«During the course of the 1991 Gulf war, Iraq fired 88 Scud missiles at targets in Israel and Saudi Arabia. All of them were armed with conventional warheads. This despite the fact that Iraq then possessed large stocks of chemical and biological weapons. Indeed, after the war, U.N. chief weapons inspector Rolf Ekeus found that Iraq had armed 25 missile warheads and 166 bombs with biological weapons. None of them were used, even as the Iraqi military faced the overwhelming might of a U.S.-led international coalition in a war Iraq was sure to lose.
So what stayed Saddam Hussein’s hand? As the Iraqis tell it, they feared an American nuclear response. They had reason to.
In the run up to the war, senior officials—from President George H.W. Bush on down—made a series of barely ambiguous and sufficiently ominous threats to Iraqi leaders. The president sent a letter to Saddam which informed the Iraqi tyrant that “the United States will not tolerate the use of chemical or biological weapons. . . . The American people would demand the strongest possible response. You and your country will pay a terrible price if you order unconscionable acts of this sort.” Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney was equally blunt: “Were Saddam foolish enough to use weapons of mass destruction, the U.S. response would be absolutely overwhelming and it would be devastating.”
The Iraqis took those threats seriously. Four years later, Iraqi foreign minister Tariq Aziz told Ekeus that Iraq had been deterred from using its WMD because it interpreted these (and other) American threats as promises of nuclear retaliation.
This episode is arguably the most successful example of deterrence in action in recent history. Could the United States repeat that performance if we had to? Not if we were to follow the letter of the Obama administration’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, released (after many delays and much hype) last Tuesday.
Among the changes to American nuclear strategy announced in the review, the United States has now promised not to threaten or use nuclear weapons in response to a chemical or biological attack by a nonnuclear state.»