To watch Gen. Benjamin Freakly of the 101st Airborne Division on CNN this afternoon, discussing suspected finds of chemical weapon materials near Karbala was reassuring, in a way. The general just doesn't look like a man who would fake or even hype a result. And while CNN's Wolf Blitzer remains understandably excited by the prospect of a "smoking gun," Freakly (apparently pronounced "frake-lee") sounded quite calm during a long interview with correspondent Ryan Chilcote. He didn't seem to think the earlier episode of illness that affected a dozen soldiers nearby had anything to do with illicit materials. More likely they drooped from heat and fatigue, he said.
As for those barrels discovered today at the agricultural facility in the town of Hindiya, the general patiently explained that initial testing proved nothing, except that further testing is in order. Substances used to make nerve gas are in the same class of organophosphates as pesticides, which is why there was once so much concern about Iraq's importation of "dual use" chemicals that had both civilian and military applications.
At his Pentagon press briefing this afternoon, Secretary Rumsfeld responded coolly to a question about the Hindiya investigation. He turned for a moment to Gen. Myers, before noting that they had seen dozens of such reports that later turned out to be inaccurate. A reporter asked about the "chain of custody" being used by coalition forces to preserve any evidence of weapons of mass destruction. Rumsfeld's reply indicated that he understands the proof will have to be presented to a skeptical international audience.
Does it matter whether prohibited chemicals are found at Hindiya, or anywhere else in Iraq now? From the war's beginning until today, spokesmen for the White House have placed little emphasis on the frightening terror scenarios that were the original basis for the invasion. Nor have they tried lately to suggest that Iraq's decrepit military was a serious threat beyond its borders.
What they like to talk about is ending the vicious reign of Baathism and freeing Iraq for democracy -- and who can blame them? Every decent person will cheer the destruction of Saddam Hussein's oppressive power. Yet every decent person must feel anguish over the continuing carnage that will bring him down. For every "Chemical Ali" who deserves his grisly fate, how many innocent Iraqis -- and how many of our own American and British soldiers -- must die? That moral calculus isn't simple -- no matter how many pundits enjoy maundering on vicariously about how "we" are doing and what "our" postwar plans should be.
According to CNN's pollsters, a majority of Americans now say they don't care whether weapons of mass destruction are ever found in Iraq. (Although I couldn't find that poll on the CNN site yet.) But in the rest of the world -- where the thin White House argument for self-defense rang false -- the justification for this war will still matter very much indeed.
[3:20 p.m. PDT, April 7, 2003]