What makes sense?

Posted: Jun 03, 2003 12:00 AM

Vanity Fair, Time and dozens of other commentators, politicians and flacks are leaping on the weapons of mass destruction story. Their premise: The Bush administration suckered the American people into a war based on assertions they knew to be false.

Here's Time magazine: "How do you take your country to war when it doesn't really want to go? ... If you need a lot of troops to prevail and you would like to remind everyone in the neighborhood who's boss anyway, then what you need most is a good reason -- something to stir up the folks back home." Now that's a rather breathtaking accusation when you stop to consider it. The Bush administration, motivated only by a desire to throw its weight around, concocts a false story about WMDs to "stir up" the folks back home.

We've been the occupying power in Iraq for about 10 weeks, and many of us thought we'd have uncovered stockpiles of WMDs by now. But why are so many prepared, on this basis alone, to begin throwing around the accusation that the Bush administration lied to the world? At the very least, other explanations ought to be considered.

Let's start with the history. Saddam's nuclear ambitions go back at least to 1981, when Israel destroyed the (French-built) nuclear reactor at Osirak. Following the Gulf War, Iraq acknowledged that it had resumed work on a nuclear bomb. As for chemical and biological weapons, the United Nations has confirmed Iraq's possession on multiple occasions.

The United Nations stated that "field tests of biological warfare agents started in late 1987/early 1988." In 1991, after surrendering to coalition forces, Iraq presented a list of its banned weapons to UNSCOM, the U.N. agency responsible for overseeing the ceasefire. Iraq then acknowledged some 10,000 nerve gas warheads, 1,500 chemical weapons, 412 tons of chemical weapons agents, 25 long-range missiles and more. Yet these proved to be understatements, as inspectors found more than these declared weapons.

Throughout the 1990s, the Iraqis did everything possible to frustrate the mission of UNSCOM -- hiding documents, playing cat and mouse, even on one occasion keeping the U.N. inspectors imprisoned in their cars in a parking lot outside a nuclear facility for four days.

In 1998, Saddam threw out the inspectors altogether, prompting President Clinton to launch a cruise missile attack on the Iraqi Republican guard. Our mission, Clinton explained to the American people, was to "attack Iraq's nuclear, chemical and biological programs, and its capacity to threaten its neighbors."

Other countries had such weapons, Clinton continued, but "with Saddam there's one big difference; he has used them, not once but repeatedly -- unleashing chemical weapons against Iranian troops (and) against civilians . . ."

Ratcheting up the pressure in 2002, President Bush convinced the United Nations to resume inspections in Iraq. The purpose of these inspections was not to find Iraq's banned weapons, but to see proof that Iraq had, as it claimed, destroyed them. For weeks, U.N. inspectors drove to sites of previous WMD production and found nothing.

To those who opposed the war and who, more to the point, passionately oppose President Bush, this -- combined with our failure to find huge caches of weapons in the past two months -- suggests conspiracy and bad faith.

But this is absurd. That Iraq once possessed these weapons is not in dispute. Are we to believe that Saddam destroyed them voluntarily but refused to provide proof of that destruction to the United Nations even as U.S. and British forces massed on his border? He knew that proof of the weapons' destruction would avoid the war and his own removal.

Surely it is obvious that only three scenarios are possible. 1) Saddam secreted the weapons to Syria or some other country. 2) Saddam hid the weapons extremely well and they will be found eventually. 3) Saddam destroyed the weapons at the last minute before the war began.

I favor No. 2. The discovery of those biological weapons trucks suggests that, just as defectors have told us, great expense was undertaken to keep Saddam's weapons well-hidden.

The capacity of Bush' opponents to believe the worst about him -- even if it means giving the benefit of the doubt to Saddam Hussein -- is staggering.