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Failure to Find Iraqi WMD May Affect America’s Credibility - 2003-06-02

On February 5th, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell gave an extremely detailed presentation to the United Nations’ Security Council of Iraq’s hidden weapons of mass destruction. He listed Iraq’s arsenal: 25,000 liters of anthrax, 38,000 liters of botulism toxin, 500 tons of sarin, mustard gas and V-X nerve agent, along with 30,000 munitions capable of delivering these biological and chemical agents.

To date, however, the United States has yet to find weapons of mass destruction at any of the sites that Mr. Powell cited in his presentation. The U.S. military unit charged with locating Iraq’s illegal weapons, the 75th Exploitation Task Force, is packing up and leaving the country without uncovering evidence of Saddam’s weapons programs.

Recently, Chief U-N Weapons Inspector Hans Blix told the Berlin newspaper Der Tagesspiegel that he suspected Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. He said, “the main justification for the war was weapons of mass destruction, and it may turn out that in this respect the war was not justified.”

Others, like Los Angeles Times newspaper columnist Robert Scheer, go as far as to talk of a compromised presidency. Mr. Scheer writes: “And in a more sober mood, one must still ask the embarrassing yet essential question: did our president knowingly deceive us in his rush to war?” If so, writes Mr. Scheer, “we would have to acknowledge that such an egregious abuse of power rises to the status of an impeachable offense.”

“I don’t think the President intentionally mislead Americans or world opinion on Iraq,” says Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a Washington-based think-tank. “The intelligence he received was that Saddam had these weapons and even Bill Clinton, his Democratic predecessor, has said that Bush can’t be blamed if his intelligence was faulty. It was the same intelligence that he, Clinton, got. Presidents have been told that these weapons exist. So the question is whether the intelligence was in fact faulty or not.”

Is it possible that the President of the United States was given erroneous information?

“As far as intelligence goes, those who watch Hollywood movies get a false idea that intelligence is perfect. Intelligence, and I’ve worked in intelligence, is still much more of an art than it is a science,” says Ralph Peters, a retired U.S. Army intelligence officer.

He says Saddam’s regime was extremely secretive, making intelligence gathering that much harder. But he remains confident that the deposed leader did indeed have weapons of mass destruction. “As far as the issue of whether the Bush Administration was lying,” he says, “I absolutely don’t think so. I think that sometimes elements within the Bush Administration got carried away with themselves and didn’t always adhere as closely to the hard data as they should have. Human beings get carried away in every culture, but it’s not quite the same as lying. They would have been so foolish to lie about that outright that I simply cannot credit it, and I can be very cynical about governments.”

Recently U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was asked about the Americans’ failure to uncover Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. He said the Iraqis “may have had time to destroy them, and I don’t know the answer.”

Could the failure to uncover Iraqi weapons of mass destruction come back to haunt President Bush, who is up for re-election in 2004? Mr. Marshall of the Progressive Policy Institute says it could, but it’s too early to tell.

“Right now public opinion is not registering any anger at the fact that these weapons haven’t been turned up,” he says, “and I think that it’s important to understand why. What I think is the case is that the public understands that it is Saddam’s intentions, not the weapons that he happened to have on hand at any given time, that posed the real long-term threat to American interests.”

“There may not be immediate domestic political consequences for George Bush because the American people seem to have moved beyond the war already,” says Jonathan Tucker, a specialist in weapons of mass destruction is now at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington.

“There may be long-term consequences for U.S. foreign policy as a result of the failure to find the weapons,” he says. “I think the main point is that the failure to confirm the allegations made by the U.S. intelligence community and Secretary Powell before the war are undermining the credibility or will undermine the credibility of U.S. claims in the future that countries pose such an imminent threat of use of weapons of mass destruction as to justify preventive war.”

“Everyone must remember that Saddam’s regime had 12 years to hide what amounts to basically a few thousand drums of chemicals and biological agents in a huge country the size of California,” says Colonel Ralph Peters. He says that while U.S. inspection teams haven’t turned up anything yet, that doesn’t mean they won’t.

“It was a very secretive regime, good at hiding things,” he says. “And so while many may have been destroyed, I remain confident that we will find certainly the pattern of the program and some concrete evidence, but it may take time. It may not be only a matter of a few months, it may be next year before we find something. So this rush to judgement is foolish. And in the meantime, no honest person could argue against the position that Iraq is much better off now without Saddam, whether or not we ever find weapons of mass destruction.”

Recent polls show that more than two-thirds of Americans believe the Iraq War was justified even if weapons are never found, whereas before and during the war almost half of Americans surveyed said it was essential for them to be found. Will Marshall of the Progressive Policy Institute says the unmasking of the brutal nature of the Iraqi dictator has played a big role in changing public opinion.

“If we haven’t found weapons, we’ve certainly found mass graves and more evidence of the monstrosity of the Saddam regime,” he says. “All of that is retroactively adding to the legitimacy of the invasion in most Americans’ eyes. But it’s very important that American presidents tell the truth abroad. I don’t think again that this president intentionally misled anybody, but if he was overconfident in the intelligence that he received, then I think he owes an account, a reckoning to the rest of the world on that account. Otherwise, this could do permanent damage to his – and by extension – America’s credibility.”

When President Bush released his new National Security Strategy doctrine last year, he made clear that America will act, sometimes pre-emptively, to stop so-called rogue states from acquiring weapons of mass destruction. Observers worry that if these are not found in Iraq, the United States will have trouble getting support for other actions against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.