The Iraq-Israel Deterrence Relationship:
Lessons From "The Mother of All Wars"
The theory of deterrence is widely viewed as the core of modern military strategy and international relations. This theory provides an elaborate description for international conflict, and seeks to define rules by which head-on collisions and the disasters of modern warfare can be avoided.
However, despite the vast empirical and theoretical literature, many questions remain regarding the application and effectiveness of deterrence, particularly with respect to the Middle East. Some decision makers and analysts have claimed that the proliferation of missiles and chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, can create a stable "balance of terror" based on mutual deterrence in this region.0 Critics, in contrast, point to the ambiguous tenets of deterrence theory, and the difficulties in applying this theory in the context of intense ethno-national and religious disputes in the Middle East. Such conflicts are seen as emphasizing the destabilizing aspects of the "competitive risk taking" that characterizes the deterrence process. Many also question the ability of Third World leaders to act with the rationality that is essential for stable and successful mutual deterrence.
Analysis of the interaction between Iraq and Israel, both prior to and during the war, provides a case study in which to explore these issues. There are many questions regarding the purpose of the Iraqi threats to Israel and their effect on Israeli policy. Were Saddam Hussein's threats and the development of chemical weapons designed primarily to deter Israel, or for use in war fighting? Were Saddam's actions and threats consistent with those of a "rational actor" capable of calculating costs and benefits? Did the Iraqi ballistic missile attacks against Israel, and the threat to use chemical warheads, demonstrate the failure of deterrence, or was the absence of chemical attacks a demonstration of successful deterrence? How did the differences in the destructive power between nuclear and chemical weapons influence the deterrence relationship? And what are the implications of the Israeli policy of "restraint" for the future?
The Elements of Deterrence
1. Rationality and Decision-Making
The strategy of deterrence depends on the rationality of the leaders and the nature of the decision-making process. In this context, rationality in decision-making is defined as the ability to weigh options on the basis of potential costs and benefits, and consideration of the likely reaction to each move. In analyzing the history of nuclear deterrence between the US and Soviet Union, the rationality of the leaders is deemed to have played an important role.1
Critics of deterrence theory, however, argue that rationality is inherently ambiguous and that history is replete with leaders who are "risk prone" and failed to act "rationally". Hitler is often cited as an example of a leader who was willing to order the deaths of millions, without any moral limitations, and to choose suicide for himself, his regime, and German society in the effort to extend his rule.2
Many questions have been raised regarding the decision- making processes and the application of rational choice to Third World leaders. Decision-making structures in the Third World tend to be more haphazard than in the West, with less access to information, small or no professional staffs, and greater cultural insularity which prevents an understanding of the likely responses of adversaries with very different cultural norms.3 Nasser's military policies in the weeks prior to the June 1967, including the expulsion of the UN forces in Sinai and the mobilization of troops along the Israeli border, are often seen as having been taken without assessment of the risks, or preparation to respond to the likely consequences.4
In addition, deterrence theory assumes that leaders calculate costs and benefits in terms of broad national interests. However, in many states, particularly in the Middle East, the central values of leaders are often restricted to a small sub-group, specific nationality or tribe, the ruling elite, or perhaps his immediate family or his own power and personal survival. Costs and benefits to other groups are of little or no consequence. Calculated risks are taken, but the value system by which they are judged is different than in the first category.
The hyper-nationalism and with revolutionary goals of Third World leaders also can interfere with the establishment of stable deterrence. Analysts argue that the concepts of deterrence, "stability" and "unacceptable damage" are abstractions with little application in these regions.5 Deterrence generally depends on the existence of status-quo powers, and throughout the Cold War, some decision makers in the US viewed the Soviet Union as a revolutionary power, and thus, argued that the effectiveness of deterrence was limited, at best.
Many states in the Middle East are not status-quo powers, and hostility to Israel and the West seem to encourage risk- taking. In the face of revolutionary objectives, and a willingness to accept significant civilian casualties and economic destruction in order to achieve these objectives, effective deterrence is difficult.
However, a number of analysts have argued that the threat of massive destruction resulting from the proliferation of non- conventional weapons is forcing the leaders of these states to adopt more a cautious approach to decision-making. Under the threat of mutual assured destruction, the US and Soviet Union avoided direct military clashes for over forty years, despite the conflicts over Berlin, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Analysts such as Waltz and Feldman claim that with the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction, Third World leaders, including those in the Middle East, will undergo a process of "socialization" to the realities of mutual deterrence, and will act rationally.6
As will be seen below, the effort to analyze deterrence and decision-making during the Gulf War requires a consideration of these issues. For much of this period, Iraq was seen as a hyper-nationalist and revolutionary power, seeking to challenge the status quo. Israeli leaders viewed Saddam Hussein as prone to taking major risks, and willing to accept very high losses in both the civil and military sectors to achieve these goals. Armed with chemical weapons and ballistic missiles, and, in thewake of the invasion of Kuwait, already engaged in a large scale conflict with the United States and its allies, the Iraqi leader appeared to be ready to confront Israel as well. 2. Misperception and Miscalculation
To be successful, a deterring power must determine and communicate "red lines" to the challenger, in order to allow for a careful consideration of the reactions which are likely to follow from any move. However, as many analysts have noted, misperceptions and misunderstandings are not uncommon in international crises and war.7
In the Third World, and the Middle East in particular, the conditions for misunderstanding and other forms of miscommunication are greatly enhanced. The ethnic, national, religious, and linguistic divisions often lead to significant misperceptions. In many Arab and Islamic states, domestic politics is characterized by a high degree of rhetorical exaggeration, and the distinction between this internally directed rhetoric and externally directed policy is often confused.8
Deterrence failure is also often attributed to miscalculation of costs, benefits, and the likely responses to particular moves. The high degree of uncertainty and the sources of misunderstanding and misperception, combined with risk-prone decision makers contribute to tendecy for miscalculation. Nasser's actions in 1967, as well as the Israeli government's failure to recognize the probability of attack in 1973, can both be attributed, in part, to miscalculation. These factors also played a role in the Iraqi- Israeli deterrence relationship prior to and during the Gulf War.
