Joe Conason's Journal

How will the Bush administration convince the American public that Saddam is an imminent threat -- when even "Stormin' Norman" disagrees?

Published January 28, 2003 7:23PM (EST)

Let the inspectors finish their work
Didn't the president warn a few months ago that we had to go to war against Iraq because Saddam Hussein was on the verge of obtaining nuclear weapons? That same alarm has been raised again and again by advocates of war, usually by distorting the tiny evidence that supported it. For a time, that frightening prospect convinced many Americans of the unavoidable necessity of war.

I predict we won't be hearing that claim much anymore from the White House, the Republican Party or the war-bloggers -- because the U.N. inspectors have found no evidence whatsoever that the Iraqis have reconstituted the nuclear weapons program that was destroyed in 1991. They debunked the bits of evidence that were supposed to support Bush's nuclear scare, including satellite photos of buildings at former nuclear sites and the importation of high-strength aluminum tubing. That tubing -- which Condoleezza Rice said was suitable "only" for enriching uranium -- is in fact unusable for that purpose according to Mohamed El Baradei, the head of the U.N. nuclear inspection teams.

What the inspectors did find, as they reported yesterday, were documents that recorded experiments to enrich uranium with a laser-based process. In other words, they found no bombs, no plutonium, no enriched uranium, no industrial process for producing enriched uranium, and no tools for creating such an industry. They found a "large cache" of papers in the home of an Iraqi scientist.

So much for that looming nuclear threat.

The inspectors headed by Hans Blix have found a number of empty chemical warheads, and a "laboratory quantity" of a mustard-gas precursor chemical, according to his report (which is very much worth reading in its entirety). Based on a key document turned over by the Iraqis, Blix also said he suspects that as many as 6,500 aerial chemical bombs that were supposed to have been used or destroyed may still exist. "The amount of chemical agent [mustard gas] in these bombs would be in the order of about 1,000 tonnes," according to him. Mustard gas dates back to World War I and is not the kind of terror weapon that can be turned over to al-Qaida. As the Wall Street Journal pointed out this morning, "the Iraqis lack the means of delivering enough to cause major problems" even in a battlefield situation. They certainly have no way of sending it over here. If we aren't going to war over Iraqi's nascent nuclear arsenal -- which evidently doesn't exist -- are we instead going to war over mustard gas that may or may not exist?

What the report of Hans Blix makes plain is that while there are no reasons to trust Iraq, the Iraqi regime is gradually yielding access and information under the pressure of military force and U.N. Security Council resolutions. As Blix pointed out, the previous inspection effort between 1991 and 1998 succeeded in destroying an enormous quantity of extremely dangerous biological and chemical weapons, as well as preventing any renewal of Iraq's destroyed nuclear weapons program. His assessment of Iraqi cooperation to date is mixed, but his teams have been making steady progress. They are scheduled to double and triple in size as new inspectors complete training and are deployed to the field.

The president and others who are eager to invade must now explain why, in the absence of a nuclear threat, Iraq presents an imminent danger to the security of the United States. They must explain why an aggressive inspection regime, whose credibility is now being proved by Blix and El Baradei, isn't better than a war that will cost thousands of lives. Maintaining military pressure on Iraq while the inspectors carry out their tasks, even if it takes several months, is a far saner and less expensive proposition than an invasion whose consequences cannot be foreseen. (Did I mention that "Stormin' Norman" agrees the inspectors should be allowed to complete their job -- and that he isn't a member of the Rummy fan club?)
[11:15 a.m. PST, Jan. 28, 2003]

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