Commentary

Different Messenger, But Same Message: War

By Charles V. Peña
This article was published in the Orange County Register, Feb. 9, 2003.

Secretary of State Colin Powell’s presentation to the U.N. Security Council wasn’t anything that hasn’t been said before. To be sure, he provided more detailed information in the form of photographs and intercepted radio conversations. But this was simply more evidence affirming what we already know: that Iraq has chemical and biological weapons and continues to pursue development of nuclear weapons.

However, the issue of whether Iraq has weapons of mass destruction completely misses the more important and fundamental question relative to U.S. security. If mere possession of WMD is the criteria for pre-emptive U.S. military action, then Iraq should not be the only target. After all, according to the Pentagon, existing and emerging threats to the United States include 12 countries with nuclear weapons’ programs, 13 countries with biological weapons, and 16 with chemical weapons.

The relevant issue should be whether Iraq directly threatens the United States requiring pre-emptive U.S. military action. The litmus test to use military force must be that the territorial integrity, national sovereignty, or liberty of the United States is at risk. To begin, although Iraq has chemical and biological weapons, it does not have any military capability to directly attack the United States. None. Zero. Artillery shells capable of carrying chemical munitions possibly tens of miles do not constitute a threat. The longest range weapons Iraq has are a handful of Scud missiles with a range of several hundred kilometers — again, not enough to reach the United States. And the Iraqi military is about half of what it was when the United States defeated it in less than one week in the first Gulf War. Thus, the threat that has been conjured up by the administration is the merging of two disparate notions: WMD and terrorism. Playing on the public’s sense of fear and vulnerability in the aftermath of September 11, the administration’s argument comes down to the assertion that Iraq will give weapons of mass destruction to al Qaeda terrorists.

To be sure, Saddam and al Qaeda share a common hatred for the United States. However, that is hardly an overwhelming incentive for Iraq to hand over weapons of mass destruction, especially if it knows that it would be at the top of the suspect list and the target of decisive U.S. retaliation. Indeed, the lesson of the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan is that such an association is a prescription for regime change.

And there is no history of Iraq giving weapons of mass destruction to terrorists. Saddam has had more than a decade to arm Palestinian suicide terrorists with chemical and biological weapons to use against Israel, a country hated as much as the United States. Yet he has not done so. On the contrary, Saddam trusts only a few loyal officers with such weapons. There just isn’t a mountain of evidence supporting the administration’s position. Indeed, it’s more like a molehill. According to Powell, alleged linkages to al Qaeda involve connecting Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi to the Ansar al-Islam terrorist group operating in northeastern Iraq. But this is Kurdish-controlled territory protected by U.S.-led enforcement of the no-fly zone, and collaboration between Ansar al-Islam and the Iraqi regime is not proven. Furthermore, no case has been made that Iraq supported al Qaeda in the planning, financing, or operation of the 9/11 attacks.

Ultimately, the rationale for war rests less on what is known and proven and more on what is not known: the uncertainty that at some point in the future Iraq might give weapons of mass destruction to al Qaeda. As such, it is a leap of faith. Like religion, either you believe it or you don’t.

Thus, the case against Iraq remains unchanged. And the truth is that it hardly matters now. Powell had previously been the lone voice of restraint within the administration. Now his words echo those of the president, which means there are no longer any dissenting views to hold back the dogs of war.

All the pieces are in place. Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei will deliver a second weapons inspection report (not likely to be satisfactory) on Feb. 14. The U.S. military buildup in the region is projected to be complete on or about Feb. 15. On Feb. 18, the Turkish parliament will decide whether to allow U.S. combat troops to use their bases. Despite still being officially opposed to war, both Russia and France have dropped hints that they might acquiesce. Eighteen European leaders — led by Great Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair — have pledged their support to the United States, giving Bush a “coalition of the willing” (on paper, at least).

So, regardless of whether a convincing case has been made, one thing seems certain: war. Indeed, the day after Powell spoke at the U.N., President Bush said, “The game is over.”

Charles V. Peña is director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute.