The glaring absence of unconventional Iraqi arms should not blind us to the fact that even if Saddam Hussein had amassed chemical, biological, and — yes — even nuclear weapons, he would not have posed a threat to the American people. As offensive tools, those weapons would have been useless.
How could that be? Simply put, with the United States and Israel armed with the most sophisticated weapons imaginable — including nuclear bombs — it is unthinkable that the former Iraqi president would have embarked on the suicidal mission of attacking either nation. From recent history (Libya, Iran) he already knew that to sponsor even a conventional terrorist attack on Americans or Israelis would bring deadly retaliation. This explains why he never supplied Palestinians with any of the unconventional weapons he possessed in the past.
It should be kept in mind that until recently chemical and biological weapons have not been regarded as weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). This is a category deliberately broadened for rhetorical purposes — to spook the American people into supporting an offensive war against a government that did not attack them or, indeed, even show signs of wanting to.
Why are chemical and biological weapons not classified as WMDs? Because it is difficult — although not impossible — to use them to kill large numbers of people. Weather and other conditions have to be just right. A shift in wind can send a poisonous cloud back over one’s own forces. Killing masses of people is far easier with conventional bombs such as those used by the U.S. government in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Serbia. The power to define is the power to control. Some of the most lethal weapons on earth are held by the U.S. government but are not classified as weapons of mass destruction. Yet if even one vial of old anthrax is found buried deep in the ground in Iraq, it will be proclaimed as proof that Hussein had an arsenal capable of killing multitudes. This would be propaganda, not rational analysis.
Nuclear weapons, on the other hand, are and have been properly classified as capable of mass destruction. But what good would they have done Hussein? Not much. He is anything but suicidal. Yet using nuclear weapons against the United States or Israel would have meant almost certain death for him and his regime.
Their uselessness as offensive weapons does not mean that Hussein would have had no interest in acquiring them. There are other uses besides offense: specifically, deterrence and prestige. As for the first, the example of North Korea comes to mind. No one believes that the United States will treat Kim Jong Il as it treated Saddam Hussein. The reason is that Kim may already have a nuclear deterrent, and the U.S. authorities don’t want to endanger the people of South Korea.
Deterrence works, and Hussein knew it. In the past he got pushed around. In 1981 Israel, using U.S.-supplied weapons and satellite photography, bombed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor (which some authorities outside of Iraq claimed was only a power plant), and the United States drove him out of Kuwait 10 years later. Hussein could do nothing but stand by and watch. The irony of Israel’s action was that Iraq had signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and was subject to annual inspections, while Israel, which has had nuclear bombs for decades, has never signed the treaty, does not officially acknowledge the existence of those weapons, and does not permit inspections. Israel’s attack on the installation was a clear declaration that it intended to enforce its nuclear monopoly in the Middle East.
How was Hussein to establish himself as the leader of the Arab world if such things could repeatedly happen? He needed the bomb to deter a repetition and to establish himself as a leader with clout against the West.
The bottom line is that even if Iraq had tried to acquire uranium from Niger and centrifuge-suitable aluminum tubes, its nuclear program would have given Saddam Hussein no means of threatening the American people.