Worst Case: Iraqi War Goes Nuclear
George C. Wilson
October 12, 2002
[Re-printed with permission of author]
Israel's firing off a nuclear weapon in retaliation for Saddam Hussein's attacking it with a chemical or biological weapon looms as the No. 1 nightmare if the United States goes to war against Iraq, according to a wide spectrum of government and private arms specialists pondering the "what-if" scenarios.
The scenario would unfold this way: Saddam fires chemical and/or biological weapons at Israel. They inflict such heavy casualties that hard-line Israeli leader Ariel Sharon strikes back with a nuclear device as deadly as the one that incinerated Hiroshima during World War II. Arabs and Muslims, in angry response, attack Americans and their cities wherever and whenever they can, including launching suicide attacks similar to the ones being conducted by the Palestinians against Israel.
Four of these worst-case scenarios, including the Israeli one, have been discussed at high levels in the Bush administration, although behind closed doors. But the public is unlikely to hear much about them as President Bush strives to build support for attacking Iraq should United Nations inspectors fail to disarm Saddam's regime.
What follows are the views of nongovernment defense analysts on the possible-but not necessarily probable-worst-case consequences of the United States' invading Iraq. All four scenarios involve the possible use of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear bombs. Government officials, who declined to be identified, were also interviewed for this story. But their privately expressed concerns closely parallel those of the private defense analysts, who can speak more freely.
Any military operation involves risks. Before the first shot is fired, civilian policy leaders, generals, and admirals routinely explore worst-case scenarios. A widely stated criticism of U.S. leaders and the press is that before going to war in Vietnam, they failed to consider adequately the worst things that could go wrong. But at least a few people are thinking about them today.
1. Israel goes nuclear.
Bruce Blair, president of the Center for Defense Information in Washington, a defense think tank on the liberal side, says that two documents have made this scenario more plausible. In 1997, President Clinton issued Presidential Decision Directive 60, which authorizes the use of nuclear weapons to retaliate for an opponent's use of weapons of mass destruction, including chemical and biological ones. The classified version of President Bush's new nuclear-posture statement is said to permit the use of nuclear weapons in a pre-emptive strike against a likely attacker who possesses weapons of mass destruction. That reported change, coupled with the development of new "bunker-busting" nuclear bombs, which can hit underground caches of weapons, have made it easier for Israel to justify going nuclear against Iraq, according to Blair, who has analyzed nuclear issues intensively over the years and written several books on the subject.
President Bush and his team have "created a doctrine that says it is legitimate to respond to weapons of mass destruction by using nuclear weapons and using them pre-emptively, not just using them second," Blair said. "Israel could cite our own doctrine, line and verse, as a legitimate justification for unleashing its nuclear arsenal in response to even a threat of the use of weapons of mass destruction by Iraq-to unleash it pre-emptively. In a way, we've even given Saddam that justification, too. Even Saddam could cite potential threats of the use of weapons of mass destruction against him."
Saddam, Blair added, could cite the new American-developed B-61 Mod 11 nuclear bunker-buster as "part of the arsenal of forces he is arrayed against." If Iraq should kill "tens of thousands" of Israelis with a weapon of mass destruction, Blair said, "all bets are off" on whether Sharon would unleash his nuclear weapons. "Israel and Sharon are increasingly loose cannons in the Middle Eastern conflict."
Joseph Cirincione, director of the nonproliferation project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that the Arab world "would go nuts" if Israel dropped a nuke on Iraq. Such an attack would "expose the complete hypocrisy of the U.S. position: The Arabs can't have nuclear weapons, but the Israelis can." An Israeli nuclear attack could kill "tens of thousands of people," he added, and breed "a whole new generation of terrorists" who would be "intent on striking back at Israel and the United States." The Carnegie Endowment has urged Bush to use U.N. inspectors backed by a multinational military force instead of attacking Iraq unilaterally.
Jack Spencer, defense policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, agreed that a retaliatory response by Israel is the most likely way a war in Iraq could go nuclear, although he doubted this would happen. And he agreed that President Bush has changed American policy on the use of nuclear weapons, but he hailed the shift as a good thing.
"I do not think that the Israelis will respond to a chemical or biological attack with a nuclear weapon," Spencer said. "I don't know that they won't. If they got attacked-I'm not talking about a chemical attack where a thousand people die, but a devastating, unbelievable attack-then they might." An Iraqi attack that would trigger a nuclear response would have to be "so horrendous that people probably would not be able to question Israel's requirement and right to do so.
"While it's not a popular view in the mainstream media today and among many in the left," Spencer continued, "the fact of the matter is that Israel shows unbelievable restraint given what they face every day with this terrorism. I think any country in the world would react far stronger than Israel has."
