Deter and Contain: It Worked against Joseph Stalin, So Why Not against Saddam Hussein?

By Halperin, Morton | The American Prospect, November 4, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Deter and Contain: It Worked against Joseph Stalin, So Why Not against Saddam Hussein?


Halperin, Morton, The American Prospect


THE SIMPLEST QUESTION THAT SUPPORTERS OF going to war with Iraq cannot answer is why would Saddam Hussein be less likely to use his weapons of mass destruction if we attack than if we contain him. This debate, essentially within the Republican Party, closely mirrors the struggle over the proposed rollback of communism that raged in the GOP in the late 1940s and early 1950s--until President Dwight Eisenhower settled it. As we currently debate whether some form of containment can work, it is worth reviewing the lessons of that history.

Those who advocated preventive war against the Soviet Union advanced the same arguments being made today: Time is not on our side. We must act before Joseph Stalin gets nuclear weapons. He is a ruthless leader who is not rational and cannot be deterred. If we let Russia get nuclear weapons, she will use them to blackmail her neighbors and we will not be able to intervene for fear of provoking a nuclear exchange.

When Dwight Eisenhower took office in 1953, he set in motion a process within the executive branch that permitted a full and unfettered debate between the options of preventive war and containment. When it was over, the advocates of containment had prevailed. They argued that war was dangerous and costly, and that the outcome could not be predicted with any precision. They argued that under the United Nations Charter, preventive action could not be justified unless an act was imminent, and that no such case could be made against the USSR. They suggested that Stalin, above all, wanted to survive, and that he was cautious and not reckless with his own scalp.

And so the United States set to work to make containment succeed. There were some dangerous moments to be sure, including the Cuban missile crisis and the various Berlin crises, but we succeeded. It took less time than many feared and more than some hoped, but, in the end, the Soviet Union collapsed before any nuclear weapons were used.

What reason is there to believe that an active containment effort would not succeed against Saddam Hussein, who is clearly much weaker than Stalin and rules a country with far fewer resources?

We should start with the simple fact that containment has worked since the end of the Gulf War. Hussein has made a few moves to test our will to defend his neighbors, enforce the no-fly zones and protect the Kurds, but in each case he pulled back quickly, and even those probings seem to have ended. He has now recognized the independence of Kuwait. He can have no doubt that the United Nations and the United States would respond with overwhelming force were he to attack his neighbors or even to threaten them. He may still dream of controlling areas beyond the part of Iraq that remains under his control, but he gives every sign of understanding that any effort to fulfill this dream would mean his doom.

The argument that time is on his side is difficult to understand. By every indicator, Iraq's conventional military capability is declining. Saddam Hussein continues to have some chemical and biological capability, but with limited capacity to deliver it. There is no reason to believe that his capabilities in these areas will change in any fundamental way over the next few years. The Kurds are continuing to solidify their control in the north and seem to have their internal feuds under control.

Thus, the argument that time is not on our side is entirely about nuclear weapons--just as it was in the case of the Soviet Union. No one believes that Saddam Hussein now has nuclear weapons. The fear that he could have them soon depends on his acquiring weapons-grade fissionable materials from another country. While nothing is impossible, it is hard to see where those materials would come from, why they would be provided to him and how they would be successfully smuggled into Iraq via one of its neighbors, none of whom have any interest in Saddam Hussein acquiring nuclear weapons.

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