Deterrence in the Gulf War
The Uniqueness of the Israel-Iraq Deterrence Relationship
In responding to the military threat from the Arab states, Israeli leaders have relied heavily on deterrence, mixed with preemptive and defensive strategies.9 Policy- makers have attempted to demonstrate that Israel possesses and is willing to use the force deemed necessary to make attacks too costly to contemplate. In the past, the IDF responded to infiltration and terrorism with large-scale reprisals ("deterrence by punishment"), designed to deter further attacks.10 Israel has promised massive retaliation, and analysts have attributed the low level of attacks on Israeli cities to this threat.
The Israel-Iraq case, however, is distinct from the others. Although Iraqi forces have participated in most of the major Arab-Israeli wars, (including 1948, 1967, and 1973), Iraq shares no border with Israel and, at its closest approach, is still some 500 kilometers from Israeli territory. Iraqi forces have joined Jordanian and Syrian forces in past wars, but by itself, Iraq was not generally a primary threat to Israel until the end of the 1980s.
As a result, the history of the Iraqi-Israeli deterrence relationship, in general, and with the regime headed by Saddam Hussein, in particular, is very limited. There have been decades of interactions between Israel and Syria, as well as Israel and Egypt, and the nature of the deterrence relationship, red-lines, etc. have been analyzed in great detail.11 In these cases, the sources of uncertainties, misunderstanding and miscalculation that can lead to accidental war and uncontrolled escalation have been somewhat ameliorated. In contrast, the direct deterrence relationship with Iraq was new and there is little experience to guide these confrontations and prevent them from growing out of control.
When the history of interaction is limited, and there is track-record by which to predict or understand behavior, the uncertainty and possibilities for misunderstanding or miscalculation increase. Israel had little direct knowledge of Saddam Hussein by which to assess his behavior and cost/benefit calculations, or to interpret his signals. Similarly, the Iraqi leadership had little direct knowledge of Israeli leaders, their behavior, concerns, and capabilities. Thus, the strong tendencies towards misperception and miscalculation that are already present in all aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict were exacerbated in this confrontation. The Question of Saddam's Rationality
As noted, rationality in decision-making and the weighing of risks and benefits are important requirements for successful deterrence. During the interaction between Iraq and Israel, beginning in the late 1980s (following the end of the Iran-Iraq war), there were considerable indications that Saddam was willing to risk everything, including his regime and life. In his invasion of Iran a decade earlier, and in the production and wide-spread use of chemical weapons, Saddam had already shown a proclivity for risk taking, and for challenging the status quo.
Following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, and the developing confrontation between US and Iraq, Saddam seemed to be increasingly "risk prone" and irrational. During this period, his behavior could not be described as prudent. On April 2 1990, Saddam made an inflammatory speech that increased Israeli concern regarding his intentions and willingness to take enormous risks. He announced the development of binary chemical agents, and threatened to use them to "make the fire consume half of Israel". He called on the Iraqi people to sacrifice themselves in a "Holy Jihad". These declarations received wide support, and the Iraqi leader's challenge to Israel and the West resonated throughout the Arab world.
As in the case of Nasser in the 1960s, this enthusiasm seemed to encourage Saddam to expand on these themes. On April 17, he threatened to strike "with all our missiles, bombs, and all our resources".12 As a result, Israeli analysts had reason to conclude that the distinction between the boastful rhetoric and the limitations of reality was unclear, and that Saddam believed his own propaganda. During this period, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir referred to Saddam as a "madman".13
Given the brutality of his regime, it was clear that the interest of the Iraqi people was not the major factor in Saddam's calculus. During the war, the bombing of cities and military targets, the destruction of major economic faciliites, and the risk of large casualties, did not seem to effect his policies. The risk of death for large numbers of Kurdish and Shia citizens in the north and south of Iraq was also not a major factor in his decision-making.
As the war continued, analysts analysts frequently asked what would happen if Baghdad was threatened by American troops, or if Saddam himself was threatened with disgrace, arrest and trial for war crimes, or death. This was the most dangerous time for the region, because at this stage, the Iraqi leader might use CW or any other weapons in his arsenal to preserve his regime. If Israeli leaders thought this likely, and decided that Saddam could not be deterred, and that an unacceptable Iraqi attack was highly likely or inevitable, they might well have chosen to execute a large- scale pre-emptive attack.14 Many analysts, particularly in Israel, argued that Saddam's actions and threats did not suggest the presence of a careful decision maker weighing costs and benefits in his actions, and their likely consequences. Thus, questions regarding Saddam's rationality, and whether there were limits to his actions, were a source of dangerous instability.
