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Be Patient, Keep Looking

June 08, 2003|Gary Schmitt | Gary Schmitt, executive director of the Project for the New American Century, was executive director of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board under President Reagan.

WASHINGTON — In making the case to the American people and the world for going to war with Iraq, the Bush administration argued in part that it was justified because Saddam Hussein had defied the U.N. Security Council for 10 years and that he headed one of the world's bloodiest and most ruthless regimes.

But the core reason was that he possessed weapons of mass destruction and, when combined with his hatred of the United States, his history of aggression and his ties to terrorists, that made him too dangerous to leave in place after 9/11. But, to date, no weapons have been found, and the question is: Did the administration deceive Congress, the American people and allies in order to justify a war it wanted to wage for totally different reasons?

If it was a campaign of deception, it was one in which virtually the whole world was complicit. The administration was not alone in thinking Hussein had biological and chemical weapons. Clinton administration officials, congressional Democrats and Republicans, French officials, British officials, U.N. officials and virtually anyone with a serious intelligence capability -- all had said that Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. And with good reason. Not only did Hussein use chemical weapons against Iran and his own people, but U.N. inspectors also documented his efforts to build nuclear weapons, weaponize biological agents and develop various means to deliver them. It was the United Nations, not the U.S., that first concluded that Iraq had produced thousands of liters of chemical and biological agents and never documented their destruction.

Even the French government, the most serious opponent to the Iraq war, accepted these facts. As French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin contended in October 2002: "The investigations carried out by the United Nations after the liberation of Kuwait revealed previously unsuspected nuclear and biological programs. They exposed flagrant concealment of these activities." What was needed was the "swift return of the inspectors and elimination of the weapons of mass destruction." Indeed, U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441, which passed 15-0 last November, flatly stated that "Iraq has not provided an accurate, full, final, and complete disclosure ... of all aspects of its programs to develop weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles."

So, if there was near-universal agreement about the existence of Iraq's weapons programs, why can't the coalition teams find stocks of weapons today? Probably because Hussein destroyed them either before the U.N. inspectors returned to Iraq last December or, as one Iraqi scientist told occupation authorities, just before the war began.

With inspections coming, Hussein might have decided that it would be best to get rid of existing illicit weapon stocks; allow the inspectors (and the world) to tire of finding little or nothing; see them leave; and then reconstitute his arsenal by means of his still extant but covert production capabilities. He couldn't admit that he had destroyed them because he knew, from experience, that it would never be so simple. Once he had admitted to having these stocks, inspectors would have asked about the underlying programs that produced them -- a string Hussein couldn't allow to be pulled if he was to retain his capacity to build weapons.

Or, if Hussein destroyed the stocks in the weeks leading up to the war, he may have done so in the belief that conflict was likely and that if he used chemical or biological weapons against coalition forces, it would only solidify U.S. determination to take his regime down. Even the French said that if Hussein used such weapons, they would support the coalition effort. From a tactical point of view, the Iraqi leader might have calculated that using chemical or biological weapons would not have stopped American forces from advancing and, in turn, would have undermined a strategy of drawing out the conflict in the hope that world opinion, led by Paris, Berlin and Moscow, would eventually force an end to the war.

But are such explanations sufficient? No. The credibility of both President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair will remain in question until coalition investigators have not only gotten to the bottom of the missing weapons but also, and more important, the weapons programs themselves. After all, it was the programs that posed the permanent threat; it was the programs -- even in the wake of destroyed stocks of weapons -- that could rapidly reconstitute those arsenals.

Here, patience is required. Hussein's regime had more than two decades of experience in hiding these programs from inspectors and the world's intelligence agencies.

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