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Nuclear programs: context is everything

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With so much written about the (non)existence of Saddam´s WMD and the reasons for invading Iraq in 2003, it is frightening to see how little has actually been learned. The main lesson should have been that analysing the general context of a country´s leadership, rather than focussing on pliable details of “who knew what when“, should guide responsible international policy. It provides a coherent explanation of Saddam Hussein\’s behaviour with respect to WMD and it shows where the White House went wrong in its belligerence. With respect to the present, and thus more importantly, it explains last month´s Israeli airstrike on Syria , and why it is unlikely that Damascus has an active nuclear weapons program.

During Saddam Hussein´s final months in office the debate on the existence of Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) reached it zenith. Actually, nadir might be a better choice of words here: those who didn´t like war and big explosions said that there weren´t any, and those who did like war and big explosions stated that there obviously were. Of course there was also the reliably moderate group of experts who argued there was a middle road. There probably were some WMD, they argued, but not as dangerous as politicians claimed: it was important to stay calm and investigate all the technical evidence further before jumping to rash conclusions. Besides, this patient group of fair-minded people maintained, even the CIA could get things wrong: after all, no one is perfect, not even the hardworking folks at Langley .

Now, more than four years on, the debate seems to be fairly closed on who was right and who was wrong, notwithstanding some brave souls who argue that Saddam transported his precious WMD to friendly neighbour Iran in order to be stored for future use. So what did we – the international community – learn from all of this? Well, let´s see…

The good folks at Langley need to brush up on their information-gathering techniques; politicians are not always completely truthful; actually having nuclear weapons probably shields you from an invasion, which, by the way, merits a shout-out to the visionary Kim Jong-il, who understood this lesson long ago; and… err… that´s about it, really. In many ways the world seems to be more confused – rather than enlightened – as a result of this historical case-study. If politicians are not always truthful, how do we know when to follow, and when not to follow? If the CIA is not always right, who will warn us when the evil-doers are going to do evil?

How little we have actually learned can be seen from the current state of the nuclear debates. The difference in the way the international community is treating Iran compared to North Korea is stunning and migraine-inducing. The continued hypocrisy of the UK and the US in calling for a halt to foreign nuclear programmes while updating their own arsenals is becoming painfully boring. And the IAEA is quickly becoming as irrelevant as the Maliki government in Baghdad .

The saddest sign that the international community has serious learning difficulties came last month after an Israeli airstrike in Syria . The NY Times wrote the following:

“Even many hawks within the Bush administration have expressed doubts that the Syrians have the money or technological depth to build a serious nuclear program (…) but the Israeli airstrike inside Syria has reignited debate over whether the Syrians are trying to overcome these obstacles.”

In other words, Syria is likely to have a nuclear program – regardless of all the signs to the contrary – because otherwise Israel would never bother to bomb them. Quod erat demonstrandum.

Let us assume for the moment that Israel bombed Syria on a good-faith – no pun intended – basis. That would mean that they believe that Syria has such a program, that it poses a real threat to Israel , and that bombing would help neutralise that direct threat. Even if that were so, wasn\’t one of the lessons from Iraq that intelligence services can be wrong? Mythical powers are often attributed to the Mossad, but do we really want to use the analysis of a single intelligence agency as a basis for international opinion?

But let us get back to the real world, i.e. one in which there is a rather low likelihood of a country like Israel – or any other power-player, for that matter – acting according to the high standards that democracies are supposed to adhere to, but disappointingly never do. What other motives might Israel have to bomb an unfriendly neighbour? Well, it\’s easy to make a list of possibilities. Maybe it served as a simple warning sign that Israel will not back down despite of its military failures in Lebanon . Alternatively, it could have been a simple rehearsal to be ready for the real deal in Iran or elsewhere. It makes more sense, however, to interpret it from a geopolitical context.

Israel is seen by many in the West as a bastion in the fight against international terrorism, both symbolically as well as geographically, and surrounded – according to primal Western instincts – by terrorists and other bad guys. With the current tensions between Washington and Iran and the increased fear for nuclear chaos in the 21 st Century, it makes sense for Israel to re-brand itself as a first line of defence against the combined threat of terrorism and nuclear holocaust. What better way to do that than to bomb Syria ? It transmits a triple message to Western allies: 1) Nuclear dangers are omnipresent and difficult to grasp. 2) Israel is working round the clock to deal with such dangers. 3) Israel needs continued support if the West cares about the shining democratic light that it represents in the Middle Eastern sea of radicalism and despotism. In this context, the airstrike in Syria did its job splendidly.

From a Syrian perspective, the idea that Damascus is developing a serious nuclear weapons´ program seems preposterous. Besides the incredible risks that that would involve from a technical point of view – and ignoring questions about how it could actually pay for such a program – it would be the worst thing the regime could do at the moment from a strategic standpoint. Why incur the wrath from neighbours and the West alike? It would go against all rationality, but perhaps that is actually where the problem lies: Western analysts and politicians too often fail to acknowledge that Assad (or Ahmadinejad, for that matter) do actually display rational behaviour. Instead of believing that self-preservation is the first and foremost desire of any regime – democratic or otherwise –, nonsensical, out-of-context objectives and desires are attributed to such hostile governments.

If the WMD discussion about Iraq in 2003 should have taught us anything, it is that the understanding of context is everything. The context of the White House and its possible motives to invade has been discussed – and often exaggerated – over and over again, ranging from Cheney´s links to Halliburton to the oedipal traumas of the 43 rd President of the United States . But what about the context of Saddam Hussein? He had been in a virtual straightjacket for over a decade. The only thing that ensured some level of influence, both internally as well as in foreign affairs, was the threat he still possibly posed. His possible possession of WMD was one of the few things maintaining his domestic and international prestige. With that in mind, it seems only logical that Saddam Hussein tried to create some kind of smokescreen when it came to WMD.

A smokescreen, however, is very different from the real deal. Paradoxically, if one looks at the context of Iraq before the 2003 invasion, actually trying to develop WMD would have meant the end for Saddam´s regime. Any hard evidence of such a program would have been the invitation the US was waiting for. Hussein, therefore, needed to play a dangerous game of keeping alive the possibility that he had something, while in reality staying far away from anything potentially explosive. Although he underestimated the Sophoclean influences that Bush 41 had on his son, he did play the right game from a rational, realist point of view. In the end, the irrationality did not come from Baghdad but from Washington .

A rational analysis of context cannot cure all of the world´s ills, but it would surely make our globe a little saner and a lot safer. It is embarrassing that dictators seem to find it so much easier to grasp such a basic lesson than anyone who democratic electorates can vote for.

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