However, the Iraqi leader's behavior in the last phase of the war and its aftermath, provided evidence he was not, in fact, entirely irrational and suicidal, and could make the calculations necessary to save his life and regime. Although he adopted a high-risk strategy, he was able to take prudent steps in order to save his regime and himself. He did not use CBW or warheads, and did not mistreat prisoners, which could have led to arrest and trial for war crimes.
Indeed, the major turning point in Saddam's policies took place when the survival of the ruling elite was threatened. In mid-February, a US bomb exploded inside a bunker in Baghdad that held families of key personnel in the regime. A few days later, (February 15), Saddam provided the first indication that he might be willing to pull out of Kuwait. For the first time, the risks and the costs of war had become large enough to cause a change in his policy. Two weeks later, the American terms for a cease fire were accepted unconditionally, thereby enabling Saddam to preserve his regime and perhaps his own life. Confusion and Inconsistency in Iraqi Policies
As noted above, the absence of a track record in the Israeli-Iraqi deterrence relationship was a major source of confusion and misperception. These were exacerbated by the inconsistency and confusion that characterized Saddam Hussein's signals and threats. Many of his announcements and policy statements were contradictory.
In some cases, Iraqi spokesmen and policy makers sought to use the language of deterrence with respect to Israel. For example, in some declarations, Iraqi threats to use weapons of mass destruction were linked to retaliation in response to possible Israeli nuclear attacks. Iraqi analysts spoke of "rational calculations", second-strike weapons, and deterrence based on a form of mutual assured destruction.15 Iraq even used the language of "extended deterrence", and on April 22 1990, the head of the Iraqi Air Force declared that if Israel attacks Iraq or any other Arab state, the Iraqis will "not hesitate to destroy any target in Israel."16 Similarly, the effort to acquire nuclear weapons was explained as a means of balancing the Israeli nuclear capability.17 On April 17 1990, Saddam Hussein declared that Iraqi atomic weapons are needed "keep the peace and prevent 'Israel' from using [its own] atomic bomb".18
However, the Iraqi efforts to couch military strategy in terms of deterrence were fundamentally inconsistent with the clearly revolutionary objectives that Saddam continued to pursue. Over the previous decade, the policy was visible in the invasion of Iran, the massive effort to acquire tremendous stockpiles of conventional weapons, chemical agents, missiles, and biological as well as nuclear weapons, the growing involvement in Jordan, and, more recently, the invasion of Kuwait. These actions all demonstrated a total rejection of the status quo.
This revolutionary objective also applied to Israel. In contrast to the threats linked to deterrence, at other times, Iraqi spokesmen declared that chemical weapons, missiles, and the continuing nuclear effort were designed "to put an end to Israel's arrogance" and to stop "the flow of Soviet Jewish immigrants".19 Iraqi military activities seemed to indicate preparations for a first strike. The Iraqi Air Force conducted reconnaissance overflights along the Jordan river, and Saddam declared that "Iraq knows every inch of Palestinian soil. It knows every airport, every air base, industrial installation, and research center. We have succeeded in photographing all the targets we need within Israel."20 Iraqi ground forces were also involved in joint exercises with the Jordanian forces, and the new highway between Baghdad and Amman (on which Scud missiles, components, and fuel were transported during the war) was designed to carry hundreds of armored vehicles in a very short time to the Israeli front. These activities increased Israeli concerns that Iraq might adopt a first strike strategy.
Saddam Hussein's large scale effort to develop nuclear weapons were also included in this equation. He declared that the acquisition of nuclear weapons would end the "opium that drugged the Arab mind" and that dulled the fight to reject Israel's existence.21 In May 1990, he pledged to liberate Jerusalem and Palestine.22 Thus, instead of deterrence, Israeli leaders had evidence to believe that the Iraqi CBW and nuclear weapons efforts were primarily designed to provide the basis for a military challenge.
The Iraqi response to Israeli deterrence efforts were also inconsistent. Some Iraqi spokesmen credited Israel with an effective deterrent, stating that Israeli nuclear weapons "killed the spirit of rejection [of Israel's existence] and revolt, and murdered [Arab] thinking." This Israeli capability prevented the Arabs "from bold action".23 But other Iraqi officials argued that due to its small size, Israel is unable to adopt a second strike strategy.24 Iraq, they claimed, possessed an advantage that could be exploited in an attack against Israel.
Thus, policy pronouncements reinforce the impression that the concepts of deterrence, and the nature of the Israeli threat of massive retaliation, were not well understood by the Iraqi leader. Together, this evidence suggests that Saddam Hussein did not formulate "a theory of deterrence", and that the use of these terms was an affectation, and not a basis for policy. In invading Iran and, a decade later, Kuwait, Saddam's policies were active, and deterrence was not a major component of these policies. Confusion and Inconsistency in Israeli Policies
At the beginning of this interaction, Israeli leaders emphasized deterrence in responding to the threat from Iraqi chemical weapons. In March 1988, IDF Chief of Staff Dan Shomron sought to remind Saddam Hussein of this Israeli policy. "Of course, in 1973, during the Yom Kippur war, the Arab countries possessed gas.... But they never used it, and there is a reason for this. This type of weapon invites [a] very harsh reaction."25 In an interview with the Israeli daily Ha'aretz on June 22, 1988, Defense Minister Rabin threatened that if Iraq used chemical weapons, Israel would retaliate "tenfold". In a radio interview during same month, Rabin declared "One of our fears is that the Arab world and its leaders might be deluded to believe that the lack of international reaction to the use of missiles and gases gives them some kind of legitimization to use them. They know they should not be deluded to believe that, because it is a whole different ball game when it comes to us. If they are, God forbid, they should know we will hit them back 100 times harder."26
However, after the invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, the emphasis on deterrence declined, as defensive measures were increased. In October 1990, the government decided to distribute gas masks to all Israeli citizens.27 After the first Iraqi Scuds fell on Tel Aviv, additional defense measures were taken, including the deployment of a number of American Patriot anti-missile batteries.
