he real reasons for our invasion of Iraq have been and will be only partially spelled out by the administration. The president triumphed at the United Nations by proving that, even on the U.N.'s own legal and multilateral terms, an invasion is justified. But we are not going into Iraq to protect the credibility of United Nations resolutions. We are going into Iraq to stop Saddam Hussein from passing weapons of mass destruction to terrorists who will use them against the United States. The president, it is true, made that very plain last week at the United Nations. But President Bush did not explain the full extent of the danger.
Nor will he. For to really explain the danger of unchecked proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to rogue states like Iraq, it is necessary to say a whole series of things that the world is uncomfortable hearing. The full explanation of our move against Iraq demands a frank acknowledgment that the United States has become the hegemonic power on which the peace and stability of the world depends. It then becomes necessary to admit how profoundly our seemingly overwhelming military might and with it, the peace of the world are threatened by the proliferating technology of mass destruction.
I treated this question at the end of August in, "The Future Is Now." There I argued that, even the non-nuclear weapons of mass destruction that Saddam now possesses have the potential to neutralize the armed might of the United States. It isn't necessary for Saddam to pass his chemical or biological weapons to terrorists, or to mount them on intercontinental ballistic missiles. With only the capacity to use his biological and chemical weapons locally, against attacking American troops, Saddam comes close to achieving sufficient deterrence against the full strength of the United States military. That, I have argued, explains a lot about why our military is already reluctant to attack Iraq.
It also explains why it is so urgent that we do attack Iraq. For if we do not, every rogue regime in the world will know that a modest stockpile of chemical and biological weapons will suffice to keep the United States at bay. So the truth is that Saddam's weapons of mass destruction have already succeeded in making an invasion of Iraq riskier than the administration wants to admit. Yet that risk cannot compare to the deeper danger of allowing ourselves to be scared off. For to back down now will start a race among developing nations for weapons of mass destruction that will set the world spinning into chaos.
For a window onto the true and precarious nature of our current situation, there is no better place to turn than Marc Trachtenberg's important (and frightening) article, "Waltzing to Armageddon?" in the Fall 2002 issue of The National Interest. Trachtenberg's piece is a review essay on, The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate Renewed, by Scott D. Sagan and Kenneth N. Waltz. In that book, Waltz claims that the spread of nuclear weapons to developing nations will actually make for a more peaceful world. Sagan disagrees. In his review essay, Trachtenberg advances the debate still further. The total effect of these three positions is to create a useful, if distressing, picture of the dilemma we now face.
Kenneth Waltz's position on nuclear proliferation, although ultimately unconvincing, is deeply revealing nonetheless. Waltz believe that nuclear weapons proliferation to states like Iraq is to be welcomed. Why? Because, once the entire world achieves a balance of terror, all-out-war will come to an end. In a fully nuclear world, war simply becomes too dangerous for any nation to contemplate.
Although Waltz's argument is flawed, he makes important points along the way. Above all, Waltz notes that the possession of even a limited stockpile of nuclear weapons makes disparities in conventional power effectively meaningless. Even a few primitive nuclear devices would allow Saddam to hold off the U.S. military, no matter how much more powerful we are in strictly conventional terms. Waltz notes that, had Saddam possessed nuclear weapons when he invaded Kuwait, the United States would have had to call off an invasion and confine itself to an economic embargo. (We know how effective that would have been.)
So Waltz thinks that global proliferation would actually stop wars by creating a kind of massive Mexican standoff. The idea is not entirely absurd. After all, as Waltz points out, the Cold War was actually a period of relative peace. Major war between the principle powers of the world was avoided, and this was clearly due to the balance of terror. For a contemporary instance, take a look at the recent near-war between India and Pakistan. In that case, a militarily superior India was forced to call off an attack for fear of escalation to a nuclear exchange.
Sagan counters Waltz by arguing that the balance of terror will eventually break down. Nuclear accidents (including actions by rogue military officers) might lead to an exchange, while the vulnerability of a small nuclear stockpile to a preemptive attack might actually provoke a nuclear first strike. And of course, there is the possibility of a regime secretly passing weapons to terrorists.
All of this is possible. For a potential accident, Sagan points to a Iraqi nuclear device discovered by inspectors in the early nineties. The bomb was so primitive that it might have gone off just by falling off the table. Then there's the possibility of Islamist officers getting their hands on Pakistan's bomb, and either using it directly, or passing it to al Qaeda.
But Trachtenberg points out that Sagan doesn't go near far enough in exposing the fallacies of Waltz's optimistic view. Implicitly, Sagan accepts Waltz's idea that, if a small nation's nuclear forces were both invulnerable to outside attack and protected by a fail-safe command and control system, the balance of terror would in fact bring peace. But Trachtenberg shows that this is not so.
