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Jewish World Review Oct. 1, 2001 / 14 Tishrei 5762

Morton Kondracke

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Consumer Reports

Could nuclear deterrence stop terrorism? -- ON Jan. 9, 1991, on the eve of the Gulf War, then-Secretary of State James Baker issued a private warning to Iraq that President Bush might consider repeating to terrorist states today.

At a meeting in Geneva, Baker told Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz that, if Iraq used weapons of mass destruction against U.S. forces, "The American people will demand retribution, and we have the means to exact it."

That carefully worded, nonspecific threat was meant to raise the possibility that the United States would use nuclear weapons against Iraq if it used chemical weapons against American troops.

Baker has since told acquaintances that he doubts whether then-President George Bush would have actually used the nuclear option, but that the threat may have been a deterrent.

Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein fired conventionally armed Scud missiles at both U.S. forces and Israel during the Gulf War, but he did not use his nerve-gas arsenal, presumably because he feared a nuclear retaliation.

Former United Nations chief weapons inspector Richard Butler has written that Iraq definitely possessed VX nerve gas and warheads, each capable of killing a million people.

Butler firmly believes, as he wrote in his book, "The Greatest Threat" (Public Affairs, 2000), that because international inspections ceased in 1999, Iraq has resumed the production of chemical and biological weapons and the means to deliver them and is working on nuclear weapons, too.

Iran, Syria and Libya are suspected of trying to develop chemical or biological weapons. If successful, they could easily turn them over to terrorist groups for delivery by more covert means than rocket attacks.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, official and media attention has focused on airline security and the destruction of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network.

Too little attention has been paid, though, to the frightening possibility that bin Laden or the states that support him will move from jetliners as their weapon of choice to chemical and biological agents, which could be much more devastating.

To the extent that the danger has been addressed, it's been largely in the form of commission reports and congressional hearings, all establishing that this country is woefully ill-prepared to deal with the kind of attacks that easily could be in the offing.

The question arises -- and almost certainly will be widely discussed before long -- whether threats of nuclear retaliation should have any part in preventing an attack on the United States while it improves other defenses.

It may well be that the answer is "absolutely not," but just as "thinking the unthinkable" was a virtual industry during the Cold War, it's inevitable that some of it will resume now.

Deterrence -- that is, the threat of annihilation -- played an important part in preventing nuclear war over the past 55 years. Conceivably, it could prevent the use of chemical and biological weapons now.

Nuclear deterrence worked because all countries possessing such weapons have been headed by rational people who understand the consequences of first use.

However, deterrence may not apply if chemical and biological weapons fall into the hands of shadowy terrorists like bin Laden, who are hard to locate and are willing to die to serve their evil ends.

On the other hand, in the short term, it might work to prevent states with chemical or biological arsenals from passing them on to terrorists if they face possible nuclear retaliation.

Someone from the United States -- but certainly not the president -- would have to quietly inform Iraq, Iran, Syria and Libya that if a weapon of mass destruction were employed against the United States, the public demand for massive retaliation would be more than any president could resist.

The threat might have the advantage of actually being true. There is no telling what the public might insist upon if hundreds of thousands or millions were killed in an anthrax, smallpox or nerve-gas attack. Whether or not nuclear deterrence could be applied to the threats of the future, the threats are all too real and need to be dealt with as an urgent matter.

One member of Congress who's been studying the issue for several years, Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), believes that "old-style deterrence doesn't apply" -- rather, that the answers lie in international prevention efforts, better detection if an attack occurs, and upgraded crisis-response mechanisms.

Shays, chairman of the Government Reform subcommittee on national security, said all studies so far conducted on the issue suggest that "we don't have an adequate assessment of the threat, we don't have a national strategy, and we are not organized to develop a strategy."

It's undoubtedly important to put sky marshals on airplanes and harden cockpit doors, but Congress and the president must urgently think about the next threat -- and even contemplate the "unthinkable."

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments by clicking here.

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