There is an inherent tension and even contradiction between deterrence and defense, and the credibility of the preemptive and retaliatory threats are weakened by the availability of a defensive alternative. Indeed, for this reason, Defense Minister Arens and Chief of Staff Shomron opposed the distribution of gas masks (which, in any case, were of questionable effectiveness, and caused panic.)28 In other words, when Israel decided to devote greater resources to defense, this served as a signal that in some conditions, the decision makers might be willing to absorb a chemical first-strike. (Similarly, during the 1960s and 1970s, while the US emphasized a strategy of massive retaliation to deter a Soviet nuclear strike, resources devoted to civil defense were minimal. Some strategic analysts argued that if civil defense was seen as a realistic option, it would weaken deterrence.) In preparing to absorb a chemical attack, Israel was also signaling a lower probability of preemption and massive retaliation.29 The overall result was one of confusion and inconsistency in Israeli policy.
When the war began, and Israeli cities became targets for Iraqi Scuds, Israeli leaders were forced to develop a response. In general, there are two broad approaches for such situations; raising the stakes by meeting the threat with a counter-threat, or seeking to lower the tension by "de- escalating". The first option risks the possibility of an uncontrolled "conflict spiral", but the second option could be perceived as weakness and appeasement. Both paths are designed to increase deterrence, but either could also lead to war.
The statements made by Israeli policy makers during this period was inconsistent, combining elements of both approaches. As noted above, throughout 1990, including the final weeks before the American attack, political and military leaders made an effort to strengthen deterrence. At the same time, these statements and warnings were highly ambiguous. No specific weapons were mentioned, leaving the impression that Israel might respond conventionally to missile and even CW attacks. As the January 15 deadline approached, Israeli leaders declared that in the event of an Iraqi attack, the response would not be automatic, but would depend on the specific circumstances.30 The overall result was one of confusion.
In general, the Israeli response of restraint and the adoption of a "low profile" throughout the war can be characterized as de-escalatory. No blatant military moves were taken and no large-scale maneuvers were held. As noted, gas masks were distributed and the population was prepared to deal with the possibility of a CW attack. The adoption of passive defensive measures reinforced the de-escalatory tendency of Israeli actions and policies.
During the war, as missiles hit Tel-Aviv and Ramat Gan, the Israeli dilemma increased. On the one hand, the leaders were faced with pressures to respond, in a manner consistent with the Israeli policy of self-defense. At the same time, they also knew that the purpose of the missile attacks was precisely to bring Israel into the war, in the hope of destroying the American-led coalition. Strategically, it made more sense for Israel to act with restraint, and allow the United States to destroy the Iraqi threat. In addition, given the scale of the coalition bombing, Saddam apparently believed that limited Israeli action against military targets in the West would not add significantly to the military damage. In these circumstances, Israeli deterrence options against attack by conventionally armed missiles were very limited.
The threat of chemical attack, however, continued, and Israeli threats with respect to this threat were more explicit and consistent, as noted above. In the period immediately prior to the beginning of the ground war, the possibility of an Iraqi chemical attack against Israel was deemed to be relatively high. At this stage, Prime Minister Shamir made one of his only public statements during the war, declaring that Israel was ready, if necessary, to intervene, and "we are ready for any eventuality".31 On televison, Israeli officials and officers were inteviewed against a background of combat aircraft on alert.
Throughout this period, the role of the Israeli nuclear deterrent remained "in the basement." Israel has been credited with a nuclear capability for many years, but there have been no public acknowledgements or tests. Most Israeli analysts have assumed that this situation is sufficient to provide a deterrent against "existential attacks" that threaten the survival of the state.32 The confrontation with Iraq raised some questions regarding the viability of this strategy. The threats to "make the fire consume half of Israel", to "direct crushing blows to the dens of the Israelis", and to turn Tel Aviv into "a crematorium" seemed to indicate that perhaps the nuclear capability was, in fact, too ambiguous to deter an Iraqi attack (or, as noted earlier, that Saddam was not deterable).
Nevertheless, the Israeli government did not make any explicit threat to use nuclear weapons, (but these were also not explicitly ruled out.) However, in this area, as well, the overall Israeli policy was confusing. Just prior to the war, IDF Chief of Staff Shomron made a statement that "Israel would not be the first country to use atomic weapons", and this was repeated by the Israeli ambassadors in Washington and Brussels. This seemed to indicate a softening of the Israeli position, which had left the option of "first-use" demonstrably open. Later, government officials issued a correction, restating the deliberately ambiguous policy that Israel would not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons, but again not renouncing the possibility of first use.
