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  • Sarin, Sar-out

    Posted by Shannon Love on June 22nd, 2006 (All posts by )

    I don’t think the reports that we have found several hundred old shells of sarin nerve gas in Iraq change the argument on the war very much.

    Sarin and almost all other chemical weapons are highly reactive and unstable chemicals with relatively short half-lives. Sarin in particular only has a shelf-life of a few months at most. I think it most likely the shells found in Iraq are probably pre-1991 shells that Saddam lost track of and didn’t destroy when he went on his secret destruction binge after the defection of his sons-in-law in 1995. The contents of the shells would now be almost entirely harmless. On the other hand, if the shells contain almost any remaining Sarin that would be strong evidence that they were manufactured within a couple of years of the liberation.

    It has also been confirmed that Saddam had switched to a sort of just-in-time system for the manufacturing of chemical weapons, largely to get around the shelf life problem. Most of his weapons were actually filled in the field with fresh agents synthesized onsite. A real smoking gun would be finding one of his mobile mixing units.

    Of more import than finding old weapons is that we know for certain that Saddam had: (1) the trained personnel, (2) the industrial base and (3) the cash needed to restart nerve gas production within a matter of weeks. Producing nerve gas is no more difficult than making pesticides. Since the threat of chemical weapons wasn’t that he would use them on the battlefield but rather that he would hand them off to terrorists, the quantities needed would have been relatively small, on the order of dozens of liters at most. He could have banged that much out in a facility that would fit in the back of a semi trailer.

    So we all need to remember this absolute fact: Prior to the liberation, Saddam could have produced enough nerve gas to carry out a mass-casuality terrorist attack at any time of his choosing.

    The argument advanced by the anti-war (fascist-enablers) that, since we didn’t find any deployed chemical weapons at the time of the liberation Saddam was as harmless as a box of kittens, arises from either ignorance or dishonesty. The only well informed and honest anti-war position is that although Saddam could create the weapons at any time of his choosing we could trust his judgement and restraint not to use them. That position seems like a poor bet given that Saddam might think that he could carry off an attack that couldn’t be traced back to him and that he has a history of severe miscalculation and overreach.

    And leftists wonder why no one trusts them on national security.

     

    11 Responses to “Sarin, Sar-out”

    1. Ken Says:

      So why didn’t he use them at any time before or during the invasion? Was it his belief that we are a “paper tiger” that saved many thousands of US troops from a chemical attack?

    2. Jay Manifold Says:

      The useful distinction between capabilities and intentions, most memorably phrased by Heinlein as “there are no dangerous weapons, only dangerous men,” is key to understanding the WMD non-issue. An irony is that opponents of the war — having at one time argued against an invasion because they, too, believed WMD were present and would be used, causing immense casualties and thereby preventing any net saving of lives — believe capabilities matter more than intentions; the same people usually believe the opposite about domestic politics, eg a social safety net that performs wretchedly but should still be supported because its intentions are good.
      Shannon makes a key point, namely that these are almost certainly munitions gone astray. I don’t think Saddam knew what he had, or didn’t have, or was capable of having developed; if I may be forgiven yet another of my shameless plugs of an old post on Arcturus, in Zirconium Dirty Bomb? I dissected a news story containing the usual sensationalism unencumbered by knowledge of radiochemistry, and a correspondent subsequently pointed out that in all likelihood, someone was pulling Saddam’s leg.
      Arguments about the war have, and will continue to, bog down in disputes about WMD, whatever is found. Even if Saddam still had WMD three years ago, he clearly lacked the command and control necessary to directly employ them against anyone other than noncombatants inside or immediately bordering Iraq. The Administration’s invocation of WMD, even as a relatively minor supporting argument, was a mistake. It should have explicitly argued for removing Saddam because of his demonstrated intentions, irrespective of his capabilities, which we were capable of annihilating in a few days of aerial bombardment in any case.

    3. Shannon Love Says:

      Ken,

      So why didn’t he use them at any time before or during the invasion?

      He probably didn’t use them before the liberation because he didn’t find any situation where he thought they would be useful. Using them during major operations wouldn’t have helped because chemical weapons are next to useless against trained and prepared troops. (That is why no one, except perhaps for the Japanese in China, bothered to use chemical weapons during WWII.) Besides, he would have found it difficult to deploy enough battlefield chemical weapons to make it worthwhile without tipping of the UN inspectors.

