by Susan Wright

The threat of biological weapons has been used by President George W. Bush as a powerful rhetorical device to promote the administration’s geopolitical goals. Indeed, since President Bush’s election, the September 11 attacks, and the anthrax-contaminated mail that followed, the American people have been inundated with dire warnings of bioterror. Many of these have originated in major presidential speeches and others, in the writing of defense intellectuals, members of arms control think-tanks, and mainstream editorial writers.

In November 2001, shortly before the Fifth Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), President Bush said the following:

“Disease has long been the deadliest enemy of mankind. . . . All civilized nations reject as intolerable the use of disease and biological weapons as instruments of war and terror. . . . Today, we know that the scourge of biological weapons has not been eradicated. . . . Rogue states and terrorists possess these weapons and are willing to use them.”

A few weeks later, the President ventured his first public thoughts about extending the war on terrorism to Iraq. He warned Saddam Hussein that if he did not allow UN inspectors to determine if Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction, there would be consequences, although he did not elaborate. He said only that “if anybody develop[s] weapons of mass destruction that will be used to terrorize nations, they will be held accountable.”

Since that time, there has been a steady escalation of the rhetoric. The President’s State of the Union address in January 2001 will be long remembered for its denunciation of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as an “axis of evil.” Of course, the focus on the Iraq end of the axis has since become all-consuming, bringing the United States and the world to the brink of war.

The assumptions about the character of non-Western states that now underpin President Bush’s rhetoric are not a recent innovation. They have been widely shared and used, not only now but also by the two previous administrations, to justify military and foreign policies that are profoundly shaping the global role of the United States. This article examines the evolution of these assumptions and their influence on American military and diplomatic policy.

The history of biological weapons control

During and after WWII, biological weapons were developed by the leading industrialized states. There is good evidence concerning the programs of the United States, the United Kingdom, the former Soviet Union, Canada, France, Germany, and Japan. By the 1960s, the first three of these countries still had biological weapons programs, and those of the two superpowers were large and active.

Towards the end of that decade, the British Labor government of Harold Wilson began to reassess its biological and chemical weapons policies. Probably the main reason was the growing anti-war movement, which called for an end to Britain’s chemical and biological weapons programs. Members of Wilson’s Cabinet believed that it was imperative to respond in some way to this movement.

Documents from this period show that the British government was sensitive to what the U.S. would be willing to accept. Influential civil servants believed that chemical disarmament was not feasible, because the United States would not accept it. Indeed, both countries were secretly developing novel incapacitating chemical weapons in this period and the United States was using large quantities of tear gas and herbicides in Vietnam.

British civil servants had a different view of biological weapons. The argument made in secret was that biological weapons were unnecessary, because Britain possessed nuclear weapons and these were seen as sufficient for deterrence. Furthermore, biological weapons were seen as ineffective. The Cabinet science advisor, Sir Solly Zuckerman, was reported to have said that, within the Ministry of Defence, “it was more or less accepted that . . . [biological weapons were] . . . a pain in the neck and of no military value.” In secret, high-ranking civil servants and members of the British government expressed a basic reliance on nuclear weapons.

The second main reason was that, in the long run, the British saw the threat of biological as well as chemical weaponry as posed not so much by major powers but by “underdeveloped” non-western states. One civil servant wrote, that in the future, biological — as well as chemical — weapons would become “the poor man’s deterrent.” One of the main British motives for biological disarmament — in addition to appeasing the antiwar movement — was that it was important to ban these weapons before they fell into “the wrong hands.”

These arguments did not persuade the Johnson administration, but they did eventually persuade the Nixon administration. In 1969, a Department of Defense advisor argued that “the proliferation of chemical and biological capability would tend to reduce the world’s balance of power, reducing ours.” As Nixon himself later confided in his speech writer, William Safire, “We’ll never use the damn germs. So what good is biological warfare as a deterrent? If someone uses germs on us, we’ll nuke ‘em.” It was on this crude basis that the United States and Britain supported the negotiations for the Biological Weapons Convention.

Once abandoned by the two super powers and other industrialized states, biological weapons became known as the “poor man’s nukes.” Western governments, probably co-opting the language of the antiwar movement, also began to refer to these weapons as particularly “immoral.” This view contrasted with their silence concerning the moral status of nuclear weapons.

