Why “WMD” is a poorly-framed category

Nuclear weapons raise the destructive potential of warfare. So do (some) biologicals. Chemical weapons are illegal, but they simply don’t present the same level of risk.

Kevin Drum, in the course of making a different argument, offers an assertion that is now widely accepted but still, I think, false: that the invasion of Iraq would have been justified if Iraq had been developing Weapons of Mass Destruction, as most of us thought was the case.

Now, I have to confess to having believed that Iraq was developing nuclear weapons; that was my basis for offering (lukewarm) support for the invasion. It’s clear that I was wrong to believe that, and quite possible that I was unreasonable in believing it on the evidence then at hand.

Still, if it had been the case that Iraq was close to nuclear-weapons capacity, then I think the decision to invade would have been justified; as I said at the time, if the choice was between fighting Iraq before it had acquired nuclear weapons or fighting Iraq after it had acquired nuclear weapons, that wasn’t a hard choice to make.

But “WMD” doesn’t mean nuclear weapons alone. Biological and chemical warfare agents are also considered WMDs both in scholarly discourse and in international law. And it seems to me that such a catch-all category adds molehills to mountains. Chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons are all illegal, but they’re not all equally dangerous: not by a couple of orders of magnitude.

Some of the biologicals &#8212 smallpox, for example, if prepared for aerial dispersion, or weaponized Ebola virus &#8212 might have killing capacity equivalent to, or even greater than, nukes. Indeed, the reassuring thing about smallpox is that it’s virtually impossible to target, because an large-scale outbreak in any country with heavy air traffic in and out of it would almost inevitably turn into a worldwide pandemic. If Iraq had been close to having smallpox or Ebola or even weaponized anthrax, that too would have been a good reason to strike before rather than after that capacity was operational.

It’s the third category &#8212 chemical weapons &#8212 that doesn’t deserve mention in the same breath as the other two. Yes, the threat of gas attacks complicates civil defense, and there’s an undoubted “ick” factor about making the air unfit to breathe. But compared to high explosive and incendiary weapons, gas weapons simply aren’t the sort of escalation some biologicals represent, let alone nukes.

The threat that, if we waited a year, Iraq might wind up with chemical weapons simply wasn’t so big a threat that it should have outweighed the risks of war. And if all Saddam Hussein was defying the inspections regime to protect had been chemical-weapons capacity, then the fact that the sanctions were falling apart, probably couldn’t be maintained, and were (combined with Iraqi policies) leading to the deaths of lots of Iraqis, especially children didn’t count as a good argument for the claim that we were going to have to invade eventually. Sitting back and letting SH violate international law, if that were his only violation, was a perfectly reasonable option.

It’s now obvious that Iraq was going exactly nowhere on either nuclear or biological weapons. That being the case, there was, at minimum, no need to rush the invasion.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com