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WASHINGTON — The claims of U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney that Iraq might join with terrorists to strike the United States at any time are far-fetched. Very little about the historical record or current intelligence lends credence to that view. It cannot be fully dismissed as a possibility, but it appears to be a remote one at worst. There is a serious argument for overthrowing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, but it is not as conclusive as Rumsfeld and Cheney argue, and it has more to do with how an Iraqi nuclear weapon might change Hussein’s behavior in the region than with terrorism.

Consider the track record. Hussein has not used weapons of mass destruction since the 1980s — a time when he knew the U.S. would turn a blind eye to any such action in any event. During all times since Desert Storm he has rightly recognized that to use weapons of mass destruction against the U.S., his neighbors or even his own minority populations would almost surely lead to his own destruction. Hence he has refrained.

Hussein’s other behavior is also consistent with the picture of a tyrant who, however evil he may be, values his own life more than the pursuit of adventure or aggrandizement. He moved several brigades of forces south toward Kuwait in 1994, at a time when the Clinton administration seemed distracted and feckless to many, yet backed off when then-U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry announced the deployment of tens of thousands of U.S. forces in Operation Vigilant Warrior. He abstained from attacking Kurdish groups in the north until their own bickering gave him a brief opportunity to do so in 1996, but has again respected that region as a U.S.-protected safe haven since the Kurds re-established their alliance.

Even Hussein’s ruthless and risky behavior since 1991 is consistent with a deterrable enemy. He has funded terrorists, but as best we can tell they have been exclusively anti-Israeli terrorists rather than groups like Hezbollah or al-Qaeda that make a habit of attacking Western targets. Al-Qaeda operatives in Iraq are, according to U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, found in parts of the country Hussein does not control. He did try to assassinate former U.S. President George H.W. Bush in 1993, admittedly calling into some doubt the notion that he is deterrable. But once he realized that we could trace that action back to him, and that we would likely respond with devastating force to any such successful assassination, he desisted from further attempts.

There is a possibility that Hussein might think he could give weapons of mass destruction to al-Qaeda or Hezbollah and get away with it. In that event, given his overdeveloped sense of vengeance, he might be sorely tempted to provide chemical or biological agents to such a group in the hope that it would strike U.S. targets. Such terrorists probably could not get close enough to him to use the weapons against him or his closest associates; the U.S. might never realize where the materials had come from and thus be unable to retaliate.

But even this scenario seems unlikely. First, as best we can tell, Hussein has not given such weapons to terrorists to date, and he has had many years to do so. Second, he knows he would be suspect No. 1 as the source of terrorists’ weapons of mass destruction, should they ever conduct such an attack. Third, he knows we can follow many of the meetings of his intelligence operatives and special agents with terrorists, with at least some confidence of knowing who is working with whom. Fourth, although our forensic analysis techniques are imperfect, we are capable of narrowing down the sources of biological agents (the more dangerous of the two types of easily transported weapons of mass destruction) based on their DNA and other properties.

All that said, there is a case for overthrowing Hussein if we cannot re-establish and improve the inspections/disarmament process in Iraq. But it has more to do with the region’s security than with any unlikely link between Hussein and al-Qaeda. If Hussein had a nuclear weapon, he would still almost surely be deterred from directly attacking the U.S. But he might take greater risks in the Middle East and Persian Gulf in the belief that his nuke was a guaranteed regime survival card, making U.S. intervention to thwart his regional ambitions less likely except in the most extreme of circumstances.

For example, Hussein might seize the oil field on his border with Kuwait that was the purported original cause of the 1990 Iraq-Kuwait crisis. He might violate the safe haven in his country’s Kurd region and seek to re-establish brutal Ba’ath Party rule over that minority population. He might escalate his support for anti-Israeli terrorism or increase his bluster at Israel’s expense, stoking radicals and suicide bombers and trying to provoke Israel into an overreaction. Given his propensity for miscalculation, he might think he could get away with actions that we would in fact find unacceptable, causing a breakdown of deterrence and a much greater risk of war.

But this worry, however real, is a far cry from another march to Munich of the type that the vice president and defense secretary have been warning us against. Cheney and Rumsfeld would be more credible and more effective in making their case for threatening force against Hussein if they cut back on the overdramatizations and stuck to the facts.

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