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Catching Saddam

“[W]e’re going to watch very carefully as to whether or not he develops weapons of mass destruction. And if we catch him doing so, we’ll take the appropriate action.”

– President George W. Bush commenting on the
US bombing attack against Iraq on February 17, 2001.

George W. Bush made this statement shortly after assuming the presidency. During the 2000 election campaign, he had given a similar answer in response to a question put to him by a journalist. The statement quoted above was made by the United States (US) President, not by a candidate, so it can be taken as indicating the policy approach of his administration towards Saddam and his weapons of mass destruction.

Brief though the statement was, it contains two elements, which should be central in the administration’s policy. First, it puts Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction at the center of policy, and secondly, it recognizes that direct action by the United States may be necessary to deal with his weapons of mass destruction capability.

Immediately upon assuming office, key members of the Bush Administration, especially Secretary of State Colin Powell, signaled their recognition that a new US policy towards Saddam Hussein was required. Initially, the highest profile was assigned to addressing the palpable fact that the current sanctions regime is crumbling and no longer imposing any serious restraint upon Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction programs. Sanctions are instead serving only to deliver harm to ordinary civilian Iraqis and are now widely condemned in the international community. That view typically ignores the fact that the actions of the Iraqi regime are both the reason for the continuation of sanctions and have greatly magnified the impact of sanctions on Iraq’s citizens.

The US policy review is reportedly giving attention to the idea of developing a “smart” sanctions regime—targeted specifically on military goods. The outcome of that policy review is still not known. Apparently, it is proving to be the source of division within the administration.

Also unknown is whether a new US policy would gain acceptance in a lamentably divided United Nations (UN) Security Council, which seems bent on ignoring the facts of Saddam’s determination to hold on to his weapons of mass destruction and his abysmal human rights record. Saddam is benefiting greatly from these circumstances. The Security Council’s last resolution on Iraq, Resolution 1284, has been ignored by Baghdad without any negative consequences.

Drawing these sanctions and weapons issues together, it is clear that a central plank in any new US policy must be that relief of general sanctions, and their replacement by a smarter version, must have the return of weapons inspectors to Iraq as a fundamental condition of any change in the Security Council’s stance on Iraq.

The second portion of President Bush’s statement is realistic. It recognizes the reality that, as long as there continues to be division within the Security Council on containing Saddam’s weapons programs, the remedy to this dangerous situation may be for direct military action, to be taken by the US alone, to eliminate that capacity.

The President’s statement does, however, contain one seriously puzzling aspect. This is his notion of “catching” Saddam Hussein developing weapons of mass destruction. The implication of the statement, as made, is that Saddam is not at present involved in such development. If he were, then according to this statement, the United States would already have taken enforcement action. 

There is more than adequate reason to assess that Saddam already has a weapons of mass destruction capability and is developing it further. This is known to US intelligence authorities and to the Bush Administration. The only issue which remains unclear is the extent to which Saddam has increased his weapons of mass destruction holdings in the period of over two years in which he has been free from any international inspection or monitoring. 

This key concept in the President’s statement—-the notion of catching Saddam-— requires clarification. What precisely is meant by it? How will he be caught, absent international inspection or the availability of reliable intelligence from within Iraq’s rigorously closed society?

An obvious answer is through US satellite surveillance and other technical means, but if there are no inspectors on the ground, there is a limit to the extent to which observation from the sky can do the job of adequately detecting the nature and scale of Saddam’s weapons development. Without human inspection, it is not possible to know the precise orders of magnitude of Saddam’s weapons programs. Their basic shape can be discerned from defector reports and scattered intelligence findings which are being collected, for example, on his attempts to acquire externally the materials and equipment needed for further weapons development. 

What such sources indicate is the following: Saddam has resumed work on extending the range of his missile force beyond the legal limit of 150 kilometers; he has recalled to work his nuclear weapons design team; he has rebuilt the chemical and biological weapons manufacturing establishments which were damaged during Operation Desert Fox in December 1998.

