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The case against war in Iraq, part 26

There’s an excellent debate today in the New York Times over waging war against Iraq. It’s a review of The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq; written by Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA operative who oversaw intelligence in the Persian Gulf, the book is a straight-ahead endorsement of war. Pollack argues that there are only three things to do with Saddam Hussein: containment (sanctions, weapons inspections), deterrence (threatening him with retaliation), and regime change. He argues that containment hasn’t worked, and deterrence won’t either because Hussein is power-mad and will stop at nothing to dominate his neighboring countries. That, of course, leaves invasion — spending billions on a land war to topple Hussein — as the only option.

The reviewer disagrees — and since he’s Jack Matlock, who used to be the United States ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1987 to 1991, the guy knows a fair bit about totalitarian states with access to nukes:

As I was reading Pollack’s dismissal of deterrence as a viable strategy, I could not help reflecting that in 1947 a stronger case than his could have been made that the least risky course for dealing with Stalin following World War II would have been to invade the Soviet Union and depose the tyrant before he could acquire nuclear weapons. Yet deterrence worked, even though the danger to the United States from a nuclear-armed Soviet Union was incomparably greater than the one that could be posed by a nuclear-armed Saddam Hussein. Saddam Hussein may be more inclined to risk taking than the Soviet leaders were, but his means for making mischief in the world are much more limited. His passion is to stay in power and, if possible, to dominate the region. If he had nuclear weapons, he would step up blackmail attempts against his neighbors. But his bluff could be called, since he would avoid using nuclear weapons or supplying them to terrorists unless he was attacked directly and was convinced that his end was imminent. Soviet leaders before Gorbachev also would probably have used nuclear weapons if they had faced military defeat. This is one of several reasons the United States avoided making ”regime change” an avowed element of cold war deterrence.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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