Does he or doesn't he?

Rather lost in the debate over plans for war in Iraq has been the question of whether Saddam Hussein actually has weapons of mass destruction. Those in the pro-war camp have generally taken Bush’s word for it that he does, while those opposed to war have implicitly taken the line that it’s up to Bush to prove it. I don’t find either argument entirely satisfactory.

The absence of anything seriously resembling a smoking gun after six weeks of inspections is proof enough for me that the US ‘dossier’ being flourished about six months ago, complete with satellite photos of suspicious installations, was worthless. The sites in the photos have been inspected and found to be innocuous. And the claim that the Americans have the evidence but don’t want to compromise their secret methods is inherently implausible. Assuming that they had enough evidence to nail Saddam, the fact that he might learn about their surveillance techniques seems pretty much irrelevant.

On the other hand, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. All the nasty things that Bush says about Saddam are true, even if they were just as true when Bush senior was turning a blind eye to Saddam’s use of chemical weapons. Saddam is evil and dangerous, if he has kept stocks of weapons of mass destruction in the current crisis, irrational. So it’s important to consider what we’ve learnt.

First, I think it’s pretty clear that Saddam doesn’t have nuclear weapons or any operational program to produce them. The UN found and destroyed his plants in 1991 and he’s been under tight sanctions ever since. Moreover, this is just not the kind of thing that can be hidden easily, or dismantled at a moments notice and moved on a truck. Nuclear operations produce radioactivity and this can be detected. If there were a nuclear weapons program, the kind of inspections we’ve seen would have turned up something by now.

It’s harder to be sure about germ warfare. The Iraqis have produced stocks of various germ warfare agents in the past (though they claim to have destroyed them), and the facilities are easier to conceal than those needed for nuclear weapons. On the other hand, it’s hard to keep stocks of germ warfare agents from degrading in storage, and Moreover, unlike chemical and nuclear weapons, they’ve never been used. The horror associated with these weapons is such that all those involved would almost certainly face either deadly retaliation or subsequent execution, but the actual military effectiveness is probably quite limited. There are some discrepancies in the Iraqi account of what happened to the stocks they produced. However, based on the absence of evidence and the irrationality of persisting with germ warfare programs, the balance of probabilities favors the hypothesis that these programs have been abandoned.

The balance of evidence is much closer in relation to chemical weapons. Lots of these were produced and used and the amount unaccounted for is much greater. Moreover, it would be easy to hide a substantial stock in a bunker somewhere, with a much smaller risk of dectection than for germs or nukes. On the other hand, while scary, chemical weapons are clearly not a threat to be compared with nuclear weapons or with the possible uncontrollabe consequences of germ warfare. Despite extensive use, chemical weapons weren’t decisive in the Iran-Iraq war and Saddam didn’t dare use them in Gulf War I.

This means that the rational course of action would be for Saddam to destroy the weapons. On the other hand, while Saddam isn’t crazy he’s also not exactly rational. This justifies intrusive inspections, private interviews with scientists and continued demands for more documentation of the supposed destruction of these weapons. When this process is complete, a judgement will need to be made.

The threat posed by Saddam’s chemical weapons (if he has any) is not a clear and present danger. The possibility that they will leak to a terrorist group would, if anything, be enhanced by an invasion. The weeks of softening-up bombing implied by standard US practice in these matters would give Saddam plenty of time to arrange this, assuming that he was willing and able.

What is clearly not justified, on the evidence so far, is a pre-emptive invasion based on the absence of proof of a negative.

One thought on “Does he or doesn't he?

  1. […] The problem for the Bush argument is that the inspectors were in fact readmitted, inspected the sites that had been pointed to as likely targets, and found nothing. At this point, anyone who was not willing to rely on the word of Bush and Blair ought to have revised their beliefs and most in fact did so. For example, here’s my take on the issue, in January 2003, and this didn’t rely on inside information or special insight1. Most national governments that were in a position to make an independent judgement reached the same conclusion, a point reflected in the failure to get a second UNSC resolution supporting the war. […]

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