Published on Monday, April 7, 2003 by the lnternational Herald Tribune
The Mystery of Saddam's Banned Arms
by Jon B. Wolfsthal
WASHINGTON -- As each day passes without chemical or biological weapons being found in Iraq, questions increase. In Washington, battle lines are already being drawn about what the success or failure to find such weapons in Iraq might mean for the legitimacy of the war itself.
The Bush administration has maintained that Iraq not only possesses chemical and biological weapons, but that those weapons posed an imminent threat to the United States. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency published a report in October stating that chemical and biological weapons production was under way in Iraq. This alleged threat was the public justification for short-circuiting the United Nations inspection process and launching the military campaign against the regime of Saddam Hussein.
So far no weapons of mass destruction have been used against allied troops. Unfortunately for the Bush administration's case against Iraq, however, no such weapons have been discovered in any form. While the search is only a few weeks old, this suggests three possibilities: that U.S. intelligence may not know the exact location of such weapons; that such weapons are only in areas controlled by troops loyal to Saddam; or that none are in Iraq, as the regime asserts.
If and when any weapons of mass destruction are discovered, those who supported the war in Iraq can be expected to use the find to justify the U.S.-led intervention. But if such weapons are located based on solid U.S. intelligence information, it raises other questions. If the U.S. knew where such weapons were, why was the information not given to UN inspectors? If inspectors could have been used to find such weapons, why was war necessary?
If the discovery of weapons of mass destruction happens by chance, it will suggest that the inspectors might have been just as likely as the U.S. military to have found those weapons, given the time they requested to search. Moreover, unless the weapons found are of the most potent kind - VX nerve gas or weaponized anthrax - and in vast amounts, there will be many questions about why they posed the imminent threat alleged by the administration. So finding such weapons does not in itself mean that the U.S. action against Iraq was required or that war was the only way to uncover and eliminate those weapons.
Even worse for the U.S. case against Saddam, however, is that as each day passes, conspiracy theories grow that any chemical or biological weapons found might well be planted by U.S. forces. With anti-American sentiment and suspicion of U.S. information and motives growing, especially in the Middle East and Europe, the international public relations battle to convince other countries that any weapons found are of Saddam's own making will be an uphill battle.
To undercut such allegations, the Bush administration should seek to reintroduce UN inspectors into Iraq as soon as any weapons are discovered to provide objective assessments of what is found. But given the strength of opposition to the UN among hardline elements in the Bush administration, such a development is very unlikely.
The worst case for the administration and U.S. credibility globally is if no weapons of mass destruction are found in Iraq. In the runup to the war, key officials, including President George W. Bush himself, cited Iraqi weapons programs that turned out to be false leads or even outright forgeries. This has stretched U.S. credibility and added to international suspicion of American motives in attacking Iraq.
Failure to discover chemical and biological weapons in Iraq will be used by many groups and countries to vilify the United States. It will also reinforce claims that such weapons were only a pretext for America to remove Saddam's regime for other political or geostrategic reasons. Any attempt by America to allege that Iraq destroyed its weapons at the last minute or shipped them out of country are likely to be viewed with great skepticism.
Most disturbingly, such a turn of events would all but eliminate U.S. credibility on weapons of mass destruction globally. Claims by Washington about weapons programs and intentions in North Korea and Iran would be viewed with suspicion while U.S. efforts to develop international responses to those serious nonproliferation challenges would be harder than ever.
The writer is deputy director of the nonproliferation project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington.
© 2003 the International Herald Tribune