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Thursday, February 06, 2003

 
--- Unpacking the Case (I.1): Saddam's Threat Inventory ---

This is the first of a series of posts surveying Saddam Hussein's WMD threat potential, within a larger series Unpacking the Case for Invading Iraq.

Here we lay out some principles applicable to all WMD, and to all potential bad actors. We proceed to apply these principles to Saddam and his threats ... though magnified and distorted focus on Saddam is half the problem with The Case.

WMD occur in four widely discussed categories of concern -- chemical weapons (CW), biological weapons (BW), radioisotope dispersant "dirty bombs", and nuclear fission weapons. Biotoxins are produced like BW but applied like CW, and we'll address them in either category as appropriate. [A wily foe might find superior options outside these four categories ... but that's outside the envelope of this discussion.]

WMD threats arise in two very different domains. First is general warfare -- nation against nation, armed force against armed force, contesting supreme and subordinate objectives. Second is terrorism -- unconventional, surreptitious, agenda-driven attack, usually on unsuspecting civilian elements -- basically shooting fish in a barrel. On most counts the two domains have very little in common. They intersect (more rarely than you think) in a zone dubbed "state-sponsored terrorism". Beyond that, tech evolution and proliferation may eventually put Mass Destruction within the ambit of non-agenda vandalism, akin to teenage pipe bombings and computer virus construction.

Segments to follow will zoom in on each threat category, and explore their potential in each domain.

The standard WMD threat involves a particular actor (state, faction, rogue military element, stateless organization, or the ubiquitous "accidental actor"), with respect to a particular capability. Before we welcome any new applicant to the Threat Club, we should cover a couple basic interview questions: What are his capabilities? What are his ambitions?

What are his Capabilities?
Can the actor in question invent active WMD ingredients? Not required. Most active ingredients have been around forever -- mustard "gas" (1910's), sarin (1930's), uranium/plutonium (1940's), VX (1950's) -- and the basic recipes are not well-kept secrets. Important new discoveries are incredibly rare ... though the biotech revolution may soon bless us with a whole new catalog of horribilia, and somebody someday may figure out how to build a fusion device without the more bulky and detectible fission trigger.

Can he produce or procure these active ingredients? Not a high hurdle. Any dot-on-the-map island with a modern medical center can roll their own dirty bomb. Any town with a brewery, any two-star restaurant, can brew BW, and most seed cultures aren't that hard to come by. Any town with a 20th-century economic base can cook up potent CW. Scores of nations can refine weapons-grade material from power reactor waste. If you can't make it, you can buy, beg, borrow or steal it.

Can he weaponize them? Mandatory. A chunk of fissile material is not an atomic bomb. CW molecules make lousy weapons without stabilizers, thickeners, dispersants and aerosol sprayers or bursting charges. Likewise most pathogens and biotoxins. Innovative preparation/presentation is the locus of most contemporary "Iron Chef" competition.

Can he deliver them? Mandatory. Until you rain them on the enemy in a controlled fashion (at controlled distance from your guys), WMD stockpiles mainly threaten the night watchman. For CW and most BW, controlled dispersal is a critical challenge. Big-league missiles are resource-intensive, nukes are resource-intensive, one isn't much good without the other, and a long row of technical hurdles separates the test stand nuke from the missile warhead. [Meanings of "weaponize" and "deliver" diverge dramatically in general versus terrorist applications.]

Can he test them prior to delivery? Not strictly required, but highly advisable. Most WMD make people mad even faster than they make people dead. Any WMD launch is a high-risk proposition, even riskier if you don't know it works ... and you don't with home-brew, even with best-effort copies of proven designs. State actors have a definite edge over rogues and stateless actors in the testing department.


What are his Ambitions?
Is the actor hostile? Maybe not ... but he can learn. Amities and enmities are even more mutable than national boundaries and identities. Whole regimes -- and subordinate chains of command -- can change in a heartbeat. Remote, obscure developments can drag friendly powers abruptly into conflict. Misunderstandings occur, mistakes are made, accidents happen, leaders miscalculate, counterplay escalates, bluffs are called, events overtake us. Hostile attitude elevates the risk that ordinary mishap will escalate to hostile action, and it sometimes predicts coalition structure, but it's at best a rapidly decaying intermediate-term predictor. (Both Saddam and Osama have realigned repeatedly.)

Can he use WMD to advantage? Usually not. The stronger party prevails without WMD. The weaker party fears retaliation. Most 20th-century WMD were held for deterrence and defense, and almost never used. Non-state actors are less sensitive to retaliation, more likely to miscalculate, and may inflict damage as a mission per se (rather than a side effect of a means to an end) -- but most terrorists serve political agendas that are poorly served by indiscriminate destruction.

Are WMD his preferred implements? He might be reluctant to bet the ranch on his technology and his chain of command, against our countermeasures and intelligence capabilities. He might prefer a series of bargaining games to a single-elimination shootout. He might envision more effective ways -- economic sabotage, etc. -- to inflict consequential damage. Mass destruction alienates allies and trading partners, who may be vital to his larger agenda.

Is the US his preferred target? He may identify higher priorities, more opportune targets, more troublesome immediate adversaries. He might very well reserve his options, anticipating unspecified emergent priorities in the indefinite future.


What are Saddam's capabilities?
Saddam finds Xtreme weapons fascinating. If you want to crack his inner circle, approach him with "mad science" schematics for an antigravity beam or a weather machine. Much of his portfolio is junk ... incompetent knock-off's of purloined plans, outlandish schemes sold by cranks and hustlers, useless production runs by bureaucrats trying to make quota. Several technically sound projects have been disrupted by discovery. We should assume some of the others are deliberately mounted as intelligence decoys.

