"When I was working for Henry [Kissinger], the president was signing 500 letters a week to widows," said L. Paul Bremer, administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, during an interview this week with Washington Post editors and reporters. Bremer cited Richard Nixon's volume of sympathy notes to families of U.S. troops killed in Vietnam to suggest that the current rate of U.S. soldiers' deaths in Iraq -- one every two days since May 1 -- pales against the Vietnam death toll, isn't a strategic problem for U.S. forces and won't fuel sentiment to get out of Iraq. "I do not believe that the American people are quitters," he told us.
Bremer is not alone. Other administration and think tank hawks, columnists and TV talking heads also have a comfort level with the current American fatality rate in Iraq -- a sentiment not likely to be widely shared among families with loved ones on the line in Iraq.
Just ask the District's Vernon Dent. On Tuesday in an area 16 miles northwest of Baghdad, Dent's youngest child, Darryl, a D.C. National Guard soldier, was killed in action. "That's my baby boy. He was a good kid," said the grieving and emotionally spent father. "You saw him, you saw me. . . . We were best friends."
But to America's national security elite, both in and out of government, what's one or two dead GIs every two days, especially when compared with Nixon's hundreds of body bags each week?
For nearly an hour, the dapper and sharp-witted Bremer fielded a range of questions about the American occupation, reconstruction costs, terrorist threats, the U.S.-appointed 25-member Iraqi Governing Council and the U.N. role in postwar Iraq. But as the interview drew to a close, one topic had not come up. So it fell to me to raise the unmentionable with the U.S. occupation chief: How goes the search for weapons of mass destruction?
I was the skunk at the party.
Bremer didn't say much beyond the fact that David Kay has about 1,200 people in Iraq working for him on weapons of mass destruction. Bremer indicated the team was making progress. And in a comment I found pregnant with significance, Bremer said he was confident they would find evidence of the biological and chemical "programs." Left unsaid was whether Kay and company would get beyond discovering "evidence of . . . programs" and actually find the weapons, there being a difference between the two. The word "nuclear," by the way, never passed Bremer's lips.
Which gets us back to why we went to war.
For that, let's revisit the day our nation marched to the brink: Wednesday, Feb. 5,when Secretary of State Colin Powell traveled to the United Nations to tell the rest of the world what the Bush administration knew about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein's efforts to build a stockpile of them. And as if to underscore their confidence in the intelligence on which Powell's speech was to base his unqualified declarations, the Bush administration arranged for CIA Director George Tenet also to be seated in the Security Council chamber.
That day Powell, a highly decorated former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, convinced me and plenty of others that Iraq, already in violation of U.N. resolutions, continued to harbor and build weapons of mass destruction and that Hussein was a threat to this country and must be disarmed. I wrote as much in a column the following Saturday.
The ensuing mail wasn't pretty. A former Army lieutenant, I soldiered on.
Well, now Iraq is occupied; so are our troops, trying to stay alive. Occupation forces are struggling mightily to bring democracy and electricity to Iraq, not necessarily in that order. But the big question lingers: Where are those weapons of mass destruction?
I've come to discover -- belatedly some might say -- that the Bush administration is great at changing the subject when it comes to Iraq. Pro-administration revisionists would now have us think that the March invasion was really, truly, cross-their-hearts-and-hope-to-die all about liberating Iraqis from a tyrannical regime and bringing democracy to that country and its Arab neighbors.
That's not what Powell told the world. There wasn't a word in his speech about transforming the Arab world. Powell's message was all about the dangers we faced and how time was a wastin.' "The gravity of this moment is matched by the gravity of the threat that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction pose to the world," he told the United Nations. Weapons of mass destruction "are real and present dangers to the region and the world."
He described a frightening future unless the world acted quickly. "Leaving Saddam Hussein in possession of weapons of mass destruction for a few months or years is not an option," Powell said. And he left no doubt that the United States had the goods on Iraq. "Every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we're giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid evidence."
So where are the "real and present dangers?" The administration's failure to produce the goods is deeply troubling, especially for those of us who bought what Powell was selling.
Am I now off the reservation? Not yet. But if at the moment Powell can't put his hands on those weapons, it sure would be helpful if he and his administration colleagues produced for public viewing the sources of his vaunted intelligence on making the case for a U.S.-British preemptive strike. For starters, I have in mind:
• Proof that Hussein's late son, Qusay, issued an order directing the removal of all prohibited weapons from Hussein's palaces.
• Evidence that Hussein directly participated in efforts to prevent interviews with Iraqi scientists.
• Public appearances by: first, the Iraqi chemical engineer who allegedly witnessed a biological agent production run and saw an accident at a production site in 1998; second, the Iraqi civil engineer knowledgeable about the biological agent program who confirmed the existence of transportable facilities moving in trailers; third, the human source who corroborated the movement of chemical weapons in May 2002; fourth, the eyewitness who saw prisoners being experimented on to perfect biological or chemical weapons; fifth, the sources that said a missile brigade outside Baghdad was disbursing warheads containing biological warfare agents to various locations in western Iraq.
Whatever the circumstances at the time, those sources have nothing to fear from Hussein today. Produce them.
The Bush administration beat the drums for war, with Powell among those pounding the loudest. And since the invasion, hundreds of Americans have died -- we're taking casualties every day -- and the nation is bleeding a billion dollars a week. Iraqis are bearing the heaviest burdens of all.
Produce the goods.
Bremer, Paul Wolfowitz and the administration's whiz kids cut no ice with me; they seem to make it up as they go along and can be expected to say anything to get their way. The thought of Powell squandering his credibility on them is hard to stomach, especially given this nation's outpouring of precious blood and treasure. So because I think better of Powell and hope that his case for disarming Iraq holds up, I'm not yet off the reservation.
But my bags are packed.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company