- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 19, 2004

In all the millions of words spent over the Iraq war, three issues have dominated: Did Iraq have weapons of mass destruction (WMD)? Were there links between Iraq and al Qaeda? And was the threat imminent?

Another report on Iraqi weapons, from the Iraq Survey Group, is due in the coming weeks, and no doubt it will open up rather than resolve the endless arguments, and more words will flow.

Yet a more logical debate would understand that none of these issues was crucial: The key questions were whether Iraq could be contained (and if not, could it acquire fissile material in the near future); and whether protecting our access to Gulf oil at reasonable prices justified war. One’s views on these issues generally determine whether you support or oppose the decision to go to war.

Of the three dominating issues, the links matter was the most fatuous and indeed hypocritical. Whether Saddam Hussein would engage an agent to deploy WMD in the United States was a decision to be made by Saddam, not al Qaeda. Saddam headed a murderous regime and could have found all the agents he might have needed at home.

If, inconceivably, he thought only al Qaeda had the required skills, can anyone believe that even if they had no “collaborative relationship,” as the September 11 commission found, or no “formal relationship” as the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee found, Saddam would not ask al Qaeda to staff the mission, or that al Qaeda would say, “sorry, you are secular, and by the way we were never formally introduced.” In fact, with the world focused on al Qaeda, bin Laden would have been Saddam’s worse choice.

The flip side of this issue is that those who claimed no link and no justification existed for the war are implying that if a link were found they would have agreed the war was justified. Not on your life; they would then have argued how ridiculous that was.

As for WMD, the administration claimed that the war was justified because Saddam had biological and chemical weapons and was attempting to acquire a nuclear arsenal. Critics have argued with relish that the war was not justified because its major premise was found to be false: No WMD have been found, and U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix and Iraq Survey Group head David Kay have proclaimed they did not exist. As with the links issue, this position implies that the war was justified if WMD did exist, and no doubt many critics were of that view. But those not of this view were, again, dissembling the issue on which they opposed the war.

Logically, this hotly debated issue was not about WMD themselves but about containment. If Saddam could be contained, he was not a threat because if he had weapons, they would be found and destroyed, and if he didn’t have them, he would be prevented from acquiring them. That is what containment means. On the other hand, if he could not be contained, he was a threat if he had the weapons and also if he didn’t, because unrestrained he had the ambition and capability to acquire them.

As to containment, critics, and the Senate committee, keep telling us the inspectors “left” or “departed from” Iraq in December l998. In reality, they were expelled, as Saddam had mandated they could no longer inspect. What were they to do: twiddle their thumbs? Advocates of inspection claim containment had worked and would again, but in truth it hadn’t. Neither diplomacy nor Bill Clinton’s Desert Fox attacks had restored the inspectors. Moreover, no one can read the final reports of the UNSCOM inspectors in early l999 without believing that Saddam retained WMD capacity.

Inspection is at the heart of containment, and as Mr. Blix so often emphasizes in his book, “Disarming Iraq,” only a credible military threat could restore the inspectors, and only maintaining that threat could keep them there. Mr. Bush did succeed in restoring the inspectors in the fall of 2002, but it was not possible to maintain a military threat for more than a few months. A serious force could not be retained in the region for any considerable period, and once reduced could not realistically be replenished, considering all the doubts there would be as to whether a threat required new forces. We now know the inspectors would have shortly reported there were no weapons (probably because the stockpiles, the red-herring of all red-herrings, were destroyed and the facilities dismantled or hidden), making it impossible to again threaten Iraq.

If the U.N. wouldn’t support war when it believed Saddam had WMD, would the U.N. or the Congress support a war when Mr. Blix had given Saddam a clear bill of health? Saddam would emerge from the great crisis free of sanctions, and the Gulf and the United States would remain at risk. Containment was the dream of those who aimed for disarmament, the “peace in our time” of this issue.

It is of interest on this issue that Mr. Blix tells us in his book that he construed his mission as executive director of UNMOVIC not to find WMD, as we had thought, but to provide an opportunity for Saddam to convince the world he did not have WMD.

