One of the unknowns leading up to and during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq was the U.S. response if Iraqi forces used chemical or biological weapons against U.S. troops or allies. Fortunately, Iraq did not carry out such an attack, sparing an answer.
Nevertheless, the question lingers and remains relevant because other countries hostile to the United States are known or thought to possess chemical and biological weapons.
At various times in the past, U.S. officials have said that the United States might respond to a chemical or biological weapons attack with nuclear weapons. The United States has pledged, however, not to use nuclear weapons against countries not possessing them that are party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty unless such a country joined a nuclear-armed country in attacking the United States, its forces, or allies. Proliferation experts have also debated whether a nuclear response would be proportionate to chemical or biological weapons use.
As the likelihood of war grew and then became reality, Bush administration officials narrowed their public comments about how the United States would respond to a chemical or biological attack. It is not known if any private threats were communicated to Iraqi leaders.
Over the first months of this year, U.S. officials would not forswear, although they did downplay, the possibility of retaliating with nuclear weapons if Iraq used chemical or biological arms, arguing that no option would be ruled out. Both in the days prior to the outbreak of the war and during the fighting, top officials did not threaten to retaliate with or even allude to possible U.S. nuclear use. Instead, they directed their public statements to Iraqi military commanders and soldiers, telling them that they would be punished as war criminals if they used chemical or biological weapons.
When President George W. Bush issued an ultimatum March 17 that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his sons had 48 hours to leave Iraq or face military action, he warned Iraq’s military not to obey any order to use weapons of mass destruction, a term referring to chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. If Iraq employed these types of weapons, Bush indicated that the act would constitute a war crime and stated that those responsible would be prosecuted as war criminals. He warned, “And it will be no defense to say, ‘I was just following orders.’”
Bush did not say that the United States would reserve the right to respond any way it wanted—warnings that other senior officials previously voiced—but neither did he refute the earlier statements.
Appearing on NBC’s Meet the Press January 26, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card suggested that the United States might retaliate with nuclear weapons to a chemical or biological attack. Hussein “should anticipate that the United States will use whatever means necessary to protect us and the world from a holocaust,” Card said. When asked if that included nuclear weapons, Card responded, “I’m not going to put anything on the table or off the table.”
Secretary of State Colin Powell and White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer also declined in January and February to explicitly renounce nuclear weapons as an option in a possible conflict with Iraq, saying U.S. policy was not to rule anything out. Powell, however, noted February 9, “It does not mean we are going to use nuclear weapons.”
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld took a similar line in a February 13 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, contending past U.S. policy dictated that the United States “not foreclose the possible use of nuclear weapons if attacked.” He added, however, that the United States could accomplish what it needed to with conventional capabilities and described the implication of one news article that nuclear weapons might be used in Iraq as “unfortunate.”
A day after the U.S.-led invasion began March 19, Rumsfeld repeated Bush’s warning that the use of weapons of mass destruction would be a war crime and the perpetrators would be found and punished. Rumsfeld repeated this message over the next several days.
Bush also reiterated his earlier statement when questioned March 27 whether the United States would use nuclear weapons in response to an Iraqi chemical or biological attack. At first, the president answered vaguely, replying, “We will deal with it.” But in response to a follow-up question, he stated, “Well, they’ve been sent a message…if you launch a weapon of mass destruction, you’ll be tried as a war criminal. And I urge those Iraqi generals who have any doubt of our word to be careful, because we’ll keep our word.”
The U.S. military sought to deter or prevent Iraqi use of chemical or biological weapons through a variety of methods. In addition to seizing territory from which the weapons could be launched and striking potential delivery systems and possible storage sites, leaflets were dropped from planes to dissuade Iraqi soldiers from using such weapons. One leaflet read, “No one benefits from the use of weapons of mass destruction.”
U.S. warnings were targeted at Iraqi decision-makers and those with their “fingers on the trigger,” in the words of General Tommy Franks, who commanded the U.S.-led attack. Franks added March 24, “We have very carefully said, ‘Don’t do it.’” Brigadier General Vincent Brooks claimed April 7 that chemical weapons had not been used, in part, due to “influence against decision-makers.”
Another explanation could be that Iraq did not have or possessed limited quantities of such weapons. No chemical or biological weapons have been unearthed since the war started.
In December 2002, the Bush administration released a document, titled “National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction,” asserting that the United States would reserve the right to respond to any weapon of mass destruction attack with “overwhelming force—including through resort to all of our options.” Reportedly, the Bush administration adopted as U.S. policy a more explicit formulation in September 2002. That classified document, known as National Security Presidential Directive 17, is said to authorize the use of nuclear weapons as an option in retaliation for a chemical or biological weapons attack. (See ACT, January/February 2003.)