Joe Conason's Journal

Why does a New York Times columnist say that finding Saddam's WMD no longer matters?

Published April 28, 2003 4:24PM (EDT)

Ghost trails in the sand
Buried like a trailer in the sand is the news in today's New York Times of yet another disappointing rumor about forbidden weapons in Iraq, where "a military chemical-analysis team said today that a cache of barrels and two mobile laboratories found near the village of Bayji were most likely not used for chemical warfare purposes, countering earlier reports from an Army officer at the site." I've lost track of how many incorrect reports have emerged from the field on this subject. Making firm predictions about what will and will not be found in Iraq is a dangerous hobby. The most knowledgeable and sane authority on this topic is almost certainly Rolf Ekeus, the former chief of UNSCOM. Tariq Aziz expressly disinvited the tough, thorough Ekeus from returning to Iraq as the head of UNMOVIC. The former Swedish ambassador has been asked to consult frequently by U.S. authorities, who know that he knows what he's talking about.

Unfortunately, the Americans didn't listen carefully enough to Ekeus, who warned them against overhyping Saddam's arsenal. Of course, the hype couldn't be avoided if preventive war was to be justified.

Happily enough, however, discovering chemical and biological weapons in Iraq doesn't matter anymore -- according to Thomas L. Friedman -- because we have discovered human skulls there instead: "As far as I'm concerned, we do not need to find any weapons of mass destruction to justify this war," he wrote on April 27, noting the excavation of the skeletons of Saddam's victims. "That skull, and the thousands more that will be unearthed, are enough for me. Mr. Bush doesn't owe the world any explanation for missing chemical weapons (even if it turns out that the White House hyped this issue)."

Avid Friedman fans must be badly confused by now. After all, this is the same preeminent foreign affairs columnist who told us on March 9, "If the president can't make his war of choice the world's war of choice right now, we need to reconsider our options and our tactics." And he is also the same multi-Pulitzered pundit who said on March 19 that "such a preventive war is so unprecedented and mammoth a task ... that it had to be done with maximum U.N legitimacy and with as many allies as possible," adding that "we need to patch things up with the world. Because having more allied support in rebuilding Iraq will increase the odds that we do it right, and because if the breach that has been opened between us and our traditional friends hardens into hostility, we will find it much tougher to manage both Iraq and all the other threats down the road."

All very sensible advice, yet I wonder why the globe-trotting, VIP-visiting Friedman no longer seems to understand how important the issue of WMDs is to the credibility of U.S. policy. Americans may or may not care whether we ever find chemical or biological weapons (there are almost certainly no nukes in Iraq). Others around the world care intensely -- and are unlikely to be soothed by realizing that the WMD issue was a pretext for preemptive war. What is to stop India or Pakistan or China from concocting a pretext for launching a strike against a perceived danger? If we did it, so can they.

And I also wonder how, in Friedman's mind, the grisly discoveries about Saddam's victims of the past quarter-century erase what the Times columnist wrote on Feb. 19:

"I am also very troubled by the way Bush officials have tried to justify this war on the grounds that Saddam is allied with Osama bin Laden or will be soon. There is simply no proof of that, and every time I hear them repeat it I think of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. You don't take the country to war on the wings of a lie.

"Tell people the truth. Saddam does not threaten us today. He can be deterred."

Doesn't it matter at least as much whether the White House lied about weapons of mass destruction? That question still matters to the world, where our torn alliances will be harder to mend if we don't find proof of the alleged causes of this war -- and if we don't permit those findings to be verified by independent international observers from the U.N.
[9:22 a.m. PDT, April 28, 2003]

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