If the Syrian civil war and, in particular, the horrific Ghouta attack this August have reminded the world of the persistent danger of chemical weapons, it is worth remembering that this is not the first time the United States has confronted a Middle Eastern dictator armed with weapons of mass destruction. During the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam Hussein possessed large stockpiles of chemical weapons, which he had used frequently in his eight-year war with Iran during the 1980s. And yet Iraq did not use these weapons against the U.S.-led coalition forces, even as they soundly defeated the Iraqi army, pushing it from Kuwait. For two decades, the question has been, why not?
Some American officials have argued that Saddam was deterred from using chemical weapons by ambiguous U.S. threats of nuclear retaliation and explicit threats of regime change. But information Saddam provided interrogators after his capture — 10 years ago today — along with newly released recordings of Saddam’s meetings with his advisers, suggest otherwise. Saddam viewed chemical weapons as a final trump card, to be held in reserve to deter American or Israeli use of chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons and to prevent coalition forces from marching on Baghdad. And Saddam later concluded that his deterrent strategy had worked, telling his advisers that Iraq had won the war because the United States stopped combat operations after the Iraqi army retreated from Kuwait.
As the international community works to disarm Bashar Assad of his chemical arsenal, the United States should reconsider the true lessons of the Gulf War. Because if Syria’s disarmament does not proceed as smoothly as planned, effective deterrence and smart diplomacy will be essential to prevent future uses of chemical weapons.
As war loomed between the United States and Iraq in January 1991, President George H.W. Bush sent Secretary of State James Baker to Geneva to meet with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz. His mission was to deliver both a verbal threat to Aziz and a carefully worded presidential letter for Saddam Hussein.
Bush’s letter said that the “United States will not tolerate the use of chemical or biological weapons or the destruction of Kuwait’s oil fields. … You and your country will pay a terrible price if you order unconscionable acts of this sort.”
Baker issued a stronger and more explicit verbal warning, telling Aziz that if Iraq used chemical or biological weapons, “The American people will demand vengeance. And we have the means to exact it. … [T]his is not a threat, it is a promise.” He then warned that if such weapons were used, the American “objective would not be the liberation of Kuwait, but the elimination of the current Iraqi regime.”
Tariq Aziz, however, refused to deliver Bush’s letter to Saddam, and it is unclear whether Saddam ever read it. In his post-capture interrogation, the Iraqi leader claimed not to know that Baker’s threats were even connected with the use of chemical weapons.
Even if the messages did make it through, the nature of the American threats made it unlikely that they were an effective deterrent. Baker had earlier threatened regime change if Saddam was unwilling to withdraw from Kuwait. If the United States threatened to pursue regime change whether or not Saddam used chemical weapons, then that threat could not have been an effective deterrent. Moreover, Saddam ordered the burning of the Kuwaiti oil fields and did not withdraw from Kuwait, further evidence that he was not deterred by U.S. threats.
The newly released Saddam tapes also provide little support for the idea that Baker’s threats significantly impacted Iraqi decision-making. Just days after Baker warned Aziz not to use chemical or biological weapons, Saddam was preparing his forces to do just that. In a mid-January meeting with his Air Force commander and son-in-law, he said: “I want to make sure — close the door [sound of door slamming] — the germ and chemical warheads, as well as the chemical and germ bombs are available to the ‘concerned people,’ so that in case we ordered an attack, they can do it without missing any of their targets.”
Saddam also laid out the targets: “Riyadh and Jeddah, which are the biggest Saudi cities with all the decision makers, and the Saudi rulers. … Also, all the Israeli cities, all of them.” When asked when the chemical and biological weapons would be used, he answered, “Only in the case we are obliged and there is a great necessity to put them into action.”
A month before he invaded Kuwait, Saddam said, “According to our technical, scientific, and military calculations, [Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons are] a sufficient deterrent to confront the Israeli nuclear weapon.” He also, however, told military advisers to prepare options for WMD retaliation, as a revenge strike, if necessary: “I know if the going gets hard, then the Americans or the British will use the atomic weapons against me, and so will Israel. The only things I have are chemical and biological weapons, and I shall have to use them. I have no alternative.”
Saddam’s confidence in his chemical weapons as a strategic deterrent was in part based on a belief that his weapons were far more powerful than they actually were. Saddam incorrectly asserted to his advisers that the Iraqi chemical weapons arsenal was “200 times” more powerful than it had been in the Iran-Iraq war.
Saddam also expressed a willingness to use chemical and biological weapons if the United States attempted to march on Baghdad. In an interrogation after his capture, Saddam claimed that “WMD was for the defense of Iraq’s sovereignty” and that “Iraq did not use WMD during the 1991 Gulf War, as its sovereignty was not threatened.” He added that he “would have been called stupid” had he used chemical or biological weapons outside of these conditions.
There is also strong evidence that Saddam pre-delegated authority to use chemical and biological weapons in the event of a decapitation strike on Baghdad. In the same January 1991 conversation with his advisers on the use of chemical and biological weapons, he stated, “I will give them an order stating that at ‘one moment,’ if I’m not there and you don’t hear my voice, you will hear somebody else’s voice, so you can receive the order from him, and then you can go attack your targets.”
Given that American forces didn’t pursue regime change, even after Iraq crossed an American “red line” by torching Kuwaiti oil fields, the Iraqi leadership concluded that chemical and biological weapons had successfully deterred the United States. In his official CIA report on Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons program, Charles Duelfer notes, “Iraqis believed that their possession and willingness to use WMD (CW and BW) contributed substantially to deterring the United States from going to Baghdad in 1991.”
As American leaders confront another Middle Eastern dictator armed with chemical weapons, there are four lessons that they should draw from the Iraqi case.
First, in dealing with authoritarian governments, deterrence may not work. Underlings are often hesitant to communicate threats, and dictators may have highly inflated estimates of their own military capabilities as the “yes men” beneath them say what they think the leader wants to hear. Authoritarian regimes also often rely on poor intelligence analysis of U.S. objectives and decision-making. Disarming dictators, if possible, is preferable to trying to deter them.
Second, although the Syrian government is clearly trying to gain favor in the international community by cooperating with the U.N. disarmament plan, Bashar Assad may view chemical weapons as a strategic deterrent in the same way that Saddam did. This is especially likely because one lesson demonstrated by the Iraq War (and, more recently, by Libya) is that the United States may successfully pursue regime change even after a nation has given up its WMD. Assad thus may be reluctant to give up his final cache of chemical weapons, keeping some as an insurance policy against future attack. In fact, recent press reports suggest that U.S. intelligence agencies are concerned that Assad may be holding back some of his weapons.
Third, there is a tension between U.S. desires to see Syria completely disarmed of chemical weapons and the Obama administration’s stated goal that Assad’s regime must go. Is the United States’ priority to overthrow the Syrian regime or to reduce the risk of future chemical weapons use? If the latter, the United States may need to issue more explicit security assurances, or at least suggest that full Syrian disarmament will bring rewards to the government.
Finally, if there are setbacks in the disarmament process, the administration should use the agreed-upon U.N. inspection procedures first and be exceedingly careful not to issue threats that it doesn’t fully intend to execute. Having our bluff called weakens the strength of future deterrent threats and increases the likelihood that we will be challenged. In the words of Brent Scowcroft, reflecting on the 1991 Gulf War, “It is bad practice to threaten something you have no intention of carrying out.”
Buch is a political science graduate student and Sagan a political science professor, both at Stanford University.