So Where Are They?

The following column from Andrew was originally published in the Sunday Times on June 1, 2003 and subsequently cross-posted on The Daily Dish.

So Where Are They?

WMDs, Iraq, and Iran

So where are they? It’s not that complicated a question. Tony Blair, more than even George W. Bush, made the threat from Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction a center-piece of his argument for war. So did Colin Powell in his riveting December address to the United Nations Security Council. So the inability of the allied forces to find a single vial of anthrax after the war, or indeed any major infrastructure that can be shown to have been part of a chemical-biological-nuclear program, is not a trivial matter. For those of us who strongly supported the war, it’s particularly important that we don’t dismiss these questions as irrelevant or boring or somehow passe. But if the question is uncomplicated, the answer isn’t. The war remains as justified in my mind as ever – more so, actually, given the scope of the horror we now see revealed in Saddam’s Stalinist prison house. But good answers to the WMD question remain as important to find as they are immune to simplification.

The first answer is that we don’t know yet. As defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld told a radio interview last week, Iraq is a huge country and we’re looking for a physically small amount of material. The Saddam regime had years to find ways to obscure, conceal or hide such weapons. We’ve already found three mobile chemical labs whose only credible purpose could have been the manufacture of deadly agents. No one doubts that Saddam had such weapons before; or that he used them. Hang in there. We’ll find them eventually.

The second explanation might be that Saddam actually destroyed the bulk of his program in the months before the war, maintaining only the experts, and a skeletal infrastructure. Why would he do this? To foil inspectors, and to keep the possibility of armed intervention at bay. Encouraged by French and Russian support, Saddam figured he could get rid of most of it, wether the storm, and emerge to try again – without sanctions. Not for the first time, he miscalculated.

The third explanation is that our intelligence was radically wrong – or politically manipulated for effect. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that U.S. and British intelligence got things wrong, although in many cases, such as North Korea or India, they have erred in the direction of complacency. Or it could be that the range of possibilities discovered by intelligence was presented by the politicians in the worst possible light so as to win public support. I’ve no doubt that was partly the case. That’s what politicians do. They make a case based on evidence. Others were free to make alternative cases, and they did. Currently, we simply don’t know what happened either in intelligence gathering or the political use of the data. But we should. After a decent period of time to gather all the possible evidence, there should indeed be a thorough inquiry into whether and how the case for Saddam’s imminent WMD threat was made.

But in some ways, these matters, while important, still don’t get to the heart of the matter. The fundamental case for getting rid of Saddam was not dependent on the existence of a certain amount of some chemical or other. It was based on a political and military judgement. Once the threat from Islamist terror was self-evident, it would have been irresponsible for any political leader to ignore the possibility of a future attack with WMDs. It was and is the obvious next step for an operation like al Qaeda. Further, the war against terror, from the beginning, was always directed not simply at terrorist groups, but at the states that aided and abetted them. The key point is that Saddam’s Iraq was a clear and present danger in that context. What mattered was not whether at any particular moment Saddam had a certain specifiable quantity of botulinum toxin. What mattered was his capacity to produce such things, his ability to conceal them, and his links to terrorists who could deploy them. No one can doubt that he had had them at one point, was capable of producing them, and was linked to groups who would be only too happy to use them. That was and is the case for getting rid of him. It’s as powerful now as it was in January.

You perspective will change on this, of course, depending on your deeper view of the current terrorist threat to the West. If you believe al Qaeda is an exception; that there is no profound terror threat to free societies; and that the significance of WMDs is overblown, you will tend to look at Saddam’s Iraq and say: so what? If someone proposes war, you’ll demand absolute and incontrovertible proof of the danger. And if that proof is hard to find – as will always be the case in closed, dictatorial police states – your gut will tell you to stay out of trouble.

But if you see the rise of Islamo-fascism as a broad and terrifying phenomenon, with clear animosity toward the West, you’ll take a different view. If you believe that a chemical or biological 9/11 is on the terrorist agenda and that an avowed enemy of the West and ally of terrorists is capable of creating such weapons, you’ll shift the burden of proof toward those who deny the danger, not to those who fear it. And barring clear evidence that the regime itself has changed its nature, you will prepare to get rid of it.

That was and is the rationale for what was done in Iraq. That’s why the Bush administration seemed at times to conflate the issue of disarmament and regime change. In fact, they rightly believed that the two were one and the same thing, and that no regime headed by Saddam could ever be relied upon not to deliver WMDs to the West. It can never be proven if that fear was fully justified – we cannot predict how a future Saddam would have acted. But the choice was between removing the regime or declaring the regime weapon-free and removing sanctions from the beleaguered Iraqi people. 1441 was Saddam’s last chance to prove he was a changed person. It proved he wasn’t. If he had nothing to hide, why did he try so hard to hide it? And after all we know now about Saddam’s evil police state, on what possible grounds could we have trusted him in the future?

And that’s why the question of Iran is now on the table. Iran is a terrorist-sponsoring state. It’s an Islamist dictatorship with a Potemkin democracy to siphon off some of the popular distaste for clerical misrule. It has close ties to Hezbollah – a fanatical, anti-Semitic, Islamist terror group. It sends weaponry to kill Israelis. It is fast moving toward becoming a nuclear power. Worse, it is trying to undermine the fledgling democracy in Iraq. For all these reasons, Iran’s theocracy is a direct threat to the West, just as Saddam’s Stalinist Iraq was. The difference is that the thugs who run the country do not have an actual record of using chemical or biological weapons against their own people.

So what to do? Given the fact that Iran is not in violation of any U.N. resolutions in the way Saddam was, there is no legal casus belli. But given the deeper reasons for worrying about the threat – especially if Iran goes nuclear and could therefore become an inviolable harbor for terrorism – there is every reason to worry. In Washington, the State Department is predictably opposed to doing anything but cosset the regime. The diplomats still cling to the notion that Iran is in a democratic transition, that there are “moderate” theocrats who can be dealt with, and so on. But after years of promised reforms, every single democratic measure proposed by the Potemkin parliament has been vetoed by the clerics. Participation in elections has subsided, because the process is meaningless. There’s a generation of younger Iranians who despise the puritanical and autocratic nature of the country they live in.

War, however, is not being seriously discussed in Washington. What is being discussed is whether American policy should formally shift to regime change in Iran, and whether financial, military, and propaganda tools should be sent to the democratic opposition. That’s a debate as urgent as it is important. Yes, we should examine how and why we may have made mistakes in the war on terror so far. The question of Iraqi WMDs is an important and pressing one. But if a sensible attempt to examine the past prevents us from acting to oppose growing threats in the future, then the war on terror will be over before it has fully begun. That’s why Iran matters. And why the fight over Western policy toward Tehran’s tyrants has only just begun.

June 1, 2003, Sunday Times.
copyright © 2003, 2003 Andrew Sullivan