Saddam's labs have all the popular recipes. He has sponsored research in all four classic WMD quadrants, though dirty bomb efforts appear extremely limited (as Doomsday weapons, they leave a lot to be desired).

Saddam has produced substantial stocks of BW and CW ingredients (though nothing to rival US or Russian stocks), and has made multiple attempts to produce or procure weapons-grade fissile materials. He likes playing hide-and-seek, he's good at it, and it's fair to assume he still has some of the goods. Case by case, however, it's also conceivable he does not have them.
Much has been destroyed under uncontrolled conditions -- battlefield capture, destruction under aerial bombardment, or casual disposal. [US is uniquely fastidious in WMD disposal, under legal pressure from enviro's. Lots of folks just landfill 'em, burn 'em or dump 'em at sea.] US DOD racks up billions in inventory discrepancies, and we haven't lost staff and records centers under precision bombing. Many intel estimates net out finished goods based on presumed input stocks, presumed production yields and presumed degradation rates. Subordinates might divert assets for their own reasons. And Saddam might encourage deliberate ambiguity to keep potential adversaries' uncertainties up in the yellow zone.

Saddam would enjoy keeping UN inspectors and US intel busy looking for things that aren't there. He would love to catch us (as he has done repeatedly) making public declarations that don't pan out. And Saddam is fully capable of abandoning a blunted initiative, or trashing diabolical Plan X for even more diabolical Plan Y ... destroying the evidence and leaving everybody guessing.
Weaponization is a mixed bag. Iraqi and imported researchers have advanced the state of the art in some areas, e.g., particulates, but other results are primitive or incompetent, and some are downright head-scratchers ... either he knows a whole lot more than we do, or a whole lot less, or somebody's pulling his leg.

Delivery is Saddam's weak suit. Iraq isn't much of a force on land, sea or air. Iraq probably never developed effective CW, BW or nuclear warhead designs. For whatever reason, Iraqi rocket scientists aren't exactly rocket scientists. (We'll take up delivery considerations in greater detail under each WMD category.)

All intelligence detail on Saddam's holdings must be taken with a grain of salt. Saddam leaks disinformation, opposing factions invent horror stories, defectors reel out lines of bull in exchange for sponsorship, and US "war entrepreneurs" grasp at straws and scurry them past the usual screens and filters of prudent assessment.

On the whole, Saddam retains an active interest in WMD technology -- greater than that of his near neighbors (possibly excepting Iran). He has taken a scattergun development approach ... initiating more projects and maturing fewer than would be in his best interest. Recent progress and current holdings are uncertain. To the extent his holdings have been reduced, he could reconstitute them on short notice.


What are Saddam's ambitions?
Saddam is situationally hostile to US, not inherently hostile (as per current myth). His major beef is our intent to destroy him ... declared (with intermittent equivocation) for more than a decade, after cultivating him as a regional ally for more than two decades prior. He retains an evident grudge against George H. W. Bush and family. Other than that, he's no more hostile than the average of his immediate neighbors. He properly anticipates that US might revert to form -- courting, coopting, aiding and abetting him -- under different circumstances.

The popular profile of Saddam as territorially ambitious is a bit of a stretch, extrapolated from two incidents over 35 years (again, not atypical for his neighborhood).
First was an opportunistic incursion to resolve long-unsettled boundary issues with Iran. This backfired, escalating into a war which threatening Iraq's very existence. Iraq enjoyed US support in this conflict, while Iran enjoyed minor covert US support (Iran-Contra arms trading). Second was the annexation of Kuwait ... a more serious case of unforced aggression, a serious miscalculation, but not entirely without provocation. Saddam may have believed (or persuaded himself) he had a US green light for this adventure.

Saddam is megalomaniac and historically ambitious in an ill-defined pan-Arabic sense. (Some of his "cult of Saddam" trappings may be calculated for domestic political consumption.) Saddam's six contiguous neighbors (Kuwait included) regard him as responsive to ordinary deterrence, and none regard him as an above-baseline territorial threat.
Saddam appears to value WMD primarily for the same reasons most of us do -- deterrence and defense, especially in light of Iran's 1980s "human wave" attacks -- but we should consider other possibilities.
"Going out with a bang". Saddam unleashes horrific, pointless destruction at the end of a losing battle. No way to know whether he'd do this, or whether subordinates would comply.

Mass-casualty attacks on Israel. Saddam probably has little animus toward Israel, but his neighbors do. He might trade on technical capabilities to buy regional influence.

"Bank shot" diversion. Saddam goads Israel into conflict (as he attempted in Gulf War I), gaining increased latitude of operation in conflict with individual Arab nations.

Cover for aggression. Saddam thinks WMD would deter US and other counter-intervention if he went on offense with conventional military forces.

State-sponsored terrorism. Conveyance of WMD assets to al Qaeda or other non-state networks, for anonymous attack.
If developed to maturity, Saddam's WMD programs would give him substantial deterrent capability. No scenario gives him a fighting chance to initiate aggression, and almost all of them hasten his demise ... but we cannot precisely calculate his propensity to miscalculate.


Interim summary: Saddam possesses, or is close to possessing, or can readily reconstitute, a variety of WMD assets. He has few, if any, advantageous offensive uses for them. He may or may not realize that. Many other potential actors have similar capabilities -- some in less advanced stages of development -- and similar prospects.

In subsequent segments, we'll survey each category of WMD ... and reinforce the premise "what Saddam has probably won't hurt us, and what hurts us probably won't come from Saddam".