An American-led military operation to topple Saddam Husseins regime in Iraq is inevitable, no matter what decision the U.N. Security Council reaches. The only thing that could call it off would be for Saddam to flee the country.
There are plenty of political, economic, legal, strategic and military arguments both for and against this operation. Each of the world leaders and the ordinary people debating the issue has their own logic, interests and sympathies.
Theres no scientifically proven truth in this debate there never is in political conflicts. So, lets not try to find it, but rather, while we still have the time, look at one aspect of the prospective operation to which both its ardent supporters and staunch detractors seem to have paid little attention.
Iraq has attempted to get nuclear weapons, but hasnt got there so far. Iraq does have large stocks of chemical and biological weapons. Serious experts are well aware of all this. The demands for proof coming from some European capitals and from the Russian press are deliberate hypocrisy. U.N. inspectors in Iraq arent there to find out where Saddam is hiding his sarin, but to force Iraq to account for what it did with its tons of biological and chemical weapons since the inspectors left the country three years ago. This Iraq has refused to do.
Many accuse the United States of having double standards, for taking a tough stance on Iraq but a softer line with North Korea which, aside from chemical and biological weapons, also has more lethal nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them.
The American approach is indeed different in the two cases, but the issues are different, too. Kim Jong Il, the dear leader in Pyongyang, already has nuclear weapons, and now he is free to starve his people, blackmail the world to get rice, diesel fuel and other simple pleasures of life, and sell his little plutonium pies on the black market to all the takers.
Its already too late to do anything about Kim. Any attempt to intervene in North Korea could result in unacceptable damage to the civilized world Kim could blow up Seoul or Tokyo, for example.
Its also too late to sort out who let things reach this point the Soviet Union, which supplied Pyongyang with nuclear technology and trained North Korean specialists under the cover of its peaceful-atom program, or former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who let slip the chance in the mid-90s to perform nuclear circumcision on North Korea in such a way that nothing would have grown there ever again.
There is nothing the Americans can do now, except perhaps take Kim on an armored train from San Francisco to Washington.
The North Korean nightmare only serves as even more of a warning not to let another such regime get its hands on nuclear weapons, and, in this sense, it is an argument in favor of a military operation in Iraq.
But there are still questions. True, Saddam doesnt have nuclear weapons, but he does have chemical and biological weapons. If he were backed into a corner by the threat of his political and physical death, what would stop him from unleashing his weapons of mass destruction against U.S. troops, U.S. allies such as Israel, Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, or even U.S. territory itself?
Do the Americans calculate for this threat in their plans, and, given the way theyre so eager to start the operation, do they see it as a serious possibility? I put this question to my American colleagues, including high-ranking retired professional military officers, at the recent Davos Economic Forum, which, despite its formal agenda, was devoted entirely to the prospective war in Iraq.
What their reply essentially amounted to was that, to use chemical weapons either in the battlefield or to attack neighboring countries, Saddam would need a way of delivering them, but Iraqs missiles, etc., would be destroyed by super-precise U.S. weapons at the slightest hint they were being readied for use.
They also said that, if Saddam used biological weapons against U.S. troops, who have all been vaccinated, it would be his own people who would suffer above all, and it is unlikely he would take that risk. This argument strikes me as less convincing.
Finally, they said that, as far as the risk that Saddam would attack America itself goes, Americans have been living with that possibility since Sept. 11, and U.S. security services do what they can to prevent it. But they say there there can be no question of letting this background threat paralyze the U.S. governments actions.
So, either Saddam will not use his weapons of mass destruction, or the Americans wont let him do it effectively. This is what leading experts and, it seems, the people planning the military operations believe will happen.
Time will soon tell whether they are right. In any case, their confidence is impressive. But this brings to mind a psychological analogy with the hostage drama at the "Nord-Ost" musical in Moscow last October.
Why did the terrorists not blow up the theater building even though they certainly had the time to do so? We will never know the answer. Likewise, we will never know how the rescue operations organizers knew there would be no explosion. Without this knowledge, storming the building would have looked like a suicidal undertaking that would have condemned 900 hostages and the elite of the Russian special forces to a certain death under the theaters ruins. Not even President Vladimir Putins fantastically high ratings could have withstood such a catastrophe.
Maybe the Americans also know something we dont.