As for imminence, critics enjoyed complaining that the administration had not proved the imminence of the threat from Saddam. In that context, the threat meant the deployment of WMD in the homeland. Did anyone really believe that the CIA should have been able to know when Saddam was about to hand anthrax or VXX to an agent for deployment in New York? The critics ought to have made a stronger claim: That it would have been stupid for Saddam to attack the United States; and indeed the CIA said that Saddam might do this only if under attack. Mr. Bush’s response was that terrorists were not polite enough to give notice of their impending attack, and that relying on Saddam’s sanity “was not an option.”

Imminence raises the two other real issues in the debate: oil and fissile material. The paramount reasons for war were not possession or control but defending access to Gulf oil and defending the homeland against Iraqi WMD. Nuclear weapons are powerful tools; their strength lies in their ability to intimidate others and in their value in deterring others from attacking. The administration believed, as had the intelligence community for over a decade, that with fissile material (one or two Coke cans of highly enriched uranium or plutonium for one bomb) Saddam would be able in seven to 12 months to make a nuclear bomb.

Thus protected, Saddam could attack or more likely intimidate the Gulf states and gain a dominant role in the production and sale of their oil resources. Because he would exercise that control not just for the profit but to exercise power on the world stage, he could precipitate a deep depression not only in the U.S. but globally.

The United States has long believed that it could not live with Saddam’s acquisition of such an arsenal. Few recall that Bush the elder justified the 1991 Gulf War for two reasons: because Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait was an intolerable breach of international law which “would not stand,” and because Saddam’s ambitions to control Gulf oil threatened international stability. The elder President Bush said exactly that in his first address to a joint session of Congress in 1992, and made the same point in at least 6 subsequent speeches and press conferences.

Further, although he did not publicly advocate regime change, one of the objects of Desert Storm was to stimulate an uprising of the Shia and the Kurds against Saddam. Mr. Clinton signed the Iraq Freedom Act, which adopted regime change as U.S. policy, although it only authorized funds for that purpose. Indeed, when the Soviets by invading Afghanistan threatened to interrupt our access to oil, President Carter proclaimed that such a threat would be met with military action.

Certainly few will recall that in those days of less passion and more thought, icons like the New York Times and The Washington Post recognized and supported Mr. Bush’s action to protect access to Gulf oil. They have this time too, but they clang the bell of containment so powerfully that no one has paid any attention, which probably does not distress them at all.

Thus the prime threat presented by Iraq was to reasonable access to Gulf oil, and the threat was imminent because it was believed that Saddam did not then have a nuclear capability but could soon after he was able to acquire fissile material from a third party. All the other needed resources he had: informed scientists; plans for such a bomb; and the necessary manufacturing facilities.

Thus the threat was imminent in the sense that it required immediate action. A window of opportunity had been opened by September 11 and the related threat to the homeland to take action, before Saddam could go nuclear. The administration knew not how or when, but reasonably feared it could be soon.

On fissile material, there is evidence both ways. Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution recently wrote that Saddam had tried unsuccessfully for 35 years to acquire fissile material. On the other hand, Times Executive Editor Bill Keller says “the world is awash” with the stuff, the Times complains in an editorial that Russia’s immense stores are dangerously unprotected; the September 11 commission and the Carnegie Endowment both worry that terrorists might acquire such a weapon; a black market for nuclear components was running out of Pakistan; and India, Pakistan and North Korea now have the stuff. The president, whose responsibility it was, decided to act before the window might close.

On oil, dying for oil sounds awful and invites accusations that it was a Bush-Cheney war to enrich themselves and their oil baron friends. But it has not been just for oil, and not just to protect the homeland. Mr. Bush is commander in chief in a war where the opposition has the upper hand. How do you repel hordes of Islamic religious fanatics who relish death? September 11 imposed on Mr. Bush the obligation to protect the homeland, but it brought with it two opportunities — a window in which Saddam could be prevented from going nuclear and an opportunity to change the political dynamics in the Arab world by creating a democratic state in Iraq. Mr. Bush embraced them both, and history may well call his choice, and persistence, the noblest act of this young century. Or maybe not.

Arthur M. Borden is a lawyer in New York.

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