President Bush seems confident that his war against Iraq will be easier than his father’s, or at least that we can be sure to fight it on our own terms. But why should Saddam Hussein do us that favor? The hour is late for confronting strategic confusion, but better late than never. The United States has painted itself as well as Iraq into a corner. The case for preventive war rests on two crucial errors: understating the risk that an assault on Iraq will trigger a counterattack on American civilians, and, when that risk is admitted, conflating it with the threat of unprovoked attack by Iraq in the future.

Most Americans take for granted that if the war proves bloodier than the optimists expect, the price will be paid by the military or people in the region. If an invasion succeeds, however, Saddam Hussein will have no reason to withhold his best parting shot—which could be the release of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) inside the United States. Such a counterattack against civilians could make the death toll of Sept. 11 look small. Washington has done little to prepare the country for this possibility.

When administration spokesmen do admit this danger, they misread it as reinforcing their case, as if it simply demonstrates the same threat they believe requires preventive war. There is a world of difference, however, between the odds that Iraq will fight back if we strike first and the odds that Iraq will strike without provocation in the future. The administration does not admit that if our attack triggers Iraqi retaliation, we will have brought the disaster on ourselves. It is not quite too late to ponder the Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck’s characterization of preventive war: “suicide from fear of death.”

An invasion to get rid of Saddam Hussein aims to do what no government has ever done before: destroy a regime that possesses WMD. Twice before countries with WMD fought each other but only in skirmishes—China and the Soviet Union on the Ussuri River in 1969 and India and Pakistan over Kargil in 2000. In those limited clashes neither side’s leadership faced its own demise. The difference this time has not been digested by pro-war strategists.

All the way through the passage of congressional authorization for war, the greatest danger a preventive assault might pose to Americans went almost unmentioned. Attention focused instead on less immediate, less likely, and less dangerous threats. The hawks’ argument for war focused on the future danger that Iraq will get nuclear weapons. But the biological weapons Iraq almost certainly has already are bad enough. The worst estimates of U.S. vulnerability may be grossly exaggerated, but vulnerability is high in any case. A 1993 Office of Technology Assessment study saw the possibility of one to three million fatalities from anthrax delivered by aerosol from a single plane over the Washington, D.C. area. Even if medical readiness makes a realistic figure only one percent of that figure, casualties would be more than triple those of Sept. 11. Iraq could also have bio-engineered pathogens for which no defense is available. Chemical weapons would be less destructive than biological, but they too could exact a devastating toll.

Is Iraqi counterattack really plausible? Hawks worry that Saddam will use WMD or give them to terrorists in the future, even if we threaten him with devastating retaliation. If he would cut his own throat when not provoked, he will certainly lash out with anything he has when we go for his jugular and his back is against the wall—and Washington wants him to go to the wall. Saddam will not go gently if he has nothing left to lose.

The risk that has absorbed commentators, however, is the vulnerability of U.S. invasion forces, or local supporters like Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, as if the danger is only that Iraq would set off WMD within the region. But if the military assault to overthrow the Iraqi regime succeeds, there is no reason to doubt Saddam’s intention to use biological weapons where they would hurt Americans the most. Then the only question is whether he will have the capability to carry out the intent.

Maybe not. Maybe Saddam is not crafty enough to figure out how to strike the American homeland. Maybe Iraqi intelligence is too incompetent to smuggle biological weapons in and set them off. Maybe underlings would disobey orders to do so. Maybe terrorists to whom they might subcontract the job would bungle it. Maybe American forces could find and neutralize all of Iraq’s WMD before they could be detonated. But it is reckless to bank on maybes. We have given Saddam more than enough time to concoct retaliation, since he has been on notice for months that we are coming. The Bush administration has made this war the most telegraphed punch in military history.

Is it alarmist to emphasize the danger of Iraqi counterattack? The odds may be low—perhaps as low as the odds were on Sept. 10, 2001 that 19 Arab civilians would level the World Trade Center and tear a chunk out of the Pentagon. If the odds are as high as one out of six, they make the risk in overthrowing Saddam the same as Russian Roulette. It is one thing to hope that we can wage war to the end without triggering effective retaliation. It is altogether different to assume it, which is “best case” planning that should shame any self-respecting hawk.

