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We Do Have to Worry
About Biological Weapons



LONDON-- By the hour the outline of the Russian-brokered deal is becoming clearer. Saddam Hussein has won what he has long sought-- light at the end of the sanctions tunnel. But in return he has to renew his long-standing, but very on and off, commitment to the UN--to let its arms inspectors and dismantlers do their work unimpeded, until they are totally satisfied they have done their job.

It is a good deal. America is giving away what it should have done a long time ago--the right for Iraq to live sanctions-free once the disarmament of weapons of mass destruction is complete. In return Iraq will give the world peace of mind. Over the last six years the UN inspectors have successfully dismantled Iraq's nuclear weapons programme. Now they will continue the work of keeping his biological and chemical weapons programmes contained.

The world has belatedly begun to wake up to the dangers of biological weapons, weapons that kill by spreading deadly diseases. Ironically, it was the arch proponent of realpolitik who sent us to sleep on the issue. President Richard Nixon pushed for and won the Biological Weapons Convention outlawing such weapons, convinced that they were no longer in America's interest, since they were unstable and unuseable. Today, because of scientific advances that were not even guessed at 25 years ago, biological weapons have become both more useable and more effective. Recombinant DNA technology has revolutionized their potential. Now they pose a serious threat on the battlefield and, in the not too distant future, could be delivered by missiles thousands of miles to an opponent's city.

In its latest "Strategic Survey" the International Institute for Strategic Studies observes, "preventing determined proliferators acquiring biological and toxin agents appears to be virtually impossible. The complexities associated with weaponizing and delivering biological and toxin agents might prevent large-scale attacks, at least in the near term. Nevertheless, these barriers are crumbling and the revolutionary advances in biotechnology will probably remove them altogether in the first decade of the 21st. century." The only mystery about the present crisis with Iraq is why it has taken this long to come to the boil. In my column of March 26th I wrote that "despite the most vigilant arms control inspection ever mounted, including U-2 high altitude reconnaissance flights, helicopter monitoring with ground-penetrating radar, Saddam Hussein is still engaged in secret operations to build weapons of mass destruction."

This was after the UN, over the years, had uncovered and supervised the dismantling of Iraq's $10 billion nuclear weapons programme and missiles with biological and chemical weapons at the ready to be fitted to them. (The latter although rudimentary--about 8 litres of liquid anthrax and botulinum in a single warhead--would have been sufficient to contaminate a few square kilometres. Iraq had also fitted 155m artillery rounds and R-400 free-fall bombs with biological agents.) And after UN inspectors kept reporting that there was still much more to be discovered. So why then did the White House wait until the UN inspectors were thrown out? Late last year Saddam thwarted attempts by the inspectors to gain access to Iraqi Republican Guard facilities and the White House and the Security Council sat on their hands. Since the last bombing for non-compliance in 1993 there has been a dangerous lassitude which allowed Saddam to dare to go the brink.

It sounds simplistic, but it seems to be part of a pattern--that the Clinton Administration has an ambiguous, verging on the insouciant, attitude to arms control. It has put reciprocal nuclear disarmament with Russia into some far back pigeon hole. It badly weakened the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty by refusing to listen to a sensible Indian proposal for the treaty to be linked to a big power timetable on nuclear disarmament. It has kept the Pentagon budget at its astronomical, and economically and socially distorting, high Cold War level. And, inexplicably, it has made the expansion of NATO its top foreign policy objective.

But we can't only blame America. Western Europe has also gone to sleep on arms control and in Russia the Yeltsin Administration needs to take a more responsible attitude to the ratification of SALT 2, the partial nuclear disarmament treaty agreed with America, despite the hostility of the Duma.

Otherwise the moral leverage on Saddam Hussein is reduced by the year. After all the Biological Weapons Treaty is nothing more than a moral norm. There is no world-wide enforcement mechanism, not even a monitoring system. It can only work if the political climate is right. Bringing Saddam Hussein into line is one, overdue, thing. Keeping up the momentum on banning all weapons of mass destruction all over the world is another. But the two are intimately related.


November 19, 1997, LONDON

Copyright © 1997 By JONATHAN POWER

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