In the 1970s and first part of the 1980s, any threat perceived from developing countries was overshadowed in the West by the Cold War, the Soviet threat, and the nuclear arms race. But as Cold War tensions faded, the military began to turn once again to the question of “proliferation” of biological as well as chemical weapons. A glaring example of that possibility was the use of chemical weapons by a state that the United States was then actively supporting. That state was Iraq. Between 1985 and 1990, the United States shipped half a billion dollars’ worth of dual-use equipment to Iraq. Some twenty shipments of biological agents were shipped to Iraq’s Atomic Energy Commission in the same period.

At the same time as the United States was supporting Iraq in the late 1980s, members of the Bush Sr. administration — notably Dick Cheney, then Secretary of Defense, and Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — were casting around for reasons to continue the huge military appropriations of the Cold War. This was not easy because there was not an obvious candidate enemy. In the words of Sam Nunn, the Democratic chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, there was a “threat blank.” How to fill that vacuum was very much on the minds of Cheney and Powell.

In the late 1980s, possible ways of filling the “threat blank” began to be aired by members of the intelligence and military communities. First, as the Soviet threat disappeared, the original concern that justified the Biological Weapons Convention — the spread of biological and chemical weapons to the Third World — reemerged. In Senate hearings in 1989, CIA director William Webster claimed that “at least 10 countries are working to produce previously known and futuristic biological weapons.” Warnings of this kind have been issued by military and intelligence agencies ever since, although the level of evidence has generally been weak and ambiguous.

Second, various governmental and non-governmental organizations began to give this abstract idea a material form. The report Discriminate Deterrence, written in 1988 for the Reagan administration by a high-level commission whose members included Henry Kissinger and molecular biologist Joshua Lederberg, pointed to “rising third-world powers” as those who would acquire weapons of mass destruction. Still, it was not easy to come up with third-world countries that could be seen as posing a significant threat to the United States. Iraq was still seen as an ally.

But the threat vacuum was filled dramatically on August 2, 1990 when Saddam invaded Kuwait and Iraq was instantly transformed into the post-Cold War threat that Cheney and Powell were looking for. As Michael Klare describes in Rogue States and Nuclear Outlaws: America’s Search for a New Foreign Policy, terms such as “rogue,” “backlash,” and “outlaw” began to recategorize the world and to replace the Evil Empire. This new threatwas marked by a dualism — “civilized/immoral” — that cast an aura of suspicion on all third-world states perceived to be hostile to U.S. interests.

President Bill Clinton maintained this view intact. What changed most under Clinton was the linkage with biological weapons, which had not figured prominently in the rhetoric of the first President Bush. During the Clinton administration, news from four corners of the earth focused attention on biological weapons as a re-emerging threat:

• Revelations that the former Soviet Union had pursued a huge offensive biological warfare program in violation of the BWC — acknowledged by Russian president Boris Yeltsin in 1992.

• The confirmation of Iraq’s biological weapons program by UN inspectors in 1995.

• The discovery in 1995 that the Aum Shinrikio sect in Japan had attempted unsuccessfully to use anthrax.

• The airing of claims both in arms control circles and in the press that developments in biotechnology in industrialized countries would make it possible to overcome past problems of the control of biological weapons.

These sources of concern about biological weapons were separate and distinct. Yet they were quickly agglomerated into one thing: a new biowar threat posed by “rogue states.” Fears were fanned by a new genre of biowar novels, the scariest of which was The Cobra Event, written by New Yorker writer Richard Preston — a terrifying story, set in New York City, that was all the more powerful for blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction. This book apparently made a deep impression on Bill Clinton. In his State of the Union address in 1998, Clinton promised to confront the dangers posed by “outlaw states” seeking to acquire biological and other weapons of mass destruction.

Those “outlaw states” were much the same as those that are now the focus of attention for the administration of George W. Bush: Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. Israel, which has nuclear weapons and also has a highly guarded chemical and biological warfare establishment at Ness Ziona, and is not a party to any of the relevant disarmament treaties, has never been mentioned in these terms by either administration.

So, although the “evil axis” language of President Bush is more extreme, the same dualisms — moral/immoral, good/evil — were at work in the rhetoric of the Clinton administration, and the threat of biological weapons was cast in the same way: as a threat to the moral, responsible Self from the unruly, uncivilized Other.

