America's Credibility Is Taking a Hit in Iraq

What if Saddam destroyed most, or all, of his weapons of mass destruction years ago?

Did the Bush administration deliberately mislead the nation and the world when President Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and others so confidently suggested, as their casus belli, that Saddam Hussein had hundreds of tons of banned chemical and biological weapons and a program to build a nuclear bomb?

That suspicion is taking root in much of the world. I think it is wrong. But I also fear that the administration may have done grave damage to its own credibility abroad by overstating the quality of its intelligence and creating an expectation that it would find large arsenals of chemical and biological weapons in Iraq—an expectation that officials are no longer confident they can fulfill.

Unless we find such arsenals, or solid proof that Saddam had them until recently, people may be hard to convince that the administration is not crying wolf the next time it accuses a rogue nation of developing doomsday weapons.

To be sure, some suggest that Bush "doesn't owe the world any explanation for missing chemical weapons (even if it turns out that the White House hyped this issue)," in the words of New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, because ending Saddam's bloody tyranny was ample justification for the war.

This sort of logic may be good enough for the American electorate, at least for now. But it should not be. As Republicans used to stress, the president of the United States should tell the truth. Especially when he is beating war drums, and when the credibility of the nation is at stake.

Bush sold this war as pre-emptive self-defense against the threat posed by Saddam's chemical and biological weapons (and quest for nuclear weapons), not as a precaution against future production of chemical and biological weapons. Before the invasion, he spoke of liberating the Iraqi people as a happy side effect of war, not as a necessary or sufficient reason for it. He assured the United Nations that if Saddam disarmed, the U.S. would not disturb his brutal tyranny.

At this writing, no chemical or biological weapons have turned up in Iraq, to the apparent surprise and chagrin of high-level administration officials. No mustard gas. No VX. No anthrax. Not one vial.

U.S. investigators have found what they believe to be one or more mobile biological weapons laboratories—a potential semi-smoking gun, in the view of one well-placed official. They have also found protective suits and atropine to ward off chemical weapons, and materials that could be used to make chemical weapons. But it remains to be seen whether the mobile labs could have had benign purposes and the protective equipment could have been intended for defensive use.

On May 13, Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the 101st Airborne Division in northern Iraq, told reporters: "There's no question that there were chemical weapons years ago," but "I just don't know whether it was all destroyed years ago," or "destroyed right before the war," or "whether they're still hidden" (emphasis added).

This is not what one would have expected after pre-war statements such as Bush's March 17 assertion to the nation that "intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised." Or such as portions of Colin Powell's February 5 speech to the U.N.: "This is evidence, not conjecture. This is true. This is all well documented.... Our conservative estimate is that Iraq today has a stockpile of between 100 and 500 tons of chemical-weapons agent. That is enough agent to fill 16,000 battlefield rockets.... Saddam Hussein has chemical weapons.... And we have sources who tell us that he recently has authorized his field commanders to use them."

Now, by contrast, the official line about weapons of mass destruction seems to be morphing from 1) unqualified assertions that "we will find them," as Bush told NBC's Tom Brokaw on April 24; to 2) suggestions that Saddam may have quickly destroyed WMD or shipped them off to Syria in recent months to avoid detection by U.N. inspectors; to 3) speculations that perhaps Saddam had ended the deployment of large stocks of difficult-to-maintain WMD years ago, choosing instead to build mobile labs and the like to give himself the capability of making WMD whenever he chose.

The first theory may prove to be true, but it looks increasingly forlorn in the context of statements such as those by Gen. Petraeus.

The second theory improbably posits that after spending billions on WMD, Saddam decided, under threat of invasion and death, to get rid of them clandestinely rather than trying to save himself by either surrendering them publicly or using them to stop the invaders. This theory is also hard to square with the pre-war administration claims that WMD had been deployed to Iraqi units. (If so, why didn't coalition troops find any of them after overrunning those units?) And it would tend to support the anti-war mantra that the U.N. inspections could contain any Iraqi threat. Besides, if indeed Saddam did send his WMD abroad, the Bush policy may have exacerbated the proliferation that it was supposed to prevent.

The third theory may be the most plausible. But if Saddam did get rid of his WMD years ago, it means that Hans Blix was right to accuse the administration of relying on "shaky" intelligence; that U.S. officials misled the world, negligently albeit not deliberately; and that Bush miscalculated Saddam's intentions as badly as Saddam miscalculated Bush's.

This does not mean that Saddam was not a threat. Three pillars of the administration's WMD case are clearly true: U.N. inspectors found vast quantities of chemical and biological weapons and an active nuclear program in Iraq during the 1990s; lots of the weapons had not been destroyed before those inspectors were forced out of the country; and those weapons remain unaccounted for to this day, because Saddam contemptuously spurned many chances to show the U.N. any documentation of their destruction.

The administration assumed, logically enough, that Saddam had kept these weapons. After all, if he had destroyed them, wouldn't he have proved it to the world rather than seeing his country suffer through years of devastating U.N. economic sanctions and exposing himself unnecessarily to invasion and death?

Perhaps not, theorizes David Rivkin, a Washington lawyer who served in the Reagan and first Bush administrations and has close ties to the current administration. Perhaps Saddam got rid of his weapons (but not his development programs) to make sure that U.N. inspectors did not stumble across them, but hoped that—by bluffing that he still had them—he could continue to intimidate his neighbors and could deter Bush from marching into Baghdad. Perhaps he assumed that the surest way to invite an invasion would be to show Bush how defenseless he was.

And once the world's attention had turned elsewhere, Rivkin's theory suggests, Saddam could have used his blueprints to develop new chemical, biological, and, ultimately, nuclear weapons: "What mattered the most, and provided the most compelling strategic justification for the regime change, was Saddam's unshakable commitment to retain, on a long-term basis, a viable WMD effort."

Rivkin may be right. But Seymour M. Hersh may also be right in contending (in the May 12 New Yorker) that the administration gave undue credence to ideology-driven intelligence analyses prepared by the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans. That unit was set up in late 2001 by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz because Pentagon hawks were dissatisfied with the reluctance of the CIA and other intelligence agencies to support their claims that Iraq was both awash in banned weapons and allied with Al Qaeda. These analysts, claims Hersh, persuaded the White House to trust Iraqi defectors of questionable veracity and to brush aside evidence inconsistent with their speculations and hawkish assumptions.

In a speech last October, for example, Bush made much of Hussein Kamel, Saddam's son-in-law and weapons chief, whose defection to Jordan in 1995 forced Saddam's regime "to admit that it had produced more than 30,000 liters of anthrax and other deadly biological agents." But Bush and other officials have ignored Kamel's statements to U.N. interviewers that all of these weapons had been produced before the 1991 Gulf War and destroyed during the early 1990s. (Kamel was killed after being lured back to Iraq with his family in 1996.)

If the world ends up concluding that Saddam did destroy most or all of his WMD years ago, both the president's credibility and America's security will have suffered a serious self-inflicted wound.