The possibility of a nuclear response to a large-scale chemical attack was discussed widely in the international press and in non-official Israeli sources.33 In a television interview on February 2, US Secretary of Defense Cheney was asked whether he thought Israel would respond to chemical attacks with nuclear weapons, and, while not providing a specific answer, he warned Saddam to be cautious.34 Although there is no evidence that this statement was coordinated with Israel, it served to reinforce the ambiguous retaliatory threat. In addition, this threat may have been reinforced when Israeli reportedly tested a Jericho missile in early January, a few days before the beginning of the war.
Communication of Intentions: The Language of Threats
As noted above, the language of communications is an important element of the deterrence process. Language and its context can be a source of misunderstanding and misperception, which increase the probability of deterrence failure. This is indeed the case with respect to the relationship between Israel and Iraq during this period.
The specific language of Saddam's April 2 1990 speech, in which he declared that "we will make fire consume half of Israel" had a major impact. Given the history of Arab efforts to destroy the Jewish state, and the background of the Nazi Holocaust, the threat of chemical and gas attack is viewed with particular alarm in Israel. This, in turn, greatly increased the prospects of a preventive Israeli attack.
As tension in the region increased following the invasion of Kuwait, the language of Iraqi threats became more threatening. General Amid Shaaban declared that in the event of an American attack, Iraq would respond with "direct crushing blows to the dens of the Israelis".35 At the beginning of the war, following the first missile attacks on Israel, official Iraqi announcements declared that Tel Aviv had been turned into "a crematorium".36
After the war began, and it was clear that the Iraqi military was unable to provide any defense against the allied air attacks, and that Israel would not be drawn into a response to the conventionally armed Scud attacks, the Iraqi government announced the existence of a "secret weapon" that had not been revealed before and that can "decide the fate of the battle." A few weeks later, Saddam dramatically asked "the people of justice" to forgive the Iraqis "for any actions that they will take".37 Many observers, particularly in Israel, understood this to indicate preparations for use of CBW or even nuclear weapons.
The impact of the language of these threats was reinforced by the Iraqi military actions and preparations. Iraq had already used chemical weapons and missiles against Iran, and had deployed and tested an extensive network of ballistic missile lancers in the West, near the Jordanian border. By following through on many of his past threats, including the warning that if the US attacked Iraq, missiles would be used against Israeli cities, Saddam had established a reputation of high credibility for his threats.38 Before the war, he boasted of "secret mobile launchers that could not be detected" and, indeed, most escaped detection and destruction during six weeks of concerted efforts by allied forces. The Iraqi leader was perceived to be in a desperate situation, and this perception reinforced the credibility of these threats. The very credibility of the Iraqi military threat increased Israeli concerns and instability in the relationship, and led to further discussions of a possible preventive strike.
As noted above, historically, the failure of deterrence has often been the result of a combination of a willingness to take risks, coupled with the miscalculation of the capabilities and intentions of opponents.39 Throughout the period before and during the war, Saddam Hussein appeared to miscalculate the capabilities of his own forces, and the probability, as well as the extent of the response. The Iraqi leader miscalculated Iran's ability to repulse the Iraqi invasion, miscalculated the nature of the American response to the invasion of Kuwait, and miscalculated the ability of the Iraqi military to inflict damage on the American and allied forces.
With respect to Israel, and perhaps in dealing with the United States, Saddam seemed to place a high value on the impact of his CBW capability. In his April 2 1990 speech, and again a few days later, the Iraqi leader threatened to use CW in retaliation for an Israeli attack, apparently attempting to deter attacks on Iraqi missile sites or CBW and nuclear weapons facilities.40 The official Iraqi press followed by declaring that chemical weapons could deter conventional Israeli attacks and that Iraq had reached the stage of strategic parity with Israel.41
Most of the Iraqi CW capability was based on delivery by long-range bombers, or the use of artillery shells. For the former to damage Israel, the Iraqi Air Force would have had to penetrate Israel's formidable air defense system. To fire artillery shells into Israel, Iraqi ground forces would have to be deployed within Jordan. During the war, neither provided a credible threat, particularly after most of the Iraqi heavy bombers escaped to Iran in the first days of the war, and Iraqi ground forces were deployed far away from the Western border.
Saddam did have increased-range, reduced-payload Scud-B missiles, (the Al-Abbas and Al-Hussein) that could potentially deliver an unknown and untested chemical warhead, as well as unknown biological and perhaps nuclear capabilities. However, the damage that could have been caused by CW delivered by these missiles was inherently low.
During this period, it was also possible to conclude that the Iraqi leadership did not comprehend the destructive power of the Israeli nuclear retaliatory threat. The construction of "radiation-proof" bomb shelters for the elite (that were penetrated by US conventional weapons), and many statements seemed to show that the regime (if not the rest of Iraq) thought it could survive a nuclear war with Israel. Evacuation exercises were conducted from some Baghdad neighborhoods, and preparations against atomic attack were discussed.42 While it is possible that the Iraqis publicly denigrated the danger of nuclear weapons in order to lower the impact of the Israeli deterrence threat, miscalculation is consistent with the other examples cited above.
Once the war began, Saddam acted more cautiously with respect to Israel, and did not "miscalculate" with respect to the use of chemical weapons. The use of missiles armed with conventional warheads was designed specifically to bring an Israeli response, in the hope of forcing the Arab states to end cooperation with the United States and the other coalition members. Here, he miscalculated, but in a way that showed that the Israeli retaliatory threat was highly credible.