Taking the current threat to heart means two big things:

First, the government has not done enough to get ducks in a row on the home front. The day President Bush kicks off the war is past time for moving decisively beyond the drawing-board phase of homeland defense, the studies and plans under development to prepare for future biological or chemical attack, and into thorough implementation. The public deserves immediate, loud, clear, and detailed instructions about how to know, what to do, where to go, and how to cope if they encounter anthrax, ricin, smallpox, VX, or other pathogens or chemicals the day after American tanks overrun Baghdad. It is too late now to do what should have been done much earlier—cut through the production problems and other complications in making vaccination against anthrax available for civilians who want it (much of the military has already been vaccinated). Putting in place and exercising the mechanisms for detecting anthrax attacks and responding quickly enough to dispense antibiotics on a massive scale are the least that a crash program should assure before we invite retaliation. Smallpox is a less likely threat, and much planning has been done for mass vaccination in an emergency, but at the least a large majority of health-care workers should receive vaccinations in advance. Until all this is done, the United States cannot be ready to start a war.

Second, late as it is, the risk of Iraqi retaliation underlines the case for reconsidering the alternative to provoking it. Why is reliance on containment and deterrence—the strategy that got us through four decades of Cold War—more dangerous than poking the snake right now?

For American deterrence to fail, Saddam would have to choose deliberately to bring on his own demise when he could otherwise continue to survive, scheme, and hope for something to turn up. Saddam’s record is so filled with rash mistakes that preventive warriors believe he must be considered undeterrable. But there is no good evidence to prove the point. Reckless as he has been, he has never yet done something we told him would be suicidal.

Saddam’s worst mistake was invading Kuwait, but that happened precisely because Bush the Elder did not try to deter him. Indeed, U.S. communications before the 1990 invasion gave him a green light. During the war, in contrast, American leaders did issue a deterrent threat, warning Saddam against using biological or chemical weapons. That deterrent worked.

Bush the Younger quite aptly compared Saddam to Stalin but drew the wrong lesson. Like Saddam, Stalin miscalculated in approving the invasion of South Korea in 1950 because Truman (like Bush in 1990) did not try to deter. Secretary of State Acheson had indicated publicly that South Korea was excluded from the U.S. defense perimeter. Stalin did not invade Western Europe, however, where the NATO deterrent was clear.

Is the proper analogy instead to terrorists? If the Iraqi regime is of a piece with al-Qaeda (a conflation of threats that official rhetoric has encouraged) deterrence would be impractical. But Saddam and the Ba’athists are not religious fanatics bent on martyrdom. They are secularist thugs focused on their fortunes in this world. Nor can they hide like al-Qaeda. The crucial difference between a rogue state and a terrorist group is that the state has a return address.

What makes hawks sure that long-term deterrence is more dangerous than immediate provocation? Saddam could be a greater threat in five years, but he could also be dead. He is sixty-five now, and though adept so far at foiling coups or assassination, we could get lucky. His stocks of WMD will grow more potent, but at what point will Saddam decide that they afford him options he lacks now, and at what point will he decide he is ready to bring down a decisive American assault on himself and all his works?

Previous briefs for preventive war have proved terribly wrong. Truman did not buy arguments for attacking the Soviet Union. Yet as Paul Schroeder pointed out recently in this magazine, “Stalin had nuclear weapons, was a worse sociopath than Hussein … and his record of atrocities against his own people was far worse than Hussein’s.” Within a few years of preventive war recommendations by Navy Secretary Francis Matthews, Senator John McClellan, and others, Stalin was dead. There were numerous studies and proposals of preventive war against China in the 1960s, and it is easy today to forget that at that time Mao was considered as fanatically aggressive and crazy as Saddam is today. But by the 1970s Washington and Beijing had become tacit allies. President Bush should think about how history could have turned out if preventive war arguments had sold in those cases.