“Rogue State” as Ideology

What has been described here is the development of a powerful ideology — in Terry Eagleton’s terms, “a complex of ideas, beliefs, and practices that legitimate...the goals and purposes of a dominant group in society by distorting reality.” If the polls can be believed, this ideology has enthralled many Americans, although the proportion seems to be slowly decreasing. The power of the “rogue” ideology is that it is not a complete fabrication, a total figment of the fevered imaginations of the hawks in the Bush administration — Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Perle, and the President himself. Ideology warps the imagination by tapping a reservoir of fact. Ideologies are not total illusions: they gain their power over the imagination by building on — but then distorting — a social reality that is recognizable. In this case, what is known and understandable to all is that Saddam Hussein is a brute.

The ideology of the “rogue state” transforms what is known into a threat that is so serious that it requires “preemptive” war as the only solution. Biological warfare, with its scary and immoral implications (the turning of medical knowledge into a weapon), plays a lead role in maintaining this view.

“Rogue State” as Practice

Ideologies justify practices. The British originally turned to suspicion of future military interests of the Other to justify a treaty that would keep the Other from developing biological weapons while the Western Self retained nuclear weapons. Since the early 1990s, the “rogue state” ideology has influenced four types of policy justified military and diplomatic practices that maintain the global dominance of the United States. Four such practices were pursued during the Clinton administration and have since been taken to extremes by the administration of George W. Bush:

1. Technology Denial. This policy represents a change from the policies of Reagan and Bush Sr. During the Cold War, the policy of the United States was to supply selected Third World states like Iraq with weapons technology. With the end of the Cold War, and the ascendance of the “rogue state” ideology, states such as Iran, Syria, North Korea, Libya, India, Pakistan, China, and of course Iraq, have been denied forms of dual-purpose technology. The denials were, and still are, coordinated by the Australia Group, a cartel of major Western supplier countries that makes its decisions in secret and is deeply resented by Third World states.

In the case of Iraq, technology denial was transformed into coercive disarmament. United Nations Security Council Resolution 687, passed by the Council after forceful behind-the-scenes deals by the first Bush administration, and the economic sanctions under Resolution 661 that backed it up, stands as one of the most punitive treatments of a defeated nation in history, a stark contrast to the Marshall Plan that supported the economic recovery of Germany after World War II. The economic sanctions not only denied to Iraq the means to develop further nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons but also denied the dual-purpose technologies needed to rebuild its civilian infrastructures. They severely weakened the health and material resources of the Iraqi people, causing over a million deaths, especially among children. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, when asked how she could possibly justify these deaths, relied on the “rogue” ideology to argue that “we think the price is worth it.” In justifying a “preemptive” war against Iraq in the name of ensuring absolute removal of biological and chemical weapons, the Bush administration is taking these practices to a cruel extreme.

2. The Double Standard with respect to the Biological Weapons Convention. While the United States professes support for the biological and chemical weapons conventions — which ban possession of these weapons — the “rogue state” doctrine justifies a double standard: one standard for the “responsible Self,” another standard for the “irresponsible Other.”

This approach of the Clinton administration infuriated even close allies of the United States during negotiations designed to add an inspection regime to the biological treaty. Ultimately, Clinton’s diplomats poked so many holes in the draft BWC protocol that it was a simple matter for the administration of George W. Bush to reject it entirely. It did so at the end of 2001.

The Double Standard has also justified a huge expansion of biological defense activities — currently running to over $2 billion per year and expected to rise to $6 billion in the next fiscal year (up from $80 million in the days of Bush Sr. and up from $20 million under Ronald Reagan). The public health dimension of this spending may be justified, given the post-9/11 uncertainty about further terrorist attacks and the form they might take. But the military dimension of this spending has discarded previous significant constraints on what is considered legitimate for “biological defense” [see Laurie Vollen’s “Fools Rush In” on Page 9]. Ironically, and frighteningly, some of the many secret projects that have been uncovered by the press threaten to radically undermine the Biological Weapons Convention as well as to pose novel public health hazards.

