Disarming Rogues: Deterring First-Use of Weapons of Mass Destruction

By Szabo, David | Parameters, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Disarming Rogues: Deterring First-Use of Weapons of Mass Destruction


Szabo, David, Parameters


The United States and its allies invaded Iraq in 2003 with the declared intention of removing Saddam Hussein's regime. Although it was determined after the war that Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction (WMD), removing a regime believed to be in possession of WMD raises the possibility that the post-9/11 US security policy is more willing than previously believed to tolerate the risk of precipitating a WMD exchange. In future crises, policymakers may conclude the risk of WMD use during a preemptive attack or disarming strike is lower than the risk of a terrorist attack utilizing such weapons.

This article will examine the potential for intra-conflict deterrence when a state confronts an enemy that possesses WMD--most likely chemical weapons (CW) or biological weapons (BW). It will contend that, despite creating an increased risk of a WMD attack, the invading state can take steps to reduce the likelihood of being met by a WMD response. It begins by exploring the relevant literature on deterrence and intra-war negotiation in an effort to develop a framework for deterrence while at the same time restraining conflict below a desired threshold. The case study of the 1991 Persian Gulf War is then analyzed in an attempt to draw lessons on whether, and if possible how, intra-conflict deterrence might work and implications for developing a theoretical understanding of likely deterrence scenarios. Finally, the article will consider lessons applicable to future conflict capable o flowering the likelihood of the use of such weapons.

The 2006 National Security Strategy of the United States (NSS)-reiterating what was first enunciated in the 2002 NSS--declares that the United States is willing to preempt threats and accept risk in disarming the possessors of WMD:

   The greater the threat, the greater is the risk of inaction--and
   the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to
   defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and
   place of the enemy's attack. There are few greater threats than a
   terrorist attack with WMD. To forestall or prevent such hostile
   acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act
   preemptively in exercising our inherent right of self-defense. (1)

This declared policy has been followed by several efforts designed to aid the United States in responding to such threats. The George W. Bush Administration has affected a shift in nuclear policy by creating the New Triad of nuclear and nonnuclear strike forces, active and passive defenses, and revitalized defense infrastructure capabilities. It also developed several new diplomatic initiatives--the Proliferation Security Initiative, Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, negotiated disarmament of Libya, and a flexible approach to India's nuclear program--all designed to counter the actions of authoritarian states possessing WMD. Yet, despite these initiatives, the most attention has centered on the declared policies of preemption, regime change, and forceful disarmament.

Deterring first-use of WMD is one of the most challenging issues facing nations interested in confronting states that possess such a capability. There are a number of states that now possess, or claim to possess, an assortment of WMD--nuclear, CW, and BW. With the possible exception of North Korea, the United States has an inferred policy of taking action against such states prior to the completion of nuclear weapon programs. A number of these states also happen to be located in areas of conflict involving the US military. Building a theoretical understanding of the strategies most likely to deter first-use would be of obvious benefit to America's foreign policy objectives and global stability.

There are few examples of the United States taking military action against states possessing WMD. The 2003 war in Iraq presents an opportunity to examine US strategy related to possible WMD use by a regime that is aware it is being targeted. …

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