Top officials of the Defense and State departments have been busy on the lecture circuit, trying to rationalize the urgency of war. But their descriptions of "weapons of mass destruction" remain hazy. Secretary of State Colin Powell alluded to missing artillery shells and bombs "capable of" carrying chemical agents, and growth material which might be used to make "biological agents," saying these "terrible weapons put millions of innocent people at risk." But how could millions be killed by undiscovered warheads or surplus growth material?
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz provided the clearest answer in a talk to the Council on Foreign Relations: "Consider that in 1997, U.N. inspectors found Iraq had produced and weaponized at least 10 liters of ricin. In concentrated form, that quantity of ricin is enough to kill more than 1 million people. Baghdad declared to the U.N. inspectors that it had over 19,000 liters of botulism, enough to kill tens of millions; and 8,500 liters of anthrax, with the potential to kill hundreds of millions."
Mr. Wolfowitz's hyperbole about Saddam having the capability of killing "hundreds of millions" was surely intended to drum up support for quick action. But it seems more likely to provoke needless panic among those who don't know better and total disbelief among those who do.
One of the 1997 U.N. inspectors, Raymond Zilinskas, wrote about "Iraq's Biological Weapons" for the Journal of the American Medical Association. He noted that in 1990 "a few 155-mm caliber artillery shells were filled with ricin [but] tests did not go well." Iraq also loaded 100 small bombs with botulism, according to Zilinskas, and 50 with anthrax. But because about 90 percent of such agents would be destroyed on impact, he explained, "their effect would have been limited to contaminating a relatively small area of ground surrounding the point of impact and exposing nearby individuals."
What matters most is not how much ricin, botulism or anthrax Iraq may have, but how and where it could deliver such agents. A recent study by Britain's International Institute for Strategic Studies noted that "the magnitude of Iraq's biological weapons threat depends on its delivery capability, which appears limited... Assuming Iraq has retained a small force of 650 kilometer range al-Hussein missiles (the study guesses Iraq has a dozen), it could deliver BW warheads to cities in Israel, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran." In that case, "casualties in an unprotected area could run in the hundreds or even thousands." A risk of "hundreds" is serious, but very far from Mr. Wolfowitz's claim of "hundreds of millions."
The same British study concluded that Iraq's "chemical weapons arsenal is better known and less threatening... Its ability to disseminate effectively [chemical] agent with missile warhead is extremely limited and unlikely to cause large casualties... Air force capabilities are very weak."
Mr. Wolfowitz's acknowledged sources consisted of hearsay evidence from Iraq defectors and old reports from U.N. inspectors. An October 2002 CIA report on Iraq's weapons likewise relied almost exclusively on past discoveries by U.N. inspectors. That CIA report is full of references to what "most analysts believe" and the words "suggests" and "probably" -- which suggests they probably believe much and know little. In any event, it is hypocritical to rely on past discoveries of U.N. inspectors as evidence for waging war while simultaneously claiming inspectors cannot possibly discover anything.
Tiresome gripes about how impossible it is to find anything in a large country -- even huge missiles -- are also inconsistent with satellite photos that the CIA reports showing supposedly suspicious factories (a castor oil plant might make poisonous ricin or brake fluid; a chlorine plant might make deadly gas or ordinary bleach). Since the location of these factories is known, why not simply insist they be inspected?
The administration may have painted itself into a tight corner. Defense officials moved thousands of U.S. troops into the Middle East because they imagined such a "credible threat" would persuade Saddam to help inspectors find illicit weapons or go into exile. Unfortunately, those ambitious objectives failed to allow for a graceful U.S. exit. The sheer presence of so many idle troops circling Iraq is what now makes it so difficult for the White House to be patient about inspections, or to decide against invasion. There may be plausible (though secretive) reasons to go to war, but saving face is not one of them.
Ever since September 11, I have had an uneasy suspicion that excessive fascination with biological warfare was largely to blame for the failure of national security analysts to anticipate the risk of airplanes being used as weapons, even though we had ample experience with kamikaze aircraft in World War II.
Terrorists in the United States and Japan have tried using anthrax, botulism and nerve gas, yet the total number of fatalities from such "mass destruction" remains below two dozen. Deaths due to terrorist bombs, bullets and jet fuel, by contrast, are obviously much larger. Yet most of the millions the government doles out in research grants to security analysts has been devoted to hypothetical scenarios involving exotic germs and chemicals.
Administration officials may not need a "smoking gun," but they do need credible evidence that Iraq's actual weapons pose a clear danger to the United States, not just a possible threat to Iran or Israel. Invading Iraq would not remove the need for such proof -- it would, in fact, make finding the assumed "weapons of mass destruction" even more essential.
U.S. leadership would be permanently discredited if U.S. occupation forces ended up discovering few if any weapons that are nearly as dangerous as administration officials have claimed. We have to uncover the assumed Iraq weapons before or after a war, and before would be better.
The administration does not need support from Germany and France to go to war with Iraq, but it does need support from the American people. A sizable majority of patriotic Americans is asking for less rhetoric and more proof. It is not an unreasonable demand.