Saturday, October 4, 2003

The question is not whether Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The mystery is: What did he do with them?We should get some insights from the interim report on WMD in Iraq presented to members of Congress Thursday by David Kay and his Iraq Survey Group — 1,400 U.S. and British scientists and military intelligence experts. A final report is scheduled for release before the end of the month.

“We have not yet found stocks of weapons, but we are not yet at the point where we can say definitively either that such weapon stocks do not exist or that they existed before the war and our only task is to find where they have gone,” Mr. Kay said. At this point, he also said information suggests that, post-1996, Iraq focused on maintaining “smaller, covert capabilities that could be activated quickly to surge the production of BW [biological warfare] agents.”

So it would be prudent to sit tight and wait — but let’s not. Instead, let’s consider the possibilities and take a stab at what, based on the information available, we think is the true story of Saddam and the WMD.

First, as noted, rule out the possibility — often misleadingly implied by the antiwar/pro-appeasement crowd — that Saddam never had WMD.

He not only had chemical weapons — he used them to slaughter thousands of Kurdish men, women and children. Saddam’s son-in-law dropped a dime on him for brewing biological weapons. (Said son-in-law was later executed.) As for nukes, Saddam would have had them in the 1980s had Israel not bombed his reactor; he would have had them in the 1990s if not for the Gulf war, Part One. And remember: After Saddam’s 1991 defeat, we learned his nuclear weapons development program was much further along than our best intelligence analysts had believed.

Now, what’s the chance that, after 1991, Saddam said to himself: “That’s it. I’m not playing around with these dangerous toys any more. All I want now is to create the best darn health care system in the Middle East. And I certainly wouldn’t want to get those prickly Americans angry at me again.”

No, had Saddam seen the world in that light, he would not have spent the next few years slaughtering Kurds and Shi’ites, ethnically cleansing Marsh Arabs, attempting to assassinate former President George W. Bush, enduring economic sanctions that cost him billions of dollars and playing hide-and-seek with the U.N. weapons inspectors.

What’s more, every reputable intelligence service in the world — including the French — believed Saddam’s WMD programs were ongoing in this period. So what did happen over the last dozen years? One possibility is that sometime before the Gulf war, Part Two, he transferred his stockpiles — to Syria, Lebanon or elsewhere. A number of knowledgeable analysts believe this frightening scenario. Let’s hope it isn’t true.

Time magazine has explored a scenario right out of a John LeCarre novel: According to some Iraqis interviewed by Time, Saddam believed he had a vast arsenal of WMD, but his scientists and technicians deceived him, diverting billions of dollars to other uses. If so, that would be an example of corruption. Or, it could be an example of idealism — maybe Saddam’s scientists didn’t want to help create a war machine for a despot. Or maybe it was a little of both.

Finally, there is this storyline: U.N. weapons inspector Richard Spertzel has said his team was “developing pretty good evidence of a continuing program in ‘97 and ‘98.” Then, in 1998, the inspectors were forced out, causing many analysts to conclude Saddam would then be accelerating his programs. Perhaps Saddam decided to do just the opposite. Perhaps some time after that, Saddam decided to destroy his stockpiles of WMD, while retaining the plans and expertise to restart the programs again after a strategic pause during which he hoped to (1) rid himself of the feckless but pesky weapons inspectors and (2) give his bon ami, Jacques Chirac, time to get the sanctions lifted from his shoulders.

But if that’s the case, why would Saddam not have done so transparently and convincingly — as he was obligated to do under the various accords and U.N. Security Council resolutions to which he agreed in exchange for the 1991 cease-fire? Possible answer: Because that would have made him look weak to the Arab and Muslim masses. It was a point of honor, image and public relations for Saddam to be seen as defying the Great Satan, as not backing down, not even temporarily.

In other words, Saddam may have metaphorically wrapped his gun in a baggie and buried it in his backyard — and then walked out into the street waving a toy pistol at the world.

No matter. Such a gesture is still threatening. The use of lethal force was still a justified response. And whether Saddam had WMD last April or had divested himself of those weapons in what he thought was a clever strategic retreat, the fact remains he was still a threat to America and to the Middle East — as well as a genocidal monster.

He should have been toppled in 1991, after his rape of Kuwait. But the “international community” couldn’t stomach such decisiveness. The consequence was the U.S. was saddled with a policy of containment, which meant sanctions on the Iraqi people and U.S. troops indefinitely stationed on Saudi soil. It was those measures, you’ll remember, that Osama bin Laden called unpardonable insults to Islam, and used as his primary justifications to the Muslim world for the attacks of September 11, 2001. As usual, the U.S. enforced the will of the international community — and paid a heavy price for it.

Perhaps weapons inspector David Kay ultimately will find another plot in the miles of documents he is reading. But I would be willing to wager at least a beer or two that this last story line is not far from what will turn out to be the truth.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.

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