Commentary

Weapons of Mass Distraction

By Charles V. Peña
July 7, 2003

Almost two months after a swift and decisive military victory, weapons of mass destruction (WMD) have yet to be found in Iraq. At a minimum, this is an embarrassment for the Bush administration. And if WMD are eventually found, it won’t matter because Iraq was not a threat to the United States in the first place — a point many observers gloss over.

WMD was the primary justification for launching a pre-emptive war against Iraq. Before the war, President Bush accused Iraq of having WMD and enough material “to produce over 25,000 liters of anthrax — enough doses to kill several million people … more than 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin — enough to subject millions of people to death by respiratory failure … as much as 500 tons of sarin, mustard and VX nerve agent.” Secretary of State Colin Powell reinforced Bush’s claims at a February presentation to the United Nations Security Council, where Powell provided photographic and audio intelligence as evidence to make the administration’s case.

The current situation is rich with irony and contradiction. According to the administration, the U.N. weapons inspectors were incapable of finding any WMD because the Iraqi regime was engaged in an elaborate game of cat and mouse, moving weapons around to stay one step ahead of the inspectors (assuming they knew where to look in the first place). Furthermore, the inspectors were unable to interview scientists and officials with knowledge about WMD without fear of intimidation and retribution by Iraqi “minders.”

Now, U.S. weapon inspectors have unimpeded access to Iraq. Most of the people who are supposed to know something about Iraq’s WMD have been rounded up and are able to freely divulge their secrets. Yet the United States has been no more successful than the U.N.

The ultimate irony is Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz’s statement that finding WMD in Iraq is “going to take time, and we’re going to have to be patient.” Time and patience are what the administration was unwilling to give the U.N weapons inspectors.

The administration is confident that weapons will eventually be found. But what really matters, it says, is that the world is now a better place because the coalition has rid Iraq of an evil dictator and liberated the Iraqi people from his brutality. This revisionist rationale appears to satisfy most Americans. British Prime Minister Tony Blair — who is under fire from the Tory and Liberal Democrats and his own Labour Party, especially for his claim that Iraq had WMD that could be launched within 45 minutes — is repeating the same mantra, but not getting the same reception.

Senate and House intelligence committees have started closed-door hearings about the quality of the intelligence and how it was used by the Bush administration. A similar investigation is underway in the British Parliament. The obvious story in the making is about false premises for war and the potential fall from grace of Bush and Blair if WMD are not found in Iraq.

The less obvious, but more important, story is if WMD are found in Iraq. The discovery of such weapons would not justify the war. Nor would it vindicate the administration because the administration will still have to explain how Iraq posed a direct and imminent threat to the United States. Defeating Iraq’s military in three weeks is evidence that Iraq did not pose a military threat.

The possibility, acknowledged by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, that the Iraqis might have destroyed their WMD prior to or during the war only reinforces the notion that they were not a threat. More importantly, if the Iraqis had chemical or biological weapons but did not use them to defend their own country against a foreign invader, how and when were they ever going to use such weapons? Indeed, Saddam appears to have been deterred from using WMD to defend himself even as his regime was crumbling around him.

On a related note, it’s clear that Iraq was not a hotbed of al Qaeda operations as was Afghanistan under the Taliban regime. Thus, the U.S. preoccupation with Iraq and WMD diverted America’s attention from the real threat and what should be the focus of the war on terrorism: the al Qaeda terrorist network operating in 60 countries around the world.

Rand Beers, who recently quit as special assistant to the president for combating terrorism because he was disenchanted with the way the administration was handling the war on terrorism, believes the focus on Iraq has diverted manpower, brainpower, and money; created fissures in the alliance to fight the war on terrorism; and could breed a new generation of al Qaeda recruits. That is too high a price to pay in exchange for a wild goose chase for Iraqi WMD, which are much ado about nothing. They are weapons of mass distraction.

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