Commentary

The Case of the Missing WMDs

Some war critics can barely contain their glee about the missing Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. But they may be setting themselves up for a fall. As the Bush administration constantly reminds us, Iraq is a big country, and the weapons may yet turn up. If they do, does that mean the administration is vindicated?

Hardly. The focus on missing weapons threatens to obscure the larger point: that with or without chemical and biological weapons, Iraq was never a national security threat to the United States.

The proposition that Saddam Hussein was willing to hand over WMD to terrorists appears to have been based on sheer speculation, and implausible speculation at that. Despite over 20 years of supporting terror against Israel, Hussein never turned over chemical or biological weapons to Palestinian terror groups, reasoning, correctly, that such action would provoke massive retaliation. Still less was he likely to hand over such weapons to Al Qaeda, a group that has long opposed his “socialist infidel” rule and could not trust to keep the deal secret.

Moreover, Al Qaeda’s behavior suggests that they never expected Saddam to give them WMD. Computer hard drives and paper documents seized in the March 1 capture of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, a top-level Al Qaeda operative, reveal that the terror group had extensive plans to produce chemical and biological agents on its own. As the Washington Post reported on March 23, the documents show that Al Qaeda had recruited competent scientists and extensively mapped out its plans for anthrax production. If access to Iraqi WMD was a real possibility, why would Al Qaeda go to such lengths to produce its own?

And even if one believed the administration’s assertions that Hussein might risk destroying his regime by giving Al Qaeda WMD, it was obvious that a war aimed at overthrowing Hussein would greatly increase the chances of those weapons ending up in Al Qaeda’s hands. What possible disincentive could the Iraqi dictator have to transferring his arsenal to terrorists, once regime-change was underway and he had nothing left to lose? How could the administration ensure that Iraqi WMD would not be “privatized” and sold to the highest bidder in the chaos accompanying the collapse of the Baathist regime?

In fact, components for a “dirty bomb” may already be in the wrong hands. A large nuclear-material storage facility at Al Tuwaitha, south of Baghdad, was looted in the days following the war, and International Atomic Energy Agency officials fear that terrorists could make radiological bombs with the isotopes that have gone missing. What other dangerous materials or proscribed weapons have we lost track of in a “country the size of California”?

Sometime in the coming months, U.S. forces may well happen upon some VX canisters or anthrax stockpiles, and the administration will breathe a sigh of relief. Such a discovery may change the media’s focus, but it can’t change the facts: This war did not avert a serious threat to the United States. Instead, it may have created new ones.

Gene Healy is senior editor at the Cato Institute.