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Sunday, September 26, 2004

Hot potato: 300,000 degrees 

According to the Telegraph, Syria has given refuge -- specific sanctuary, not just the turning of a blind eye -- to a group of Iraqi nuclear scientists. Now it is trying to dispatch them into Iran before it gets caught red-handed.
Syria's President Bashir al-Asad is in secret negotiations with Iran to secure a safe haven for a group of Iraqi nuclear scientists who were sent to Damascus before last year's war to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

Western intelligence officials believe that President Asad is desperate to get the Iraqi scientists out of his country before their presence prompts America to target Syria as part of the war on terrorism.

I'll bet.

And lest you think that the Syrians got stuck with these guys against their will, consider the efforts to which they have gone to help them out:
The Iraqis, who brought with them CDs crammed with research data on Saddam's nuclear programme, were given new identities, including Syrian citizenship papers and falsified birth, education and health certificates. Since then they have been hidden away at a secret Syrian military installation where they have been conducting research on behalf of their hosts.

Now, though, Syria's President Asad is worried that we will catch him red-handed and is trying to trade the Iraqi scientists and their data to Iran.

Another Iraqi atomic scientist explained in this morning's New York Times why we shouldn't write these guys off as a bunch of incompetent losers:
Was Iraq a potential threat to the United States and the world? Threat is always a matter of perception, but our nuclear program could have been reinstituted at the snap of Saddam Hussein's fingers. The sanctions and the lucrative oil-for-food program had served as powerful deterrents, but world events - like Iran's current efforts to step up its nuclear ambitions - might well have changed the situation.

Iraqi scientists had the knowledge and the designs needed to jumpstart the program if necessary. And there is no question that we could have done so very quickly. In the late 1980's, we put together the most efficient covert nuclear program the world has ever seen. In about three years, we gained the ability to enrich uranium and nearly become a nuclear threat; we built an effective centrifuge from scratch, even though we started with no knowledge of centrifuge technology. Had Saddam Hussein ordered it and the world looked the other way, we might have shaved months if not years off our previous efforts.

By the summer of 2002, of course, the sanctions regime was collapsing under the weight of smuggling through Iran, Syria, Jordan and Turkey, and Kofi Annan's profoundly corrupt oil-for-food program, the most destructive financial scandal in history. There is no argument that this was not the case. As these articles make clear, the sanctions were, as a practical matter, the only thing that kept Saddam from an atomic weapon. We have confirmed the contemporaneous fears of anti-Saddam hawks in the West.

Since the prospect of Saddam with a nuclear weapon could not be ignored, in the summer of 2002 we faced three meaningful alternatives.

Sanctions. We could reinvigorate the sanctions and prod the United Nations into cleaning up the oil-for-food program. But that effort stood virtually no chance of success. Not only would it have required successful persuasion or coercion of Iraq's bordering countries, which were "earning" enormous profits by smuggling, but there was tremendous pressure in the West to lift the sanctions entirely. Some of that pressure came from France, which stood squarely in the way of Bush Administration efforts to impose "smart sanctions," and some of that pressure came from the activist NGOs, which blamed the United States and the sanctions for the misery of the Iraqi people. And they were miserable -- the general economic condition of Iraq was far worse than we had estimated before the war, which goes at least some of the way to explaining why the postwar reconstruction is taking so long.

Deterrence. We could eliminate the sanctions, allow Saddam to get his nuclear weapons, and hope to deter Saddam from deploying the weapon. There were, of course, three problems with this idea. First, Saddam was a nut, and probably sufficiently crazy that he was not deterrable. Indeed, he may have been almost uniquely undeterrable. He had a long track record of taking ridiculous risks in his aggression for all sorts of bizarre reasons. No sane leader in the West or in the Middle East could assume that Saddam would be deterred by the threat of retaliation. Second, even if we could deter Saddam from deploying his nuclear weapons, the price of doing so would have been very steep. We would have had to extend the American nuclear guarantee over countries that we might not want to defend. Would we really want to shoulder the responsibility of nuking Baghdad in the event that Saddam dropped a mushroom cloud over Riyadh? Third, even if Saddam were deterrable in theory, and even if we were willing to guarantee the destruction of Baghdad in retaliation for an Iraqi nuclear attack, the fact of Saddam's nuclear capability would have given him enormous leverage in the region. Would we have risked Desert Storm if Saddam had had a nuclear weapon? Given what Saddam had done to Kuwait, could we have massed 750,000 coalition troops in the desert against the risk that he would incinerate them? Highly unlikely. Deterrence was not an option.

Regime change. With sanctions collapsing beyond the capacity for repair and deterrence so fraught with risk, the only option left was to change the Iraqi regime. This might be done by assassination or other decapitating strike, the inspiration of domestic insurrection, or invasion. Unfortunately, assassination probably was not feasible -- Saddam was famous for his paranoia and security apparatus and we were famous for our inadequate intelligence assets in Iraq. And even if it might have been possible to take out the father, Iraq would have exploded in a struggle for power between the two hideous sons. Democrats who falsely bleat that Iraq is a "haven" for terrorists today do not like thinking about the chaos in Iraq after Saddam's death, whether by natural causes or otherwise.

Insurrection from within was also not feasible, the silly promises of Ahmed Chalabi notwithstanding. Iraq's military remained formidable for the region, even if it was laughable compared to a well-equipped Western army. Previous attempts to overthrow Iraq had failed miserably without American military support. Even if we had persuaded the various groups hostile to Saddam to believe us this time and try again, they could not have succeeded without massive American intervention. Then where would we have been? We would have "owned" a very different mess in Iraq, a country liberated from Saddam via the combined efforts of various rival groups and the American military, only with even fewer troops on the ground and even less capacity to impose security. As difficult as the last 18 months have been for Iraqis, it is hard to believe that it is worse than the chaos that would have followed a civil war fomented by America.

Of course, that leaves us with only one remaining option -- invasion, the least bad alternative. The time and manner of the invasion might have been different, the public argument in favor of invasion might have been more articulate, and the planning of the peace might have been more intelligent, but it is hard to see any better alternative, then or now.

CWCID: Allah and Captain Ed, both must-reads.

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