Iraq's Chemical Weapons Legacy: What Others Might Learn from Saddam

By Russell, Richard L. | The Middle East Journal, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Iraq's Chemical Weapons Legacy: What Others Might Learn from Saddam


Russell, Richard L., The Middle East Journal


Iraq's experience with chemical weapons provides ample lessons for nation-states looking to redress their conventional military shortcomings. Nation-states are likely to learn from Saddam that chemical weapons are useful for waging war against nation-states ill-prepared to fight on a chemical battlefield as well as against internal insurgents and rebellious civilians. Most significantly, nation-states studying Iraq's experience are likely to conclude that chemical weapons are not a "poor man's nuclear weapon" and that only nuclear weapons can deter potential adversaries including the United States.

Americans breathed a sigh of relief when Iraq failed to use chemical weapons during the 2003 war to oust Saddam's regime, but they were dumbstruck after postwar investigations revealed that Saddam's once impressive chemical weapons program had all but collapsed during the 1990s under the weight of United Nations weapons inspections and the regime's internal decay and corruption. The postwar revelation that Iraq lacked substantial inventories of chemical weapons has slackened concern over chemical weapons in the Persian Gulf. But the region has witnessed the greatest use of chemical weapons in the world since World War I, and leaders elsewhere no doubt look to conflict in the Persian Gulf for lessons to inform their own chemical weapons programs. Even though the most recent Gulf war did not witness the use of chemical weapons, the study of the conflict still yields lessons on deterrence and war fighting for other nation-states harboring chemical weapons programs. The lessons that these states derive from conflicts in the Persian Gulf have implications for American security policy.

Military power remains a critical, but by no means only, ingredient to ensure the security of nation-states, especially in the Persian Gulf. In making their gross military balance of power calculations, many nation-states conclude that they lack the money and means to achieve a rough measure of conventional military capabilities at least to match or balance those of their rivals. The procurement and maintenance of large-standing conventional forces is increasingly an expensive undertaking, which strains the economic means of many nation-states. Consequently, many nation-states turn to chemical weapons - what they consider a Weapon of Mass Destruction (WMD) that is cheaper and more readily procurable than nuclear weapons - which they judge will give them the means in the first instance to deter armed conflict with adversaries or in the second instance to wage war in the event that deterrence fails. In the latter case, many nation-states hope that chemical weapons will compensate for conventional military shortcomings in battle. These calculations drove Saddam to invest in his chemical weapons program during the 1980-88 war with Iran. And they probably are driving Iran's interest in chemical weapons - as well as in nuclear weapons - today to hedge against American power in the Gulf.

But how effective are chemical weapons for deterring adversaries and waging war in the event that deterrence fails? This article explores the rich case history of chemical weapons use in the Persian Gulf. The history of warfare in this region is ripe for examining the strengths and weaknesses of chemical weapons in contributing to the security and national interests of nation-states. The article discusses the use of chemical weapons in the 1960s civil war in Yemen that set the precedent for chemical weapons use in the region and gave an impetus to other chemical weapons programs in the Middle East. It then examines the large-scale and militarily significant use of Iraqi chemical weapons during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. The Iraqis at the time were in an advantageous position because they had more robust and sophisticated chemical weapons capabilities than their Iranian foes. The study of Iraqi chemical weapons use in the Iran-Iraq War provides a stark contrast to the Iraqi non-use of chemical weapons in combat with American and British forces in the 1991 and 2003 wars. …

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Iraq's Chemical Weapons Legacy: What Others Might Learn from Saddam
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