The Law of Unintended Consequences: Will the War in Iraq Spur Proliferation?

When the British burned huge piles of dead farm animals to eradicate foot and mouth disease, one of the unforeseen consequences was that the highly infective virus was lifted on the plumes of smoke, and spread even further. We can foresee that the war that was waged to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction may have similar consequences, unforeseen as so often, by the Bush administration.

Just in case Arabs or anyone else was worried that the attack on Iraq was just the beginning, Assistant Secretary of State for Disarmament Affairs John Bolton has rushed to reassure them. Speaking on the U.S.-financed Arabic radio station Radio Sawa, his message was clear: Iraq is just the start of a new crusade. “Our evidence is very convincing that since the Security Council suspended sanctions because of Pan Am 103, that the government of Libya has substantially increased its efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction,” he said. Bolton, who has in the past unilaterally elongated the Axis of Evil to include Libya, Syria, Cuba, and North Korea, this time only fingered the Middle East. He concluded his interview with, “We are hoping that the elimination of the dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein and the elimination of all of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction would be important lessons to other countries in the region, particularly Syria, Libya, and Iran, that the cost of their pursuit of weapons of mass destruction is potentially quite high.” The implications of the statement are considerable, coming as it does from the man who went to Israel two months ago to promise Ariel Sharon that “it will be necessary to deal with threats from Syria, Iran, and North Korea afterwards.”

The New Crusade?

It is not in fact against international law to possess weapons of mass destruction, nor is there any Security Council resolution forbidding Libya, Iran, Syria, or other countries from holding them. (Iraq was a specific case following its military defeat after its occupation of Kuwait.) There are conventions against chemical and biological weapons, and there is the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. But the U.S. itself set a precedent when it unilaterally “unsigned,” the Rome Treaty setting up the International Criminal Court and when it revoked the Anti-Ballistic Missile pact with Moscow. Any country can refuse to sign these conventions, or follow in the footsteps of the U.S. and withdraw from them.

The UN resolution that forbade Iraqi ownership of such weapons did so in the context of working toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. Only someone who thinks that irony was what they made next after the bronze age could stand up in Israel and talk about disarmament in the region without mentioning his hosts’ large nuclear arsenal! Indeed, it is not often nowadays that one hears Washington complain about Indian and Pakistani nuclear weapons.

Since the official excuse for invading Iraq was its possession of forbidden weapons, we can wonder why the Iraqis did not use them if they have them. More worrying for the Syrians is that the search for banned weapons in Iraq is not going the way that Washington strategists war-gamed. They might turn up yet, but as the statues of Saddam fell in Baghdad, no one had found any yet.

If no weapons are unearthed, however, we will hear even more accusations that the weapons must be hidden in Syria. Of the list of likely villains, Syria–Israel’s neighbor–is shaping up to be the strongest candidate for the next war of “liberation,” “disarmament,” or “democratization.” The administration is already preparing the reasons why Syria should be the next in line–for arming Saddam, for hosting his hidden weapons, for being a dictatorship, for supporting terrorism, and since Iraq has fallen, for being the only military threat to Israel. In this they are helped by singularly inept diplomacy by Damascus, which bravely, if foolishly, became the only rat to jump on a sinking ship when it kissed and made up with Baghdad after decades of vicious inter-Baathist struggle.

The Incentives to Proliferate WMD

The early indications of Washington’s intentions were contained in Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s heavy-handed statements threatening to punish Syria for alleged exports of weapons to Iraq. Just in case the much-desired WMD don’t turn up soon, Israeli intelligence chief Gen. Yossi Kupperwasser has already told a Knesset committee that “it is possible Iraq transferred missiles and weapons of mass destruction into Syria.” While General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says that there is no evidence to substantiate that claim, that assessment is doubtless subject to change if the White House decides it is inconvenient.

The U.S. has also complained about Syrian as well as Iranian sponsorship of “terrorist” organizations like Hezbollah. Although no countries except Israel and Washington define Hezbollah as terrorists, the Bush administration’s promiscuous use of the word “terrorist” is geared toward a domestic audience–a strategy that worked very well in the case of Iraq. Much popular support in the U.S. for the war in Iraq was predicated on the erroneous assumption that Saddam Hussein was behind, or least alongside Osama bin Laden and the September 11th attacks. Indeed, President Bush’s notification to Congress justified the invasion on those grounds.

So the administration is already placing President Al Assad in its sights, for arming Saddam, for hosting his hidden weapons, for supporting terrorism, and it would have very little difficulty in, correctly, proving the Syrian Baathists to be every bit as vicious and undemocratic as their Iraqi comrades. Now Rumsfeld is accusing Syria of harboring Iraqi leaders, “We are getting scraps of intelligence saying that Syria has been cooperative in facilitating the move of the people out of Iraq and into Syria,” he inelegantly told a Washington press conference.

If Damascus is indeed foolhardy enough to host Saddam Hussein, then the fundamentalists in Washington will almost certainly take the whip hand. Following a relatively casualty-free war for the U.S. in Iraq, there would be little difficulty in getting domestic support for an attack on Syria. There is, of course, neither legal justification nor a UN mandate for such an attack. But having just flouted international law and the UN Security Council to go after Iraq, with hardly a peep from the rest of the world, it is difficult to see that holding the administration back.

The implications are worrying. Across the world, governments will be drawing some disturbing conclusions. No conventional forces can stand up against the U.S. in the usual type of warfare. The great levelers are terrorism, which is impervious to the huge boosts in Pentagon spending on technology, and weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear missiles. In the new age of high technology conventional warfare, a nuclear weapon is a cheap alternative.

It does not require sophisticated analysis to compare the respective fates of North Korea and Iraq and to draw the necessary conclusions. The lesson is to follow in the footsteps that India and Pakistan hid so successfully until the last moment: Equip yourself clandestinely with weapons that will make even the fundamentalists in the White House think twice before attacking.

The war fought ostensibly to disarm Iraq will almost certainly lead to nuclear proliferation and the armament of the rest of the world. While, for the time being at least, many people in Iraq will indeed rejoice at the overthrow of their tyrant–the rest of us have genuine, somewhat selfish, reasons for regret.