WASHINGTON -- As U.S. forces closed in on Baghdad Friday, a civilian official at the Pentagon rejoiced at the success of American arms but worried about things that had not happened. Weapons of mass destruction (WMD) neither have been used by Saddam Hussein's legions nor found by the invading Anglo-American coalition.
The absence so far of WMD does not diminish justification, in the view of U.S. policymakers, for changing Baghdad's dictatorial regime. Nevertheless, they would like to collect real evidence of weapons. "If we don't," said the concerned Defense Department official, "you can bet the liberals will make a big deal out of it."
White House and State Department officials were saying the same thing two weeks earlier. On March 24, a mid-level Bush administration official told me he feared that modest quantities of chemical weapons would constitute the entire cache of captured WMD, but added that he would be grateful for that much. The official, an early advocate of Iraqi regime change, is not fretting about the decision to go to war but about the global reaction to it.
The real reason for attacking the Iraqi regime always has been disconnected from its public rationale. On the day after the U.S. launched the military strike that quickly liberated Afghanistan from the Taliban, my column identified Iraq as the second target in President Bush's war against terrorism. I did not write one word about weapons of mass destruction because not one such word was mentioned to me in many interviews with Bush policymakers.
The subsequent debate over WMD ensued when Secretary of State Colin Powell, over Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's objections, talked the president into seeking United Nations sanction for military action. Pre-emptive elimination of Hussein would not win over the U.N. Security Council, which had to be convinced the Iraqi dictator was a present danger. Failure to supply hard WMD evidence at the United Nations doomed Security Council approval.
Sen. Carl Levin, ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee and an opponent of military action against Iraq, has argued a military attack might impel Hussein to employ weapons that he had been deterred from using. But what weapons? He clearly is not close to developing nuclear capability or weaponized biological devices. That leaves chemical weapons, which few military experts put in the WMD category.
When the first air raid sirens sounded in Kuwait City as this war began, U.S. troops hurriedly donned their anti-chemical body armor. The reason stated by U.S. officials why there was no immediate chemical counterattack was that Hussein might be waiting to draw American troops into Baghdad -- not firing until he sees the whites of American eyes. Yet, military experts say it would be less effective for the Iraqis to launch chemical assaults in the close quarters of possible Baghdad urban warfare.
In his daily rant over Iraqi television Friday, Information Minister Mohammed Saeed Al-Sahaf declared that weapons of destruction would not be part of his regime's tactics in the battle of Baghdad. That could be a truth embedded in a web of lies.
Last Friday, U.S. authorities told reporters that they may have discovered the smoking gun at the Latifiyah industrial complex, 25 miles south of Baghdad. A U.S. Army engineer brigade found boxes of white powder, nerve agent antidote and Arabic documents on chemical warfare. This looked more like a chemical-biological training unit than a real command post, and early testing of the suspicious powder showed it to be explosives.
"If we end this war with Iraq WMD-free, we're in trouble internationally," a State Department official told me Friday. "But I cannot believe that is going to happen. This isn't over yet, and you cannot make such a judgment over just two weeks."
There is, therefore, a double mission for U.S. forces. The primary mission is to destroy an evil regime, for the benefit of the Iraqi people and the peace of the region. The secondary mission is to come up with substantiation of the avowed reason by President Bush for asking the world to remove Saddam Hussein from power. At stake may be the ruptured international relations of the United States.