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"ACA's journal, Arms Control Today, remains the best in the market. Well focused. Solidly researched. Prudent."

– Hans Blix
Former IAEA Director-General
A Perilous Precedent

Daryl G. Kimball

Abandoning a robust inspection regime that was effectively containing Iraq’s suspected weapons of mass destruction (WMD) capabilities, the Bush administration has bypassed the instruments of collective security and used massive military might to attack a state that it considers a potential threat. Was a bloody and costly pre-emptive war against Iraq the only option left? Does it provide a model for denying other states access to weapons of mass destruction? No. The war with Iraq sets a perilous precedent and a flawed formula for dealing with other global proliferation challenges.

According to President George W. Bush, the U.S. decision to invade Iraq outside of the UN framework was due to a “lack of will” on the part of the UN Security Council to enforce its resolutions. The reality is more complex. The impasse between Washington and London and the other council members stemmed from a fundamental disagreement about the nature of the Iraqi threat and how to deal with it.

Never enthusiastic about the weapons inspection process, the Bush administration tired of the mixed results of the process only weeks after it began. The chief inspectors found little evidence to prove the presence of or the verifiable destruction of suspected chemical or biological weapons. In addition, inspectors discovered no evidence of ongoing nuclear weapons work. Until the very onset of the war, the White House could only offer circumstantial evidence of continuing Iraqi weapons work—some of which was disproved by experts—and dubious claims of connections with al Qaeda. The White House nevertheless charged that Iraq represented a grave and growing threat, and it dismissed reports of Iraqi cooperation with inspectors as a further sign of delay and deception.

Most other Security Council members perceived no imminent or undeterrable threat emanating from Iraq. As CIA director George Tenet reportedly said in a letter to Bush in October 2002, Saddam Hussein was unlikely to initiate a WMD attack against any U.S. target unless provoked. With unfettered inspections, some missile destruction underway, and the inspectors saying they needed several more months to complete key disarmament tasks, most states considered immediate military action unwarranted.

Sadly, U.S. diplomats, as well as other council members, failed to pursue the option that could have effectively and peacefully denied Iraq weapons of mass destruction: a strengthened inspections regime reinforced by a clear set of disarmament benchmarks to compel full Iraqi compliance according to a practical timetable. If Iraq still failed to meet these tests, the United States would most likely have been able to win Security Council support for military action rather than undermine the council’s authority.

By invading Iraq virtually on its own, however, Washington has reinforced fears at home and abroad that it considers itself above the rules and norms governing international behavior and the institutions, such as the United Nations, designed to uphold global security. Even if the war goes according to the Pentagon’s best-case scenarios and some chemical or biological weapons are uncovered, the Iraq blueprint should not be applied to the other members of Bush’s “axis of evil.”

North Korea, unlike Iraq, is on the verge of producing nuclear bomb material. Pyongyang’s reckless nuclear brinksmanship is, in part, fueled by fears of a pre-emptive U.S. strike and made more difficult to address as a result of the administration’s policy of malign neglect. Any such U.S. attack would assuredly result in an unacceptable retaliatory attack by the North on South Korea. To arrest the North’s nuclear program, the United States and its allies will need to fashion a verifiable freeze through direct talks with Pyongyang.

Iran’s rapid acquisition of peaceful nuclear technology puts it within close reach of acquiring weapons-grade nuclear material. The situation highlights one of the loopholes in the global nuclear nonproliferation regime and the dangerous and overlooked effect of Israel’s nuclear weapons program on the proliferation behavior of rival states. Preventing Iran from acquiring the bomb will, among other things, require more effective controls on foreign nuclear and missile assistance—a task greatly complicated by U.S. and Russian disagreement over the Iraq war.

These tough proliferation cases require that Washington employ a more sophisticated, sustained, and effective style of preventive diplomacy than it demonstrated in the run-up to the war in Iraq. Each will require the help and assistance of U.S. allies and friends.

To prevent proliferation, the United States must pursue a comprehensive strategy to ensure that the acquisition, possession, and use of these weapons remains technically challenging and universally unacceptable. This requires greater support for a multilateral framework of disarmament and nonproliferation strategies, a willingness to work better with others, and a degree of self-restraint not yet exhibited by this administration.