3. The Loosening of Constraints on Nuclear Weapons. Beginning with Clinton’s directive, PDD 60, signed in 1997, the “rogue” ideology has justified weakening previous restrictions on the use of nuclear weapons. Clinton contemplated nuclear strikes against “rogue states” if they used biological or chemical weapons. Bush Jr. has taken the loosening of nuclear constraints much further. The Nuclear Posture Review, leaked to the press in March 2002, revealed that the Bush nuclear policy allows use of nuclear weapons against “biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons,” “hardened targets” and in response to “surprising military developments.” And the targets? The review listed as prime targets all the “rogues” together with the former Evil Empire and China. Combined with the policy of preemptive war to counter potential use of weapons of mass destruction by other states, announced by President Bush to West Point graduates in July 2002, this means that previous constraints against use of nuclear weapons have been abandoned. Furthermore, plans for war leaked to the press in January 2003 revealed the chilling possibility of nuclear weapons being used in the near future in Iraq.

4. The treatment of Iraq. There is a strange disjunction between the pervasive government image — Iraq as the prime example of “rogue threat” — and the image of Iraq provided by organizations like Voices in the Wilderness, whose members visit the country and describe a state crushed by war and economic sanctions, contained to the North and to the South by the No Flight zones, and effectively deterred.

Presidential advisor Karl Rove and White House chief of staff Andrew Card decided last summer that Americans would become obsessed with Iraq as “rogue state,” and so, on the brink of war, we are. The “rogue doctrine” is being deployed every day, with claims about Saddam Hussein’s biological weapons — which could be hidden anywhere, from a palace ice box to an underground bunker to a mobile unit — playing a major supporting role, as Secretary of State Colin Powell’s presentation to the UN Security Council on February 5 made clear.

It may be true that Saddam Hussein still harbors interests in biological weapons. At the same time that it is also true that Iraq is a defeated and largely disarmed state. The “rogue” ideology reduces this question to a threat posed by a single state. But it has been widely understood, especially before the “rogue” ideology took hold, that the problem of interests in weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East is a system-wide problem that is not likely to be solved as long as Israel possesses a nuclear arsenal and does not join any of the relevant disarmament treaties. There is no sign that the Israeli formula — that they will not be the first to “introduce” nuclear weapons into the region — reassures neighboring states. The persistent pattern of non-adherence to the biological and chemical treaties in the region suggests otherwise.

It is also widely understood that there is no immediate prospect of success of an attempt to secure a region-wide ban on all weapons of mass destruction. Ridding the Middle East of these will require seeing interest in them as part of a whole complex of security problems encompassing territory, recognition, and conventional as well as unconventional weaponry. As many Middle Eastern specialists have emphasized over the years, peace in the Middle East will only be achieved by addressing and resolving the territorial struggles that plague this region, and by achieving region-wide recognition of a Palestinian state and of Israel. Iraq must be seen as a part (and only a part) of a whole system of conflict.


In conclusion, the deep flaw in the Bush administration’s view of the threat of biological weapons posed by Iraq is its reduction of a complex set of problems to a single threat, powerfully supported by a dualism that opposes the civilized western Self to the immorality of the non-Western Other. From the early British fears of the intentions of “under-developed states” (1966) to George Bush Sr.’s reference to “states that have contempt for civilized norms” (1990) to Bill Clinton’s denunciation of “outlaw states” (1998) to George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” (2002), the claim that biological weapons are uniquely immoral has provided powerful reinforcement for this dualism and for the punitive policies that use it for legitimation.

In the United States at this moment, there is a growing effort to question the “rogue” doctrine that has gripped hearts and minds for over a decade. This “counter-ideology” is being supported by peace and justice organizations, city councils, and state legislatures that question war and coercive disarmament as a solution to the problems posed by Iraq. It is a discourse that puts human figures — children, the elderly, women, and men — back in the picture, no longer obliterated by calculations about weapons and targets that render the incalculable human costs of war invisi


Susan Wright is an Associate Research Scientist and Lecturer in the History of Science at the University of Michigan. A specialist in the history and politics of molecular biology and biotechnology, she is the author of Molecular Politics: Developing American and British Regulatory Policy for Genetic Engineering (1994) and Preventing a Biological Arms Race (1990). She is currently a senior research fellow at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research, where she directs the research project, "Forming a North-South Alliance to Address Current Problems of Biological Warfare and Disarmament."

Many of the references for this article are given in Susan’s recently published Biological Warfare and Disarmament: New Problems / New Perspectives (Rowman and Littlefield, October 2002). The article draws on lectures delivered last year for the Program on Peace Studies, Cornell University and the Institute on Research on Women and Gender, University of Michigan.

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