Even before Robin Cook's revelations that Tony Blair went to war without believing in the threat from Saddam's phantom arsenal, the air had been leaking out of the inflated official claims. No longer was he a dictator with concealed WMD. Instead he had morphed into someone with weapons programs, and his lethal strategic arsenal was downgraded to the unquantified potential of unidentified battlefield munitions that "military planning" determined could be ready for use in a 45-minute time frame.
But this new formulation still allows for retrograde elasticity: "Military planning" could imply plans that are current, future or obsolete, and we still do not know which battlefield weapons it refers to. But seven months on from the attack on Iraq, it is time to stop and pay tribute to the system that the US administration so energetically derided, determined as it was to apply military solutions to a political problem: the UN weapons inspections process.
Nothing has been discovered in Iraq that was not known to exist as a result of the inspections. With breathtaking disingenuousness, Blair and Bush now deny that they ever gave the impression that Iraq was close to possessing nuclear weapons or the means of delivering them. The weapons for which we went to war, in the most recent versions, were chemical and biological. Now, even they have dematerialized - from actual weapons to a sinister but insubstantial potential.
But Iraq's potential to make chemical weapons was known to the UN as a result of its UNSCOM inspections in the mid-90s. According to former head of UNSCOM, Rolf Ekeus, it had "eliminated Iraq's capabilities fundamentally in all areas". They had accounted for and destroyed all but one of Saddam's missiles, his secret biological weapons program and his chemical weapons program
It was also known that Iraq had retained the capacity to return to production. Why was that potential important to Iraq? In general terms, Iraq wanted to be a regional power. Specifically, Iraq's continuing preoccupation was with Iran. Chemical weapons had only been used during the war against Iran (in which, of course, Britain and the US were supporting Saddam) and both sides made use of them. Iraq still had such weapons at the time of the first Gulf war in 1991, but they are ineffective against a mobile and protected enemy and the US had threatened nuclear retaliation if Iraq did use them.
For Iraq, the use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war had been an important factor in avoiding defeat. After a decade of sanctions and of deterioration in Iraq's conventional military capacity, Iraq was militarily much weaker than Iran and the importance of retaining a potential for chemical weapons even greater.
Neither Bush nor Blair have produced evidence that turns these unpleasant but familiar facts into a "current" threat against the US, the UK or even Iraq's immediate neighbors. The question, as the UN inspectors knew, was not whether Iraq maintained a capacity to resume production of such weapons, but whether that potential had been activated after British and US bombing ended the inspections in 1998. The resumption of UN inspections - under the US administration's credible threat of the use of force - would have answered that question.
The cost of this adventure can be counted in many ways: there is the damage to future potential for international action against rogue states; the risk of terrorism is heightened; and the possibility of disaffected personnel from Iraq's weapons programs throwing in their lot with some kind of jihad is higher than before. Equally dangerous is the manner in which a system of internationally sanctioned monitoring and control has been sacrificed in favor of unilateral action.
If we have learned anything from this adventure, it is that weapons inspection - slow, unglamorous and difficult - is effective, even in a regime intent on concealment. If a rat poison factory is diverted to the manufacture of nerve agent, systematic monitoring can discover it. It may not look good on TV, but it works.
More dramatic interventions, on the other hand, have been counter productive. In 1981, Israel unilaterally bombed Iraq's nuclear reactor, supposedly to destroy Saddam's capacity to produce nuclear weapons. The bombing, in Ekeus' opinion, had no substantive impact on Iraq's nuclear potential. What it did do was encourage the Iraqis to speed up a clandestine development program that brought them to the brink of nuclear capacity by 1990.
By the beginning of this year, US pressure through the UN had succeeded in forcing the resumption of inspections. We will probably never know what they might have found. But the next dictator who tries to transform himself from a local thug into an international menace by acquiring WMD will have less to fear from the difficult, patient and methodical inspections that the UN inspections teams pursued. Bush and Blair have seen to that.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003