The Ambiguous Deterrent Provided by Chemical Weapons
The possibility of miscalculation was increased by the uncertainty that surrounding the use of chemical weapons. Deterrence is generally considered to be most effective when the threat of punishment is greatest, and in the case of the assured destruction of nuclear weapons, in particular. The use of such weapons would obliterate entire cities, and, in some circumstances, destroy the target states. Conventional weapons, in contrast, are generally linked to a strategy of "deterrence by denial", in which the military force is used to deny the challenger the ability to achieve his military and political goals.
Chemical weapons do not fit neatly in this dichotomous model. The Iraq-Israel confrontation focused discussion on the role of CBW as "weapons of mass destruction" that can be used against civilian ("counter value") targets to kill on a large scale. Relatively small amounts of material can potentially injure tens of thousands of people in densely populated cities and on the battlefield. CW attacks during World War I severely injured over one million. In the Iraqi chemical attacks on Halabja, over 5000 Kurds reportedly were killed.
There has been no effort to use CW as a countervalue weapon, and estimates of the effectiveness of such attacks vary. The number of casualties that would result from an attack against civilians depends to a very great extent on the nature of the chemical agent, the altitude and form of the dispersal, the weather conditions, warning time, available protective equipment, and post-attack treatment. According to published statements, Israeli policy was initially based on the assumption that a single chemical warhead detonated over Tel Aviv could cause "several thousand casualties",43 but these estimates were later reduced to the level of hundreds of casualties. This is an indication of the uncertainty that surrounds the deterrent effect of chemical weapons.
Evaluation and Implications
Did Deterrence succeed?
Saddam did not use chemical weapons in this war, and it is NOW clear that he had some technical capability to equip Scud missiles with CW warheads.44 As in other cases, the role of deterrence is difficult to ascertain with any certainty,45 but given the available evidence, it is possible to attribute Iraqi behavior to the credibility of the Israeli threats of massive retaliation. (Other explanations for Iraqi inaction exist, including questions regarding the effectiveness of the untested warheads, or the technical inability to launch them under the pressure of allied bombardment and the chaos of the war in Iraq.)
At the same time, Israeli deterrence efforts did not prevent the conventionally armed Scud missile attacks against Israeli population centers. This marked the first time in over 40 years of warfare that Israeli cities had been subject to extended attack. To a major degree, this can be attributed to the particular circumstances of this conflict. In this case, as in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, deterrence failed because the prospects of a military exchange with Israel were seen as the preferred option. As noted, Saddam apparently hoped that by attacking Israel and drawing a limited counterattack, the coalition would be split. Thus, the launch of missiles with conventional warheads in these particular circumstances cannot be attributed to the failure of deterrence.
The Israeli Policy of Restraint
While the Israeli decision to adopt a defensive strategy, and the rejection of preemption or retaliation, resulted from the particular circumstances, there is concern about the long- term impact. In the Arab and Islamic world, Israel's apparent reliance on the United States for defense against Arab attack could be interpreted as weakness and lack of resolve.46 Since 1948, the Israeli deterrent has been based on the policy of independent defense and large-scale retaliation. If the Arabs conclude that Israel was no longer able to act independently, and the US could and would prevent Israel from responding to attack, the credibility of the deterrent would be undermined. For this reason, in the last week of the war, Israeli leaders such as Defense Minister Moshe Arens considered the possibility of a ground and air attack on Western Iraq. The impact of a strictly passive response to attack was considered to be dangerous in the long term.
The absence of a military response to the chemical threat and missile attacks was and continues to be very controversial. The basic "raison d'etre" of Israel is protect the Jewish people from the pogroms and mass murder of the diaspora. In newspaper articles and radio discussions, many Israelis, including prominent intellectuals and those associated with the political left, discussed the implications of the absence of a military response. Since the end of the war, Israeli leaders have repeatedly declared that in the event of additional attacks, Israel would respond forcefully.
The Impact on Deterrence
This war illustrated the inherent instability in the relationship between Israel and Iraq. Although Iraq did not use chemical weapons, and that Israel did not react to the threat of such attacks, the particular circumstances of this case do not provide clear evidence for the claim that "the proliferation of chemically-armed ballistic missiles may not be as destabilizing and dangerous as many observers expect."47
However, the events surrounding the war did show that although Saddam Hussein was willing to take very high risks, he was not irrational or suicidal, and was capable of stopping just short of complete catastrophe. His policies were marked by inconsistency and apparent miscalculation, and, like Nasser, seemed to swept away by his own propaganda. The enthusiasm with which his exaggerations regarding Iraqi technological and military capabilities were greeted in the Arab world made it difficult for him to retreat, and once "out on a limb" the risks of war might have been seen as preferable to backing down.
On the Israeli side, while the "red line" regarding the use of chemical weapons seem to have been strengthened, there is also concern that, despite the unique circumstances, the credibility of Israeli deterrence has been undermined. Iran or Syria may conclude that Israel is vulnerable to threats of attacks from missile and CW, and Damascus and Teheran have rushed to purchase longer-range missiles from North Korea.