      Remember that Saddam didn’t really believe the invasion would ever happen. His major focus lay in getting the sanctions lifted. To that end he probably scrapped every chemical weapon and major production facility. All he needed to maintain in order to quickly restart production were the factors I list above. Everything else was temporarily disposable.

    4. Shannon Love Says:

      Jay Manifold,

      Even if Saddam still had WMD three years ago, he clearly lacked the command and control necessary to directly employ them against anyone other than noncombatants inside or immediately bordering Iraq.

      That is only true if you think in terms of chemical agents delivered with conventional military systems like shells, rockets or aircraft. It isn’t true if consider chemical agents delivered by terrorist networks. In that case, Saddam had the capability to carry out a mass-casualty attack virtually anywhere in the world.

      The Tokyo subway attacks were carried out using Sarin carried in bottles or simple plastic bags. Had the perpetrators been willing to sacrifice their own lives and had just thrown an open bottle across a subway platform, they could have killed hundreds easily. A simple aerosol system could be even more effective.

      The fear that Saddam could have, at a time of his choosing, killed a large number of people almost anywhere in the world was a valid one.

    5. Jay Manifold Says:

      That’s why I said “directly employ.” Terroristic use of chemical agents thousands of miles from Iraq would have been a significant departure from his earlier methods. In the event, he was unwilling to do so, and preferred to fund others’ efforts instead. We’re back to Ken’s question, which I think is answered by the simple fact that Saddam was a dictator. Dictators don’t delegate.

    6. ed in texas Says:

      As a point of interest, in January, Army bomb disposal techs were called to a a VIED (vehicle-improvised explosive device) that had only semi detonated. Two artillery shells in trunk of a Toyota. One was a standard 158mm Russian round. The other, on closer inspection, turned out to be a Sarin gas binary round, where the two precursors are kept separate for long shelf life. What is interesting about this is Saddam wasn’t supposed to have binaries…and the shell was only a few years old.

    7. Shannon Love Says:

      Jay Manifold,

      It is important to separate physical capability from intention. Saddam was physically capable of producing nerve gas any time he wanted. Whether he would have done so and whether he would have used it in a terrorist attack are entirely separate questions.

      The problem with Saddam was that he was prone to miscalculation and self-delusion. His intuitive understanding of the world outside of Iraq was almost non-existant. His invasion of Kuwait caught everyone by surprise not because he was a strategic genius but rather because nobody believed he could be that stupid. He tried to assassinate Bush 41, an act which would have triggered an instant war with the U.S.

      A lot of people feel very confident that they could accurately foretell what Saddam would or would not have done if left in power with all his technical resources intact. I think those people are arrogant idiots.

    8. Tatyana Says:

      I think the discovery (which, as I understand, is not the first one nor it happened just now; “just now” it was only released) IS important for the pro-war argument.
      Saddam was under orders to destroy all WMD in his posession after 1991. If they are found in any year after 1991, no matter in what condition, stored or dispersed, means only one thing – he didn’t comply with Resolution. Which was one of the stated reason for us going into war in the first place.

      Also, as one friendly blogger noted, if 500 weapons were just a “spillage” (some on the Left claim that due to typical Middle-Eastern desorganisation Saddam couldn’t control all weapons that were possibly stolen for sale on a black market) – imagine what the original amount produced or stored or relocated to safer quarters in the preface of the War was!

    9. aaron Says:

      “It has also been confirmed that Saddam had switched to a sort of just-in-time system for the manufacturing of chemical weapons, largely to get around the shelf life problem. Most of his weapons were actually filled in the field with fresh agents synthesized onsite. A real smoking gun would be finding one of his mobile mixing units.”

      This was exactly my assumption before we invaded. Just made too much sense to me. That’s what I would do.

      I wrote a word of caution on the WMD in Iraq meme today however.

    10. aaron Says:

      Didn’t Kay say that Iraq was a far greater threat than we had believed? How come we don’t hear about that (or why), was it retracted?

    11. AnyMouse Says:

      “CIA BELIEVES THAT A SUBSTANTIAL SEGMENT OF IRAQ’S NERVE AGENT STOCKPILE CONSISTS OF BINARY CHEMICAL WEAPONS–WHICH WOULD NOT BE SUBJECT TO DEGRADATION.”