Arms Control Expert Says U.S. Seeks to Force Changes on ‘Bad Guy’ Nations Like Syria

April 15, 2003

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Joseph Cirincione, director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says that international opinion will see the war in Iraq as legitimate only if forces uncover a huge stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. Expressing concern about the Bush administration’s apparent preference for force over diplomacy to pursue its international goals, he says “the administration wants to use the momentum of victory in the Iraq war to bring change to the regime in Syria.”

Cirincione was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on April 14, 2003.

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Military forces in Iraq continue to look for weapons of mass destruction. What do you expect will come of that search?

There’s been the discovery of [what may be] dual-purpose mobile laboratories outside an Iraqi Army depot. [Military forces] found 11 buried – what they call CONEX containers–and they’ve been examining them for a day or so now and are starting to feel confident that they’re mobile laboratories. We should know a great deal more in a couple of weeks, as the U.S. forces thoroughly search some of the suspected storage sites for chemical and biological weapons and as more scientists and officials start to cooperate with the United States. [Iraq is] a big country, there are a lot of places where materials could be hidden— it’s really going to be key for [Iraqi] former officials to come forward and point the United States in the right direction.

This could be an important find?

It could be. It would verify one of the key charges that the administration has made. If you verify that these labs exist, it would clearly validate one of the key administration reasons for the war. By itself, however, it isn’t enough to justify the war.

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For that, U.S. military forces are going to have to turn up a very large stockpile of chemical and biological weapons, a stockpile large enough to constitute a strategic threat to the United States and neighboring countries. A few dozen mobile labs probably won’t do it, a few hundred old chemical weapons won’t do it; the president has consistently spoken of hundreds of tons of biological agents, enough to kill millions, and hundreds of tons of chemical agents. He set the bar very high and, unfortunately, he may be held to that claim, at least internationally. Domestically, there’s probably a different standard. The American public has been so caught up in the tactical considerations of the military battle that they have lost the strategic objective, which was to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, and [they] may care less about that now than they did just a few weeks ago.

When General Amir al-Saadi, Saddam Hussein’s top science adviser, surrendered over the weekend, he still insisted Iraq doesn’t have any weapons of mass destruction.

There are two immediate possibilities to explain this statement. One, that he’s telling the truth, that they really don’t have weapons. Or two, that he’s trying to protect himself from the truth. This would give him plausible deniability, and [he could] claim that he did not know about any weapons or any programs that the United States might subsequently discover. We just don’t know yet.

And that’s the larger issue – we simply do not know how many weapons Iraq has. All the experts have assumed that Iraq still has a large quantity of chemical and biological weapons. None believes that there is a significant nuclear program, and there are varying estimates of how many long-range or medium-range or short-range missiles [Saddam] might have.

President Bush has put himself in a bit of a bind here by constantly referring to very large quantities of weapons. He’s always cited the higher end of possible estimates when he’s spoken of these programs, but the truth is we just don’t know yet. It’s equally possible that Iraq has few of these weapons. That is, Saddam may have done with his chemical and biological program what he basically did with the nuclear program, reduce it down to a core of scientists and technicians, keep designs and key materials – for example, stores of anthrax spores or chemical precursors— and simply wait for the day when sanctions would end and inspectors would leave and he could rebuild the program. Fortunately, most of these questions should be cleared up in the next few weeks and months.

What do you make of the allegations U.S. officials have made about Syria’s chemical weapons?

It’s been known for over a decade that Syria has chemical weapons. It developed a program during the eighties. Beginning in the early 1990s, U.S. intelligence reports routinely cited Syria’s development of chemical weapons. The Syrians had fitted some of their Scud missiles with chemical warheads. They’re known to have aerial bombs for chemical weapons delivery as well. The unfortunate part about this is that Syria does this completely legally.

Why is that?

Syria has not signed the chemical weapons convention, which bans the development, production, and use of chemical weapons. So Syria, like several other states in the region, including Israel and Egypt, has not joined this treaty, and has stockpiles of chemical weapons. Chemical weapons are banned by an international treaty that’s strictly voluntary. There are 145 countries that have signed it so far, but there are some notable exceptions to this.

