By William Beecher
Ten years after the start of the Iraq War, the general perception of American public opinion is that it was the wrong war fought for the wrong reasons. It cost more then $800 billion, cost the lives of 4,400 brave young U.S. troops and left 32,000 wounded.
And today, instead of an essentially democratic, pro-American nation, Iraq verges on being a Shiite dictatorship under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, lording it over the minority Sunni and Kurdish peoples, and leaning toward neighboring Iran in its foreign policy.
Whether one thinks the war was a good idea or bad, however, had Saddam Hussein remained in power to this day, the world would likely be facing two incipient nuclear threats in the Persian Gulf, from both Iraq and Iran.
Retrospective logic holds that while President George W. Bush won public support for the war by falsely claiming that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq possessed threatening stocks of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), it turned out that none could be found in post-war Iraq.
And yet in the run up to hostilities, it was not only the Central Intelligence Agency that felt that Iraq’s possession of such worrisome weapons was “a slam dunk,” in the words of CIA Director George Tenet, but that also was the widespread consensus in the Western intelligence community, including that of Britain, France, and Israel.
U.S. intelligence had identified a specific list of 946 suspected locations for various kinds of weapons of mass destruction, primarily chemical and biological weapons.
Among the leaders of the Democratic Party in the Senate, concern was also raised about his having reconstituted his WMD programs. For example, Sen. Al Gore declared in September 2002 that Iraq had “stored secret supplies of biological and chemical weapons throughout his country.” Sen. Hillary Clinton asserted that Saddam Hussein hoped to increase his supply of biological and chemical weapons and “to develop nuclear weapons.” Sen. John Kerry claimed that “a deadly arsenal of weapons of mass destruction in his hands is a real and great threat of our security.” And Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, expressed the conviction that Saddam Hussein would “likely have nuclear weapons within the next five years.”
As he was preparing public opinion for his decision to go to war, President Bush declared, “Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof—the smoking gun—that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.”
It turns out the Saddam Hussein wanted others to believe he possessed stocks of such weapons and was prepared to use them, as he had against Iran during their seven year war, and against Iraqi Kurds who were not involved in the war. It was a strategic deception on his part, and he refused to give United Nations inspectors access to prove otherwise. Eventually that deception cost him his country and his life.
The United States lacked supportive evidence of the threat. What it did have was the evidence of what had been found 12 years earlier after Desert Storm, the Persian Gulf War to drive Iraq out of Kuwait.
UN inspectors had found hundreds of gallons of VX nerve gas and hundreds of liters of such biological weapons as anthrax and botulinum toxin—all loaded into bombs and artillery shells.
It was not even suspected that Iraq had a relatively advanced nuclear weapons development program underway at that juncture. The Israelis believed that after their destruction of Iraq’s lone nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981, that had essentially eliminated the program.
But UN inspectors were amazed to discover that Iraq had a sophisticated crash program, involving about 5,000 physicists and engineers, testing and building the wherewithal for a nuclear bomb. This included calcitrons, centrifuges, neutron initiators, high-explosive lenses, and enriched uranium bomb cores.
By some estimates, it was on the verge of successfully developing a weapon.
Had Bush not gone to war in 2003, but banked on UN economic sanctions effectively dealing with the Iraq threat, at some point it’s likely the sanctions would have been removed, as Russia and others had long advocated. And then Saddam Hussein would have been free to use his oil income to reconstitute his costly WMD programs.
We don’t have to speculate; that was indeed his expectation. After he was pried from his spider hole, Saddam Hussein was interviewed at length by an Arabic-speaking FBI interrogator. He bragged that he was banking on the UN eventually ending its sanctions, after which he intended to “reconstitute” all of his weapons of mass destruction programs. For his dream was to become the hegemon of the Persian Gulf and thus a world power.
Had that result come to pass, instead of Israel worried about Iran’s oft-repeated threat to wipe it off the face of the earth, and President Barak Obama’s vow not to allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, leaving all options including the military one on the table, the world would today in all likelihood face two incipient nuclear threats in the volatile Middle East.
William Beecher is a Pulitzer Prize winning former Washington correspondent for the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. He’s also a former Assistant Secretary of Defense. He is an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland. His blog can be accessed here.
[Photo courtesy of U.S. Army]