WMDs and the Iraq war

Posted: Jun 24, 2003 12:00 AM

There is a camp of Iraq War cheerleaders who say that whether or not we find out what became of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction is irrelevant. The war was such a smashing success, they urge, that objections about WMDs are mere footnotes.

This is too pat. The case the administration made (as did many of us who supported the war) rested upon many factors, including: the regime's treachery; aggression toward its neighbors; hatred for the United States; support for global terrorists; internal barbarism; and mass murder of civilians. But the clincher was the regime's determination to possess the most dangerous weapons known to mankind. It was known that Saddam not only held but had used poison gas against Kurdish civilians. His nuclear ambitions were delayed by the Israeli attack on the nuclear reactor at Osirak, but there were solid reasons to believe that he had never abandoned his goal.

This requires a bit more elaboration because there are some simple-minded types who say: "Hey, Israel has nuclear weapons, why don't we take Tel Aviv? And India has nuclear weapons, why doesn't Bush put India on the Axis of Evil?" Obviously, possession of deadly weapons alone is not a compelling reason to engage in pre-emptive action. It is the nature of the regime combined with the nature of the weapons that creates a threat. We had every reason to fear that Saddam might share his WMDs with terrorist groups and we'd have no way to prove it or hold him responsible. Who was behind the anthrax attacks of October 2001?

Few would have urged a war against Saddam if he had not possessed weapons of mass destruction. However much we rejoice for the Iraqi people who've been freed from his freak-show of a government, we are not in the business of militarily liberating all the world's oppressed.

It is important to know what has become of those chemical, biological and possibly nuclear weapons or the programs to produce them. If the weapons were destroyed, we need to know where and how. If they were exported, we need to know that even more urgently.

But there are many plausible explanations for why we haven't yet found the answers we seek. 1) Saddam is not certifiably dead. Until such time as his corpse is produced, many Iraqis who know the details of these banned weapons programs may be reluctant to talk out of continuing fear of retribution. Don't Saddam's remaining thugs retain the ability to pick off U.S. servicemen? 2) Iraq had years to hide the weapons from U.N. inspectors and many months of notice of impending U.S. action. As we slow-walked to war, Saddam may have hidden the weapons (which are not large) anywhere in that capacious country. 3) The weapons may have been destroyed when the war began. There were traces of chemical agents in the Euphrates River, and the biological weapons vans U.S. forces discovered had been scrubbed clean with disinfectant. Further, we intercepted communications among Iraqi officers ordering that the banned weapons be disposed of.

The interpretation liberals are placing on this though is literally incredible. They leap to the conclusion that President Bush and Prime Minister Blair intentionally deceived the world. They knew the WMD threat was nonexistent and brazenly lied in order to drag their deluded publics into a war they wanted for other reasons.

What other reasons? Is this a watered-down "blood for oil" argument? And if Bush and Blair were telling lies about these weapons, then so were the intelligence services of France, Germany and Russia, as well as the U.N. Security Council. Further, if Bush and Blair were capable of such a colossal lie, why weren't they capable of planting the evidence?

Besides, there are many aspects of this war's history that did not turn out as predicted, and most of those surprises reflect poorly on antiwar, not pro-war, predictions. There were no massive civilian casualties, no severe damage to Iraq's infrastructure, no refugees, no rising Arab street, no increase in terror attacks at home, no involvement of Israel, no lengthy "quagmire" and very few American casualties.

The fate of those WMDs is an unfolding drama. But to believe they never existed is to flout all of the available facts.