Given the problematics of deterrence, Israeli decision makers are likely to conclude that if deterrence is to succeed in similar cases, it will be necessary to know and threaten the personal value systems of the decision makers. General threats to retaliate against Iraqi military targets or the civilian population were not effective, but more specific threats to the regime and to Saddam himself appeared to have been sufficient to cause a more careful assessment of costs and benefits.
The inconsistency that Saddam displayed, his high-risk strategy, and the propensity towards miscalculation, raises additional questions for Israel. As noted above, Saddam's actions prior to and at the beginning stages of the war even raised some questions regarding the deterrence value of Israel's still ambiguous nuclear capability. However, the evidence also indicates that the American military action had the effect of forcing Saddam to "recalculate", and eventually retreat, at least temporarily. Once it became clear that his policies threatened his regime, his family, and risked his own survival, and that he had little chance of achieving his goals, he reversed course and behaved rationally.
Large-scale military action is the result of the failure of deterrence. Given the tendency towards miscalculation of intentions and military capabilities, alternative policies must be considered. For example, by raising the visibility and credibility of the threat, short of a direct attack, it may be possible to lower the probability of deterrence failure due to miscalculation of risks and technical capabilities, or the misunderstanding of the intentions of the other side.
Alternatives to Deterrence
To the degree that deterrence in this case is seen to have been uncertain, Israel will consider other strategic options. If there is a high probability that deterrence will fail, alternative strategies, based on preventive attack and defense will be adopted. Indeed, in 1967, Israeli decision makers concluded that deterrence would not succeed, and that an Arab attack was imminent, leading to an Israeli preemptive attack. Similarly, in 1981, the Begin government concluded that deterrence was inadequate in dealing with the Iraqi nuclear weapons efforts, and therefore destroyed the Iraqi reactor complex.
In this case, it is possible and even likely that had Iraq not invaded Kuwait, and the US forces not attacked Iraq, Israeli leaders might have decided that the benefits of a preventive strike outweighed the risks of a possible Iraqi counterstrike. The Israelis were also aware of the real limits of current Iraqi military capabilities, including the relatively limited impact of chemical weapons, as well as the projected growth in this threat over the next few years.
In summary, this Iraqi-Israeli interaction during the war did not provide much clear evidence by which to resolve the central questions regarding the role of deterrence in the Middle East. While the Saddam Hussein's proclivity towards high risk policies was reinforced, his actions also demonstrated that the level of risks is limited and that he is capable of stopping short of actions that would endanger his regime and his own life. The particular circumstances of the war also make it difficult to assess the role of chemical weapons in the deterrence equation, but this case appears to reinforce the view that the threat of CW is not comparable in any way to the threat of nuclear retaliation.
Finally, the existing Israeli deterrence capability was shown to be sufficient, at least in the case, to prevent the use of chemical weapons, but not necessarily enough to dissuade conventionally armed missile attacks on Israeli cities. The incentives and tendencies for Israeli preemption against missiles and other non-conventional weapons have been increased by the events of this war. In a broader sense, these events have increased the proclivity towards strategic instability in an already highly unstable region.
0- See Shai Feldman, Israeli Nuclear Deterrence, Columbia University Press, New York, 1982, p.45; and Thomas McNaugher, "Ballistic Missiles and Chemical Weapons: The Legacy of the Iran-Iraq War", International Security, Fall 1990, p.7.
1- The literature on this topic is vast and growing continuously. See, for example, Alexander L. George and Richard Smoke, Deterrence in American Foreign Policy, Columbia University Press, New York, 1974; Robert Jervis, The Illogic of American Nuclear Strategy, (Ithaca, N.Y., Cornell University Press, 1984)
2- See Richard Ned Lebow and Janice Gross Stein, "Rational Deterrence Theory: I Think, Therefore I Deter", World Politics 41 January 1989 p. 210
3- See, for example, Michael Mandelbaum "International Stability and Nuclear Order", in Nuclear Weapons and World Politics: Alternatives for the Future edited by David Gompert, New York, McGraw Hill, 1977, p.66; and Robert Jervis, "Rational Deterrence: Theory and Evidence", World Politics 41 January 1989 p.200.
4- Richard B. Parker. "The June 1967 War: Some Mysteries Explored", Middle East Journal Vol. 46, No. 2, Spring 1967, pp. 177-197; Janice Gross Stein, "Calculation, Miscalculation, and Conventional Deterrence I: The View from Cairo", Psychology and Deterrence, Robert Jervis, Richard Ned Lebow, Janice Gross Stein, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985
5- Alan Platt, editor, "Report of the Study Group on Multilateral Arms Transfer Guidelines for the Middle East", Stimson Center Report, Washington DC, May 1992, p.16; Steven David, "Why the Third World Still Matters", International Security, Winter 1992/3
6- Kenneth Waltz, The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May be Better, Adelphi Paper No. 171, (London, IISS, 1981); see also Stephen Van Evra, "Primed for Peace", International Security Vol.15. No.3 Winter 1990/1; and Feldman, 1981, p.148
7- Robert Jervis, "Rational Deterrence: Theory and Evidence", World Politics 41 January 1989 p.203
8- Steven David, "Why the Third World Still Matters", International Security, Winter 1992/3.
