Mar 25th, 2003, 10:30 PM
Economist Opinion - After Iraq
Mar 20th 2003
From The Economist print edition
It will be worth trying more peaceable ways to curb nasty weapons
MIGHT the first war fought to disarm an unsavoury regime of its weapons of mass destruction be successfully turned into the last? The moment of an American-led military assault to strip Iraq of all nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, and the means to deliver them, is as good a moment as any to ponder whether there might in future be less costly ways of checking the spread of such weapons, not least in the Middle East, a region dangerously well stocked with them.
Force has its risks. By using it against Saddam Hussein without formal UN blessing, charge the critics, George Bush will make future efforts to counter proliferation harder still. His strong-arming of Iraq and his hostile “axis of evil” rhetoric may drive those with nuclear ambitions—especially, North Korea and Iran—to speed their bomb-building.
In reality, Mr Bush has done no more than point up how the Security Council has undermined its own authority over the years by failing to oblige Saddam to disarm as he should have done. And, whatever they may now do, neither Iran nor North Korea owes its recent big nuclear strides to anger at Mr Bush, but to technology and know-how acquired well before he came to office. A likelier spur to their weapons building was learning just how close Iraq had come to a bomb of its own before the first Gulf war, without anyone knowing—and then realising that, even if they got caught, the Security Council lacked the courage of its own resolutions.
Few would argue that military force is anything but the least bad of the options now left for dealing with Iraq (the worse one being to leave Mr Hussein armed and defiant). Yet its effect could be more beneficial than gloomsters expect. Stemming the spread of weapons of mass destruction depends on driving up costs to would-be proliferators, and driving down benefits that acquiring such weapons is expected to bring. By taking on Iraq, America is demonstrating to other nuclear wannabes how high the price of rule-breaking can be. Before that demonstration effect wears off, the Americans should take active steps to promote an idea, rehearsed in the past but never acted on: the exploration of a weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone in the region.
Mutually assuring diplomacy
Pie in the sky? Many other ambitious diplomatic efforts would have to fall into place first, not least the prospect of a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians. And even the less adventurous first steps—confidence-building measures to reduce the level of tension—would be far from easy. Yet the disarming of Iraq will change the balance of power in a way that could help others to disarm.
For years ringed by populous enemies bent on its destruction, and outnumbered in every sort of weapon but one—the nuclear sort—Israel has seen that nuclear edge steadily eroded by the spread of chemical-tipped missiles among its neighbours. In the 1990s, better relations with Jordan and Egypt, along with the collapse of the Soviet Union, chief armourer to the hardliners, started some Israelis wondering whether their security was best assured by unilateral action or regional arms control. Bombing Iraq's nuclear reactor back in 1981, they noted, had delayed Saddam's bomb-building, not ended it—and a strike now against Iran's uranium-enrichment facilities might be no more decisive. Meanwhile, the disarming of Iraq removes one more of Israel's dangerously implacable foes.
Any security regime worth pursuing, even an initially modest one, would have to rope in hostile Libya and Iran too. Both have nuclear ambitions, though Iran is the closer to realising them. Yet Iraq's weapons have posed more of a threat to Iran than Israel's, and will soon be gone. And the forcible means of their going will demonstrate to Iran, as much as anyone, the scale of the nuclear risks it now runs.
Might it be too soon to be rethinking the security map of the Middle East? Far from it. That is, if next time the task is to be done peaceably.