Learning the Lessons of Iraq

Tasneem Jamal

Sean Howard

Sean Howard is Editor, Disarmament Diplomacy

Each of the panelists at the Consultation on NATO Nuclear Policy, National Missile Defence & Alternative Security Arrangement, held in Ottawa on September 28-31, 2001, was asked to submit a short paper relating to the topic of their presentation. The other Consultation participants were asked to submit brief papers responding to one or more of the following questions:

1. What changes to its nuclear policies should NATO be realistically asked to make, in the context of the current review, to move it towards fuller compliance with global nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation obligations and imperatives?

2. Are there realistic and credible alternative means of addressing the security concerns that underlie current U.S. interest in missile defense?

3. What are the most realistic short-term or interim measures that should be taken by nuclear weapon states and nuclear alliances to demonstrate a commitment to significantly reducing the political legitimacy and value of nuclear weapons in order to contribute to the goal of elimination?

Question: Are there realistic and credible means of addressing the security concerns that underlie current US interest in missile defense?

A basic confusion often surrounds discussion of this question, particularly in the United States. The US has a concern about the proliferation of long-range missiles and their ability to deliver weapons of mass destruction, but that does not make it a US concern. Tackling missile and WMD proliferation is a major and constantly stressed international priority. That is why unilateral US attempts to solve the problem first and foremost for itself, and first and foremost through military-technological means, is causing such widespread consternation. Very few Governments would disagree with the contention that such military-technological unilateralism (though requiring, ironically, an extensive international infrastructure) will lead to both horizontal and vertical proliferation, as Russia, China, India, Pakistan and would-be nuclear-weapon states all react to each other’s reactions to the apparent bid by Washington for significant nuclear (war-fighting and war-surviving) strategic advantage.

From inside the US, the international preference for multilateral, political approaches to the problem can seem like either indifference to, or a naïve misreading of, the problem: yet again, such reasoning runs, it’s up to the US to take the tough action at the crucial time to prevent disaster later on. Iraq is sometimes cited as an example: for years, the international community let Saddam Hussein obstruct and mislead UNSCOM, ignoring resolution after resolution. Another ‘line in the sand’ had to be drawn – and, in December 1998, with the US-UK bombardment, it was.

A better example of the pitfalls of NMD could not be imagined. The US was ‘strong’ and ‘determined’, ‘resolute’ and ‘robust’, prepared to act against the appeals and concerns of many countries, including close allies. And the result was a policy disaster – no inspections on the ground since and no prospect of their resumption, the repressive regime in Baghdad intact and politically ebullient, continuing humanitarian suffering on a vast scale throughout the country, and rancour and dissent in the Security Council. Without a US policy of (virtually unilateral) military aggression, it is hard to believe that international diplomatic efforts to lift the embargo and avert a resurgent Iraqi WMD programme would have produced no positive results.

The US seems to have learnt little from the Iraq debacle – indeed, air strikes continue almost every week and further major attacks cannot be ruled out during the next US Presidential term – perhaps because it still sees itself as being more concerned, or concerned in a more focused and practical way, about the issue than other states.

This blindness to both multilateral contexts and the consequences of military unilateralism is at the base of the paradox of US self-perception on a range of proliferation and arms control issues: it sees its role as to lead the world, but its faith in the ability of its own military-technological might to make it safe in a frighteningly unpredictable and distressingly complex security environment leads it to adopt and develop policies which the great majority of the international community simply will not follow. How, indeed, can US unilateral militarism lead a world fundamentally committed to multilateral processes directed at the general, progressive disarmament of all states, and to the political resolution of disputes and grievances? Conversely, how can multilateral arms control hope to be effective without the active and constructive engagement of the world’s sole superpower? The international community must continue to make every effort to argue both that the US is endangering itself through its plans for NMD, and that viable, realistic alternative means of securing verifiable missile and WMD non-proliferation lie within reach. Only a combination of negative (‘you’re putting yourself in greater danger’) and positive (‘there are better ways to make yourself safe’) arguments may be strong enough to persuade a US rethink. Once NMD is deployed, however persuasive the arguments against it, the decisive step away from multilateralism will have been taken, and will prove mightily difficult to retrace.

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