A Sober Assessment of the Iraqi Threat

Now that the panic over a possible U.S. strike against Iraq has subsided, it is worth taking a more realistic look at the danger to Israel posed by Saddam Hussein. The Israeli public was understandably anxious and rushed out to get gas masks while, here in America, the pro-Israel community ginned up the propaganda machine in support of President Clinton in the hope of encouraging strong action to eliminate Saddam or at least his nonconventional weapons.

Iraq’s capabilities have long been overestimated, though as Hirsh Goodman noted in the Jerusalem Report, Menachem Begin’s understanding of the country’s potential nuclear capability and courage to destroy it may have saved Israel and much of the region from a catastrophe. George Bush exaggerated Saddam’s nuclear capability a decade later when it became clear he was having difficulty generating public support for a war. Though Operation Desert Storm did not eliminate Saddam or his entire arsenal, it did cripple his ability to pose a serious threat to Israel.

Just before the UN Secretary-General negotiated an end to the standoff with Iran, Avihu Bin-Nun, the former commander of the Israeli Air Force, told the Jerusalem Report Iraq did not have any missiles that could reach Israel. He noted that Scuds cannot travel far enough, only the joining of two Scuds (what Iraq called the “El Hussein”) had the capability and Iraq no longer had the facilities to put them together.

Bin-Nun also downplayed the danger posed by Iraqi nonconventional weapons. Much of the tension in Israel before the war was prompted by the UN chief weapons inspector Richard Butler’s comment that Saddam had enough biological weapons to wipe out Tel Aviv. According to Bin-Nun, “nothing has changed in the past six or seven years in this area. He didn’t have the capacity then to spread chemical or biological agents before the missile hit the ground, and it is unlikely that he has it now. It’s not something you can develop in some little underground workshop.”

Moshe Arens, Israel’s Defense Minister at the time of the Gulf War, wrote in the Jerusalem Post that “Iraq’s capability to inflict damage on us is practically nonexistent.” He implied that Israel’s real protection against nonconventional weapons is not U.S. troops or gas masks, but Israel’s nuclear deterrent.

Ironically, the only country that suffered from the crisis with Iraq was Israel. Without firing a shot, Saddam cost Israel approximately half a billion dollars in lost productivity and tourism. Worse, Arens noted, the fact that Israelis were visibly panicked undermined the nation’s image of strength and self-confidence, a phenomenon that did not go unnoticed in the Arab world.

The desire to see Israel’s enemies vanquished, or at least weakened, leads many of its friends to exaggerate the threats it faces. This undermines Israel’s image as a regional power and creates a false or exaggerated sense of danger. It’s no wonder that American Jews are usually the first to cancel trips to Israel.

Israel certainly has enemies and faces threats from terrorists and hostile neighbors. It isn’t necessary to create straw bogeymen to help raise a few bucks or win sympathy. Sober assessments of capabilities will reveal the true danger Israel faces better than horror stories.

Maybe I’m alone, but I prefer the image of Israel as a mighty air craft carrier to the one of a dinghy constantly on the verge of being swamped.