The remarkable images of the fall of Baghdad, while not signaling the end of "Operation Iraqi Freedom," do bring to an end a critical phase of the military operation - that in which coalition forces wore special protective equipment in anticipation of the use by Iraq of chemical and/or biological weapons.
The orders to strip down to regular battle dress reflect not only the advance stage of the campaign to liberate Iraq, but also the recognition by coalition commanders that the threat from Iraqi chemical and biological weapons has been all but eliminated.
The fact that these protective suits were not needed by coalition forces is a cause for celebration. But the total lack of chemical weapons on the battlefield, combined with the inability of the coalition, to date, to uncover any of the massive stockpiles of prohibited weapons or weapons-manufacturing capability, raises disturbing questions about what was supposed to be the main justification for the American-led military action: disarming a recalcitrant dictator.
While the days to come may bring with them the uncovering of weapons of mass destruction and/or associated production facilities, the inescapable fact is the allegations of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction used by the Bush administration to sustain the legitimacy of its Iraq intervention remain, as of this point, unsustained.
This uncomfortable fact must be addressed. It is not that anyone should shed tears for the demise of Saddam Hussein.The world will be a better place without him and his regime. But the world should be concerned about the damage the American military incursion did to the credibility and viability of the United Nations, especially given the dangerous world we all live in today.
Now, more than ever, the world needs a sound strategy for non-proliferation and disarmament. The United Nations had been, until recently, the accepted forum for dealing with such issues.
The Security Council passed a resolution requiring Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to be "removed, destroyed or rendered harmless" under the supervision of UN inspectors. But the American-led invasion of Iraq signaled the demise of the world organization as a vehicle for disarmament. The failure of the United Nations to fulfill its mandate of disarmament in Iraq was cited by President George W. Bush as the major factor for the decision by the United States to break ranks with the Security Council and go to war lacking an authorizing resolution. The United Nations, so the president argued, was either unwilling or unable to complete its mandate.
What if it turns out that Iraq was, in fact, disarmed? What if it transpires that the UN weapons inspectors had succeeded in their mandate, and that the Iraqi government had complied with its obligation? The consequences and ramifications of such a finding are many, and few are trivial.
The entire justification for this war will be thrown into doubt. Amb. John Negroponte's letter to the Security Council on March 20, 2003, underscored the Bush administration's position that the U.S. action against Iraq was justified by Iraq's being in material breach of its obligation to disarm, and that Iraq's failure to comply with UN resolutions regarding disarmament opened the door to military action to enforce international law. But if there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, there is no material breach. No matter how attractive regime change and liberation might be, one will have trouble finding a legal basis for military intervention under international law citing this as the reason.
Of greater concern are the circumstances behind the administration's provision of so-called "irrefutable intelligence" to members of Congress, information that swayed many to vote to give the president war powers authority in the fall of 2002. Sen. Dianne Feinstein's office has acknowledged that among the material briefed to the California Democrat by the CIA in the weeks before the Senate vote on granting war powers to the president were reports about Iraqi procurement of uranium ore from an African country. But we now know that the documents used to sustain this allegation were forged by a foreign intelligence service. Did the White House and the CIA know the information briefed to Congress was inaccurate? The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times quoted unnamed CIA officials as saying they had doubts about the credibility of the documents. These doubts, however, did not stop President Bush from referring to the reported procurement of uranium in his State of the Union Address.
Given what is known about the fabrication of evidence in the form of forged documents, a thorough investigation should be carried out by Congress into this matter. How did the intelligence community get it so wrong about Iraq and its capabilities? Does this fallibility extend to other trouble areas around the world? Can we accept at face value the current unsustained allegations being made by many in the Bush administration concerning Syrian chemical weapons programs? Or the rumors, again unsustained, that Iraq transported its weaons of mass destruction to Syria before the U.S.-led invasion?
Even if some caches of proscribed weapons are found by the coalition forces, it is hard to imagine how any cache could come close to matching the rhetorical stockpiles stated to exist by the American and British governments.
The irony here is that there is a real possibility that the UN succeeded in disarming Iraq and never even knew it. Now, more than ever, the U.S. and the UN need to repair their troubled relationship, and find a way to reach common cause on the issue of halting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and implementing effective strategies for disarmament. The promise of the UN Charter deserves this. The people of the world, including the United States, should demand nothing less.
Copyright © 2003, Newsday, Inc.