Spencer applauded the development of new nuclear weapons such as the B-61 bunker-buster, because of the changed threat. "If we need new nuclear weapons, I don't have a problem with it because that's the way you decrease the likelihood that you have to use nuclear weapons or some other form of massive force."
Israel and nuclear weapons were also worrisome wild cards during America's first war with Iraq, in 1990-91. Retired Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the U.S. field commander, wrote afterward that his biggest fear during the Gulf War was that Israel would respond to Saddam's firing of Scud missiles into Israeli cities by attacking Iraq. Israel's entry into that war, Schwarzkopf and civilian leaders believed, would have broken up the coalition of nations put together so painstakingly by the first President Bush. Many of today's U.S. leaders share the same worry.
The possibility of using U.S. nukes to burn up Iraq's biological weapons was gingerly discussed by Schwarzkopf's team and by Gen. Colin L. Powell, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and now secretary of State, according to an account in journalist Rick Atkinson's book, Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War. Atkinson writes, "Some suggested that detonating a small nuclear warhead might be a legitimate employment of one weapon of mass destruction to negate another. Temperatures reaching at least 20,000 degrees Fahrenheit in three seconds were believed necessary to ensure that no spores survived an attack. 'We both know there's one sure way to get the temperature hot enough,' [Air Force Brig. Gen. Buster C.] Glosson remarked to Powell, alluding to thermonuclear explosions. 'Yeah,' the chairman replied, 'but we don't talk about that.' "
2. Saddam uses weapons of mass destruction against U.S. troops.
Second in the lineup of worst-case scenarios is Saddam's decision to unleash chemical or biological weapons on American troops while they are massing to invade his country. In turn, the United States strikes back with tactical nukes, perhaps using one of the B-61 earth-penetrating bombs to destroy Saddam's remaining supply of biological and chemical weapons stored deep underground in Iraq. "How do you stop Saddam Hussein from using his weapons of mass destruction as the United States is assembling an invasion force?" asked Cirincione. "It's likely Saddam would strike before the United States is capable of mounting an invasion, by using chemical or biological weapons against both U.S. forces and Israel to try to provoke Israel into reacting.
"My fear is that Saddam has already smuggled out chemical and biological agents" and hidden them in the United States, Cirincione added. These weapons "are someplace else and will be used directly against American targets." The United States would then likely "feel provoked to use some of the tactical nuclear weapons. You would then have 1) chemical and biological agents used against Americans in America, with perhaps hundreds of thousands dead, and 2) the use of U.S. nuclear weapons-however small-on Arab soil, with Arab casualties in the hundreds of thousands. Once again, it would be the United States using nuclear weapons against people of color"-the first instance occurred at the end of World War II, when U.S. forces dropped nuclear bombs on the Japanese. Such a scenario would provoke a tremendous Arab backlash, Cirincione said.
3. The Pakistani government falls.
In this scenario, Pakistani dissidents protest the U.S. invasion of Iraq by toppling Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf, who has been cooperating with the United States in the war on terrorism. Or the Musharraf government falls after Israeli or U.S. forces use a nuclear weapon in retaliation for Saddam's use of chemical or biological weapons. The splintered Pakistani army loses control of the country's nuclear weapons in the resulting chaos, enabling Al Qaeda or other terrorists to get ahold of them. Both Blair and Cirincione raised this scenario as a possibility.
"If Musharraf falls, there isn't another national institution to take his place," Cirincione said. "The control of nuclear weapons, nuclear materials, and the scientists who know how to build nuclear weapons would be up for grabs."
Spencer, however, discounted this scenario. "I don't think that would happen," he said, "because I'm confident Israel is not going to shoot a nuke out of the blue." If Israel did suffer such a devastating attack that it felt compelled to retaliate with a nuclear weapon, "I don't think anything would happen" in the form of a damaging backlash in the Arab world. He noted that terrorists are already "stimulated to the ultimate extent to use violence."
4. Saddam strands U.S. forces.
Under this "what-if," Saddam waits for U.S. invaders to get deep inside his country and then cuts their supply and escape routes, possibly by blowing up the entry port in Kuwait with perhaps a small nuclear weapon that the Iraqi dictator has secretly obtained and kept hidden.
William S. Lind, director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism and a military reformist who was a defense adviser to former Sen. Gary Hart, D-Colo., said the risks of invading Iraq outweigh the possible gains and therefore should not be attempted. "My worst-case scenario is that we go in through Kuwait so we have a single port of entry and a single line of communication and supply as we go down the Persian Gulf. We get well into Iraq with a small army, our line of communication is cut, and our Army is essentially stranded."
All of this helps explain why Secretary of State Powell has indicated he would settle for Saddam's disarming himself and staying in power, rather than invading Iraq to topple him.