Has the United States gotten rid of all its chemical weapons?

By far the largest stockpiles of chemical weapons are in the United States and Russia. The United States has 30,000 tons of chemical weapons; Russia has 40,000 tons of chemical weapons. Together, these account for almost 95 percent of global stockpiles. Both countries are in the process of destroying their weapons, with the United States being a little farther ahead than Russia, but both have only just begun the process, and they both hope to complete it by the end of this decade.

In an article you wrote for Arms Control Today, you express concern that the administration is focusing more on the countries that possess weapons of mass destruction than on the weapons themselves. Can you expound on that a bit?

The administration has correctly identified a number of key problems with the international non-proliferation regime, including the difficulty of enforcing many of these treaties. The administration is right; for far too long, we’ve let violators get away with these violations, or allowed the treaties to mask clandestine programs that countries were conducting.

But I fear that [administration officials] have lurched too far in the other direction, weakening the international rule of law in the process, and perhaps gone so far as to now downgrade the role of the United Nations in this process. By focusing on what they think are the key proliferation violators— Iran, Iraq, and North Korea— [U.S. officials] risk ignoring the proliferation problems that are created by other countries that have large stockpiles of nuclear, chemical, or in some case biological weapons— including Pakistan, India, and Israel— and the prominent role that nuclear weapons play in our own national security strategy.

This creates a double standard in the world, where some countries are allowed to have these weapons, while others are not. It’s a strategy of picking and choosing good guys and bad guys, which in my view will ultimately fail, in part because the good guys and bad guys keep changing. In one decade we may be allowing or even encouraging a country to have these weapons and in another decade we may find that that country is now a threat to our own security. Remember, Iraq and Iran used to be good guys. We helped both of those countries develop their deadly arsenals. Pakistan is a good guy now. That country is deeply troubled, and is in a profoundly unstable area of the world. There’s no guarantee of where Pakistan is going in the future.

But I think we need to restore a balance in our non-proliferation strategy. It’s not good enough just to go back to the treaty regime and say the treaties alone will protect us, but this synthesis between the treaty-based approach and the force-based approach has yet to be developed. To me, that’s the most urgent task facing all proliferation experts and officials over the next two years.

What’s a “force-based approach?”

I mean a strategy that relies first and even primarily on the use of force to change a regime or to eliminate a capability that we believe threatens us. A treaty-based approach would address that same threat and that same regime through multilateral instruments seeking to contain and then eliminate the threat.

The U.S. has traditionally followed the treaty-based approach?

For the past 50 years, the United States focused on a strategy that emphasizes eliminating weapons of mass destruction, and has led the way in creating treaties and international cooperative arrangements that seek to constrain proliferation of these weapons and then to eliminate these weapons entirely. This includes the non-proliferation treaty negotiated by presidents [John F.] Kennedy and [Lyndon B.] Johnson and signed by President [Richard M.] Nixon; the biological weapons convention negotiated by Richard Nixon; and the chemical weapons convention negotiated by the first President George Bush. And in this whole period, there’s been strong bipartisan support for these efforts. What changed with this administration is that we shifted the emphasis from eliminating weapons to eliminating certain regimes that have those weapons.

Do you think it’s possible or likely that the administration thinks it can pressure Syria to drop its chemical program?

Yes. It appears that the administration wants to use the momentum of victory in the Iraq war to bring change to the regime in Syria. At a minimum that means changing the regime’s policies that we disapprove of— as one official said, “Syria is behaving badly.” But that might also mean— and I think it does to some in the administration— that we now want to change the regime in Syria entirely, that the regime is part of the problem in the Middle East and it simply has to go.

Syria has for a long time harbored terrorists.

Syria doesn’t threaten the United States directly, but it clearly is a supporter of groups the United States considers terrorists or has recently officially declared as terrorists, including Hamas and Hezbollah. It does have chemical weapons, legal under international law, but again the Bush administration is now drawing a distinction between what is permitted by international law and what we as a nation will permit.

But the Syrians deny they have chemical weapons.

That’s going to be hard for them to support. There’s no evidence whatsoever that they’ve abandoned their chemical weapons program.

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