Waltz maintains that no nation facing the balance of terror would dare to start a war. But in the real world, it's hard to say who really starts a war. Often times, two sides threaten each other in protection of their interests, and in the hope or expectation that the other side will eventually back down. War often happens when these calculations go awry, the expected stand-down does not take place, and each side is dragged into a conflict it may not have sought.
As Trachtenberg points out, in a world where everyone has nuclear weapons, the balance of terror cuts two ways. On the one hand, it makes states reluctant to come to blows. On the other hand, just because of its intimidating effects, the balance of terror rewards those who are willing to bring themselves up to the brink (on the assumption that potential foes will be scared off by the prospect of a nuclear exchange). In the current world, the boldness of state action is constrained by relative conventional military power. But in a world where conventional military might has been rendered irrelevant (because everyone has the bomb), it's those with the will to take risks who will prosper (so long as they don't actually step over the line and provoke a nuclear exchange). And eventually, of course, someone will step over the line (mis)calculating that their foes will simply accept some aggressive action (say, an invasion of Kuwait), out of fear of escalation to a nuclear exchange.
It's true that the balance of terror paradoxically worked to keep the peace during the Cold War, but we definitely had some close calls. The Cuban Missile Crisis could easily have escalated into direct war and nuclear exchange. And consider that the United States and the Soviet Union generally fought with, and through, proxies. India and Pakistan face each other directly, and have already been much closer to the nuclear brink than the U.S. and U.S.S.R. ever were (with the exception of the Cuban crisis).
So the upshot is that nuclear proliferation does two things. First, it neutralizes conventional might most especially the overwhelming conventional power of the United States (upon which world peace and stability currently depends). Second, nuclear proliferation both dampens and encourages risk-taking, rewarding states that successfully push to the brink of nuclear war, and frightening the rest into submission. That dynamic, in turn, is deeply dangerous, precisely because it tempts megalomaniacal dictators like Saddam Hussein into playing with fire. Sooner or later, in a fully nuclear world, someone like Saddam is bound to miscalculate by taking an aggressive action that provokes a nuclear exchange.
Although the subject to this point has been nuclear proliferation, chemical and biological weapons are already driving us toward a similar dynamic. That is what I argued in "The Future Is Now." Simply having the capacity to attack an American invading force with chemical and biological weapons already goes a long way toward neutralizing our conventional advantage. In effect, that has already put this country into the sort of bind described by Trachtenberg a choice between brinksmanship and intimidation.
Consider Milton Viorst's recent Op-Ed in the New York Times, which argued against an invasion by painting a worst-case scenario: Saddam hits Israel with chemical weapons; Israel nukes Iraq; Musharraf is overthrown by Islamists, who nuke India. Viorst's piece shows how the existing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction tends to discourage the weak-willed from action, thus rewarding bold brinksmen like Saddam.
The trouble with Viorst is that he only envisions the "worst-case scenario" of an invasion of Iraq. He says nothing about the worst-case scenario that would be provoked by a failure to attack Iraq. Not only would such a scenario involve terrorists using Iraqi weapons of mass destruction on the United States, it includes the impetus that an American retreat would give to the world wide proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. To stand down now, is to signal every dictator in the world that a stockpile of chemical and biological weapons suffices to neutralize America's conventional might.
So the invasion of Iraq is a test of nerve that we must pass. Yet that doesn't mean Viorst's worst-case scenario is impossible only that we are being forced to choose the lesser of two "worst-cases."
The larger point is that the world is entering into an enormously dangerous new era. The end of the Cold War has freed up rogue nations from the need to ally with a major power. That newfound freedom, combined with technological advance and the consequent proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, adds up to a potential nightmare for the world. If we don't take out Iraq now, the nightmare will quickly engulf us.
But truth be told, this frightening new world has already, in some measure, arrived. Although America's conventional might still counts for much, the existing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is already tending to neutralize our power and throw the world into chaos. (Witness Viorst's argument for holding back, and the hesitation of the Joint Chiefs.) It is a mistake to think that the president has recklessly ushered in this change. The administration's doctrine of preemption simply recognizes the reality of proliferation in an unstable environment that has been slowly building since the end of the Cold War, but which has only recently burst upon us with force.
It is clear that an invasion of Iraq is the last best hope for securing a significant delay in the worldwide proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The closer we get to that world, the more fully we shall be plunged into a balance of terror far more unstable than any during the Cold War era. The world likes to think in terms of multilateral treaties and international law, but the harsh reality of proliferating weapons of mass destruction, and the transformation this is working upon the worldwide balance of power, is the real reason why we are invading and must invade Iraq.