Iraq: The phantom menace

George W. Bush's war plans in the Middle East have more to do with elections than global security.

Topics: George W. Bush, Iraq, Middle East,

Now we know just how vicious Saddam Hussein can be. Agreeing to unconditional United Nations inspections at a time when our president had his heart set on war is just the sort of mean-spirited treachery that one can expect from this modern-day Hitler.

The only greater betrayal will be if it turns out, upon inspection, that Iraq is not still building weapons of mass destruction and has no nuclear capability after all.

What if Scott Ritter, a one-time U.N. weapons inspector and former U.S. Marine who recently visited Baghdad, is right in arguing that Saddam’s arsenal is a pale shadow of its former self?

The creation of that original arsenal of chemical and biological weapons was greatly facilitated by U.S. companies’ sale of hardware to Iraq — sales that were approved during the 1980s, when the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush both sided with Iraq in its war with Iran.

These weapons, however, were largely eliminated by previous inspections; what materiel remains, Ritter has argued, has deteriorated to the point of uselessness.

As for nuclear weapons, Iraq’s program lags far behind that of other unstable extremist nations, including Iran, North Korea and Pakistan. Yet we have lifted sanctions against Pakistan intended to end its nuclear program, are building a nuclear plant for power generation in North Korea and have chosen to ignore Iran’s well-documented nuclear weapons program.

And if concern over Iraq’s nuclear program was truly the issue, we could destroy any suspicious installations from the air, as the Israelis did two decades ago in demolishing Iraq’s French-built nuclear reactor.

Still, we must go to war or voters might start focusing on the dismal state of the economy under George W. Bush’s stewardship and return a Democratic Congress in the November elections, right? Fortunately for Bush, arguments over Iraq now dominate water-cooler talk, rather than group commiseration over our Incredible Shrinking 401Ks — but that can change.

What if people start asking about that miraculous tax cut that Bush made the centerpiece of his domestic program and that now has left the national accounts once again floating in red ink? The failure of inspectors to find weapons of mass destruction would make it appear that Bush has been using Iraq as a scapegoat for his own domestic problems.



Not to worry, though. If the inspectors fail to find weapons of mass destruction, the Bush administration still is prepared to make the case for what it calls “regime change,” a fine Orwellian phrase that certainly sounds more sanitary than the old-fashioned word “war,” with all its nasty implications of death and madness. The trick is to make the lack of evidence of such weapons more convincing of their existence than real evidence would be.

That extremely convenient cop-out was most absurdly expressed by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who has declared that “absence of evidence” of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq should not be considered “evidence of absence.”

But the guilty-no-matter-what doctrine will ultimately not go down easily with the American public, and certainly not worldwide. That’s why President Bush had to go to the United Nations and attempt to make the case that Iraq had threatening weapons. That tactic has now backfired; it would be a global embarrassment if Bush at this point turned down Saddam Hussein’s offer of unconditional inspections.

But it also would be devastating if inspectors went there and found only old U.S. ordnance given to Iraq by Bush’s father and Reagan. It was embarrassing enough for the younger Bush in his speech to the United Nations to be reduced to trotting out examples of Iraq’s war crimes from the days when Saddam was a de facto ally of the United States. It’s so inconvenient that Iraq did not appear to use any chemical or biological weapons during the Gulf War or in the decade since but definitely did back when Saddam was our partner in the war against Iran’s Islamic revolution.

Worse, U.S. companies, with the permission of the Reagan and elder Bush administrations, supplied Saddam with the ingredients for making such savage weapons. The CIA reported that Iraq was using mustard gas against Iran as early as 1983 and nerve gas against Iranian troops a year later, yet the Reagan administration removed Iraq from its list of terrorist nations and approved the sale of 60 Hughes helicopters later used to spray lethal chemicals on civilians. The United States gave this man we now casually call a Hitler $1.5 billion in weapons and technology in the five years before the Gulf War.

Bush has fallen into a trap of his own design by going to the United Nations seeking approval. If the inspectors who now go to Iraq find new weaponry, it can easily be destroyed, but that would cheat Bush of an excuse for the war he desperately wants.

Robert Scheer is a syndicated columnist.

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