Relying on deterrence indefinitely is not foolproof. Unfortunately, high-stakes international politics is full of problems for which the only choices are between risky options and worse ones. Americans often forget this in the era of primacy, mistakenly believing that the only problems we cannot solve are those about which we are inattentive or irresolute. Overconfident in U.S. capacity to eliminate Saddam without disastrous side effects, leaders in Washington are curiously fatalistic about the option of deterrence and containment, which sustained U.S. strategy through forty years of Cold War against far more formidable adversaries. Why have they lost that faith?

One explanation is psychological and moral. Many people think of deterrence as something the good guys do to the bad, not the reverse. To see the danger of Iraqi retaliation as a reason not to attack seems dishonorable, taking counsel of our fears, a wimpy submission to blackmail. It seems presumptuous of a country like Iraq to aspire to paralyze American power. It is a matter of American honor not to be deterred from suppressing evil. The cold logic of deterrence, however, has nothing to do with which side is good or evil. It is about the hard facts of capability, which should constrain the good as well as the bad.

Some also become indignant at the suggestion that an Iraqi counterattack could be blamed on American initiative, as if this is blaming the victim. This again confuses moral and material interests. If a snake strikes back when you poke him you may blame the snake rather than yourself for being bitten, but you will still wish that you had not poked him.

Saddam has invited disrespect for his deterrent by not declaring it—as he cannot, as long as he pretends not to possess the prohibited weapons. Iraq’s bugs in the basement should work like Israel’s bomb in the basement—an undeclared deterrent, yet known to those who need to know. But Iraq’s deterrent has not worked like Israel’s; despite potentially comparable killing power, biological weapons do not instill the same fear as nuclear.

Is it too late to step back from war? It should not be, given the ludicrously amusing Orwellian doublethink exhibited by administration spokesmen over the threats posed by North Korea and Iraq. We are told that it is not necessary to attack North Korea even though its nuclear capabilities are far more advanced than Iraq’s, it moves to expel UN inspectors just after Iraq accepts them, and its history of wild and crazy behavior outclasses Baghdad’s.

Nevertheless, having gone so far out on the limb with Iraq, it would be an embarrassing retreat to back away. The only thing worse, however, would be to go ahead with a mistaken strategy that risks retaliation against American civilians, bloody urban combat, and counterproductive effects for the war against terrorism by mobilizing more alienated Muslims against the U.S. There are no good alternatives at this point, but there are ones that are less bad:

First, squeeze the box in which Saddam is currently contained. Selectively tighten sanctions—not those that allegedly harm civilians, but the prohibitions on imports of military materials and illicit export of oil. The way to overcome allied opposition to tightening sanctions is to offer that course as the alternative to war.

Second, continue efforts to foment internal overthrow of the regime. Saddam seems immune to covert action, but even long-shot possibilities sometimes pan out.

Third, consider quasi-war. U.S. forces might occupy the Kurdish area of northern Iraq (where Saddam has not exercised control for years) and build up the wherewithal to move quickly at some unspecified future date—to enforce inspections, to protect Iraqi garrisons that revolt against Saddam, or ultimately to invest Baghdad.

Fourth, as the noose tightens, offer Saddam safe haven if he and his henchmen step down. This would mean thumbing our nose at the International Criminal Court, but the Bush administration likes to do that anyway. There would be much clucking of tongues as a heinous criminal gets off, but better to leave open an alternative that, however bad, remains better than war.

In pondering Bismarck’s line about “suicide from fear of death,” it helps to recall the consequences of his replacement by leaders who saw more logic and necessity in the course he derided. Statesmen in 1914 thought they had no alternative but to confront threats with preventive war and believed the war would be short. As often in war, expectations were rudely confounded. Instead of preventing disaster, Bismarck’s successors precipitated it.

Applying Bismarck’s definition of preventive war to the current case is, admittedly, hyperbole. Iraqi retaliation would not destroy the United States, and it might not even occur. But even a modest risk of tens of thousands of American civilian casualties is too high compared to the exaggerated risk that Iraq will court its own suicide by using or transferring WMD without provocation and will do so before Saddam’s regime passes from the scene from other causes. Before President Bush takes the last step he should realize that consequences even a minute fraction of those of 1914 would thoroughly discredit his decision to start the war.


Richard K. Betts is Director of the Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University and was a member of the National Commission on Terrorism. A version of this article appeared in the January/February 2003 issue of Foreign Affairs.