9- Efraim Inbar and Shmuel Sandler, "Israeli Deterrence Revisited" Security Studies, Vol. 2, Fall 1992
10- Jonathan Shimshoni, Israel and Conventional Deterrence, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, N.Y. 1988
11- See, for example, Yair Evron, War and Intervention in Lebanon: The Israeli-Syrian Deterrence Dialogue Johns-Hopkins University Press, 1987; Micha Bar, Red Lines in Israel's Deterrence Strategy, Ma'arachot, Tel Aviv, 1990; Avner Yaniv, Deterrence without the Bomb Lexington, 1987; Jonathan Shimshoni, Israel Conventional Deterrence, Cornell University Press, 1988
12- Iraqi News Agency, April 17, 1990, FBIS April 18, 1990, pp.14- 15 (Cited by Baram)
13- Quoted in The Guardian August 31 1990 (cited by Navias, fn. 27)
14- See Navias, p.14
15- Al-Jumhuriyya, May 20 1990 (Cited by Baram)
16- Radio Monte Carlo in Arabic, April 22 1990, FBIS April 23, 1990, p.13 (Cited by Baram)
17- Iraqi News Agency, June 23, 1981, and Baghdad Radio, June 23 1981 (Cited by Baram)
18- Al-Tahwra April 17, 1990, p.3 (Cited by Baram)
19- Al-Muharrir (Beirut and Paris), May 8 1990 (cited by Baram)
20- General Muzahim Sab Hasan, Hurrase al-Watan, April 22, 1990; al-Muharrir, May 8 1990, translation in FBIS May 9, 1990, pp.4- 5. (Cited by Baram)
21- Sabah al-Lami, Hurras al-Watan May 13, 1990 (Cited by Baram)
22- Amman Television, Feb. 24, 1990, FBIS Feb. 27, 1990, p.1 (Cited by Baram)
23- Sabah al-Lami, Hurras-al-Watan May 13 1990 (Cited by Baram)
24- Major General Ibrahim, Qadisiyya, April 14, 1990. (Cited by Baram)
25- Israeli Army Radio, translated in FBIS-NEA March 10, 1988, p.37, cited by Mike Eisenstadt, "The Sword of the Arabs:" Iraq's Strategic Weapons, Washington Institute Policy Paper 21, Washington DC 1990, p.54
26- Rabin in FBIS-NEA July 21, 1988, pp.28-9, cited by Eisenstadt, p.54
27- For a detailed analysis of this policy, see Gerald Steinberg, "The Iraqi Chemical Threat During the Second Gulf War: Israeli Perceptions and Reactions" Proceedings 3rd Annual Conference on Chemical Warfare, "The 2nd Gulf War and the CBW Threat: The Impact on Threat Perception, Proliferation, Disarmament and European Security", Vrije Universiteit Brussel, forthcoming
28- Ha'aretz, 21 October 1991, p.1 and 3
29- This point was repeated by Brig. Gen. (Res.) Aharon Levran, "Return the Gas Masks", Jerusalem Post December 13 1992
30- See, for example, the statement by COS Dan Shomron, reported in the Jerusalem Post, September 17, 1990; and by Defense Minister Arens, in Ma'ariv, December 30, 1990.
31- Shamir Interview with Arabic Service, Israeli Television, Feb. 21 1991 (Cited by Baram)
32- Gerald Steinberg, "Israeli Nuclear Ambiguity: Evolution and Evaluation", in Security or Armageddon: Israel's Nuclear Strategy, Ed. Louis Rene Beres, Lexington Books, 1985, pp.29-44; Yair Evron, Israeli's Nuclear Dilemma, (Hebrew) Hakibutz Hameuchad, Israel, 1987; and Shai Feldman, 1992
33- See, for example, Navias, Saddam's Scud War, p.7-8; and Peter Herby, The Chemical Weapons Convention and Arms Control in the Middle East Oslo, International Peace Research Institute, 1992
34- CNN, "Evans and Novak", February 2, 1991
35- International Herald Tribune, August 31, 1991
36- Baghdad Radio, January 19 1991, cited by Navias
37- The Iraqi General Command Communique No. 25 as reported in HaAretz, Jan. 28, 1991 (Cited by Baram)
38- See Navias, Saddam's Scud War, p.12
39- See, for example, Robert Jervis, Perception and Misperception in International Politics, Princeton University Press, 1976
40- Iraqi News Agency, April 8, 9. 10, 1990. (Cited by Baram)
41- Hurras al-Watan, April 8, 1990. (Cited by Baram)
42- al-Thawra June 16, 1987 (Cited by Baram)
43- Cited by Mike Eisenstadt, "The Sword of the Arabs:" Iraq's Strategic Weapons, Washington Institute Policy Paper 21, Washington DC 1990 ,p.53
44- United Nations inspectors confirmed the existence of these chemical warheads, although they were unevenly filled, and would probably have proven unstable and highly inaccurate. Cited by Martin Navias, "Weapons for the Weak: Reflections on the Uses of Ballistic Missiles and Non-Conventional Weaponry during the War over Kuwait", in Non-Conventional Weapons Proliferation in the Middle East, edited by Efraim Karsh, et al, Oxford University Press, 1993
45- See discussion of this issue by Lebow and Stein, "Rational Deterrence Theory: I Think, Therefore I Deter"
46- Inbar and Sandler, "Israeli Deterrence Revisited" Security Studies, Vol. 2, Fall 1992
47- Thomas McNaugher, "Ballistic Missiles and Chemical Weapons: The Legacy of the Iran-Iraq War", International Security, Fall 1990, p.26