consequences of the former option were too horrendous to contemplate, especially in the post-9/11 world.