At long last, many are realizing that President Bush misled the public about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. But unlike the vigorous questioning of Prime Minister Tony Blair in Britain on the same issue, our long overdue debate about Saddam Hussein’s presumed illicit arsenal is missing the point.
Before the war, the question was not primarily about whether Iraq retained proscribed weapons from its old stockpiles. Many at the United Nations, and many American anti-war commentators, assumed that it did. Remnants of the stockpiles may still be found.
Instead, the question was whether Iraqi weapons of mass destruction posed a pressing threat to the peace. Bush said these weapons constituted a “grave and gathering danger” to national and international security, a threat so great that only full-scale invasion to “disarm” the dictator was adequate. He accused the United Nations of being “irrelevant to the problems of our time” because it dared to temporize in the face of the obvious Iraqi peril.
Saddam’s regime did not fire chemical or biological rockets at US and British troops even though its survival in power was at stake. Even after Republican Guard positions were overrun, US and British troops discovered no warheads ready to be used in 45 minutes, as alleged by the now infamous British dossier of September 2002.
Two months after the welcome demise of the regime, US military specialists are still baffled as to where the oft-mentioned tons of deadly toxins might be. CIA maps of likely weapons sites have reportedly turned up nothing but two trailers that may or may not have been used to manufacture biological agents. The top Iraqi scientists who, according to pre-war intelligence, were helping the regime to rearm itself, are now in US custody, but they have not led their captors to caches of arms. At best, Bush and Blair were wildly exaggerating the Iraqi threat when they spoke of Saddam’s disarmament as the most urgent task before humanity.
Before the war, Bush and Blair asserted that the Baathist regime had missiles and unmanned drones poised for offensive use against its neighbors or against the West. More scarily, they told us that Iraq was developing nuclear bombs for transfer to radical Islamist groups like al-Qaeda. They harped on little bits of evidence that supported these theories, ignoring large bodies of evidence that undercut them. They were intent on frightening the public into supporting the war.
Opponents of the war, by contrast, did not stretch the known facts to fit their position. Most of us argued that Iraq might indeed have chemical and biological programs, even if many of us regarded the nuclear evidence as doctored.
But now Bush, Blair and their defenders in the punditocracy are trying to deceive the public all over again. Bush now says the weapons programs may have been looted or destroyed. Maybe, but Bush is changing the subject — the mere existence of forbidden munitions will not equal the “mortal threat” he posited before the war.
Congress should no longer be cowed by the White House dissembling about Iraq’s elusive weapons of mass destruction. The Bush administration should be held accountable for its abuse of office in hyping the Iraqi threat to justify a war that had little, if anything, to do with the security of Americans.