To these facts must be added the United Nations Special Commission’s (UNSCOM’s) unfulfilled mandate to “destroy, remove and render harmless” the proscribed weapons of mass destruction that Saddam had created in the past. Materials unaccounted for included: domestically-produced SCUD-type missiles and the fuel with which to drive them; a quantity of artillery shells and bombs loaded with chemical warfare agents; a significant quantity of the deadliest of chemical agents –-VX; and an unknown but evidently large quantity of the complete range of biological warfare agents.

If Iraqi actions to block inspections and conceal weapons programs are taken as an indication of the importance placed on those weapons, then the scale of such obstruction in the biological area indicated that Saddam places great importance on those hideous weapons and had produced them in major quantities.

When UNSCOM was expelled from Iraq, in late 1998, a divided and skeptical Security Council called for its own investigation of what weapons of mass destruction remained in Iraq. At Russian insistence, that investigation was conducted in terms extremely hostile to UNSCOM’s findings from the past. Nevertheless, in April 1999, the Security Council agreed that there remained in Iraq weapons of mass destruction which had not been accounted for. In these circumstances, President Bush’s implication that we have not yet caught Saddam in possession of weapons of mass destruction capability is difficult to understand. The Security Council was a hostile witness at that time, yet even it concluded that Saddam did retain weapons of mass destruction.

It is possible that the somewhat economic language of President Bush’s statement is meant to assert that the weapons that remained in Iraq from the past are, in some way, not significant. This can be a matter for argument, but what is beyond argument is that, fueled by his black market oil export program which directly yields the Iraqi regime some one billion dollars per year, Saddam is actively back in the business of developing and expanding his weapons of mass destruction capability, including a resumed attempt to develop nuclear weapons, on which goal, defectors say he has succeeded. 

In the six months since armed conflict began between Israelis and Palestinians, Saddam has repeatedly stated that he would be prepared to intervene militarily, and he has postured to lead a wider Arab force for that purpose. Among the credentials he presents for this task, presumably, is his weapons of mass destruction capability. Indeed, there has been more than one occasion in recent months on which he has moved troops and missile capability in the direction of the Israeli border. The disastrous consequences of any intervention by Iraq, especially with weapons of mass destruction, along with the predictable Israeli response, hardly need to be described.

A constructive interpretation of this unfortunately unclear element in the President’s statement would be to see it as a conscious ambiguity designed to signal to Saddam that the United States is watching his actions carefully, both with respect to weapons of mass destruction and any possible Iraqi intervention in the conflict in and around Israel, and to warn of direct action if certain lines are crossed. It may be the view of the President and his advisors that making clear precisely what those lines are would be wrong, tactically. A basic problem of this approach is that Saddam may see such ambiguity or imprecision as signaling absence of resolve. He knows he has weapons of mass destruction and must assume that the US does as well. Why, then, he must ask, is there no action? Is the United States serious?

Irrespective of whether intended ambiguity is in play, a new US policy should not include ambiguity with respect to the fundamental requirement that if there is to be US agreement to any mitigation of the sanctions regime, it will only be forthcoming consequent upon the reinsertion of arms control inspection and monitoring in Iraq. This needs to be made far clearer to other members of the Security Council than has been the case for over two years, especially to those who have been most vocal in their support of a removal of sanctions—Russia and France. 

It also should be made clear to the Secretary-General of the United Nations that his current efforts to find a solution to the standoff between Iraq and the Security Council must have, as its first principle, insistence to Iraq that it remains in breach of Security Council resolutions and that it cannot expect any mitigation of sanctions until it first conforms with those resolutions in the field of arms control monitoring. Failure to do this would simply repeat the failure of the Secretary-General’s earlier attempt, in February 1998, to impose a diplomatic solution to the Iraq-Security Council crisis without making Iraq’s compliance with its arms control obligations a basic requirement.

Issue Date


Diplomat-in-Residence, Council on Foreign Relations;
Executive Chairman, United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM), 1997-1999;
Permanent Representative of Australia to the United Nations, 1992-1997