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Who’s Deterring Whom?

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The key word in analyzing the confrontation between the U.S. government and Saddam Hussein is “deterrence.” When we think of that word, we typically attach it to U.S. policies versus other governments. But I do not mean deterrence by the United States of Iraq. That would be nothing new. The U.S. government has the military might to blow Iraq to smithereens any time it chooses to do it. So has Israel. This is what makes the bogus alarm about Hussein’s actual or potential use of weapons so ridiculous. What’s he going to do with them? If we know anything about Hussein, it is that he likes his job and doesn’t wish to lose it. The quickest way for him to lose it — not to mention his life — would be to use a nuclear, chemical, or biological weapon against a U.S. interest or Israel.

I’m talking about another kind of deterrence: deterrence of the U.S. government by Iraq. Ridiculous? You be the judge.

The U.S. government has sought for many years to have the power to act without impediment in the Middle East (not to mention other regions). This has to do with oil and Israel primarily. American administrations have wished for this discretion since the end of World War II, when the United States succeeded Great Britain as the prime superpower. But it has been limited by “the oil weapon,” as we saw briefly in the energy events of the 1970s. It explains why the armchair militarists at National Review and The Weekly Standard have long wanted the U.S. government to seize the oil fields and now hope a war against Iraq will become a full-scale takeover of Arab and Iranian territory.

From this perspective, the U.S. government’s worst fear is an unfriendly regime with a serious weapon it could threaten to use if attacked by the United States or Israel. Obviously, Iraq is the prime candidate to fill that role. Note that all of Hussein’s threats have been conditional: If you attack us, we will do such and such. He has never threatened to initiate force against the United States.

Thus the Bush administration cannot let Hussein acquire serious weapons because they would thwart its (and all postwar presidents’) ambitions in the region. There just would be no way for Bush to carry out his father’s declaration of 1990, after Hussein invaded Kuwait: “What we say goes.”

Motives are a secondary consideration. One may believe that American policymakers’ ends are virtuous (I don’t share that view) but still believe that improper, imperial methods are being used to achieve them. Ends and means must be assessed independently, or else we wind up declaring that the end justifies the means. After all, the U.S. government has nuclear weapons. Indeed, it is the one and only possessor of such weapons to have used them. Israel has a significant nuclear arsenal and has threatened to use it on at least one occasion, the October 1973 war. But most Americans would not think that justifies forcible regime changes in the United States and Israel. Why not? Because their ends are thought to be benign.

Similarly, Iraq’s possession of serious weapons pose no threat to us if Hussein’s motives are defensive, which we have every reason to believe. If Stalin and Mao dared not risk annihilation, it is unlikely that Hussein will.

There is an inescapable implication here. The very willingness of the Bush administration to threatened to bomb Hussein out of power is proof that he does not possess ready-to-launch nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons. For if he did have them and were really the dangerous madman Mr. Bush says he is, the president would not risk Hussein’s launching something nasty at Israel. Wouldn’t one assume that a desperate well-armed lunatic would feel he has nothing to lose by taking lots of people with him? Indeed, if Hussein does have such weapons at the ready, Mr. Bush’s policy is the height of recklessness, since it would imperil thousands of innocent people.

A society is justified in going to war only when its survival is threatened. That is clearly not the case here. Mr. Bush’s coming war is therefore unjustified.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.