The intelligence failure is quite spectacular, but its history is quite prosaic. When the U.N. inspectors left in 1998, they assumed that the huge stockpiles of unaccounted-for weapons still existed. What other assumption could they make? That Saddam had destroyed them and not even reported that to the very agency that could have then vindicated him and gotten sanctions lifted?
Secretary of State Colin Powell correctly makes the case that this very fact -- the concealment of both the weapons and their possible destruction -- clearly justifies the legality of the Iraq War, since the terms of the 1991 cease-fire placed the positive obligation on Iraq to demonstrate its own disarmament. And that it clearly and repeatedly failed to do.
But beyond the legal question is the security question. People forget that when the Bush administration came into office, Iraq was a very unstable situation. Thousands of Iraqis were dying as a result of sanctions. Containment necessitated the garrisoning of Saudi Arabia with thousands of ``infidel'' American troops -- in the eyes of many Muslims, a desecration (cited by Osama bin Laden as his No. 1 reason for his 1996 Declaration of War on America). The no-fly zones were slow-motion war, and the embargo was costly and dangerous -- the sailors who died on the USS Cole were on embargo duty.
Until Bush got serious, threatened war and massed troops in Kuwait, the U.N. was headed toward loosening and ultimately lifting sanctions, which would have given Saddam carte blanche to regroup and rebuild his WMDs.
Bush reversed that slide with his threat to go to war. But that kind of aggressive posture is impossible to maintain indefinitely. A regime of inspections, embargo, sanctions, no-fly zones and thousands of combat troops in Kuwait was an unstable equilibrium. The U.S. could have either retreated and allowed Saddam free rein -- or gone to war and removed him. Those were the only two ways to go.
Under the circumstances, and given what every intelligence agency on the planet agreed was going on in Iraq, the president made the right choice, indeed the only choice.
Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.
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