Was Iraq Really A Threat?

Since Baghdad fell, Defense Department hawks have devoted themselves to gloating about the never-questioned supremacy of the United States’ armed forces. However, the rest of the world’s attention has shifted to examine the largely forgotten rationale for Bush’s invasion: the peril posed by Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. The April 22 appearance of chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix before the Security Council has only strengthened calls for independent verification of U.S. accusations.

Anti-war activists did not dispute that Saddam was an abhorrent dictator. The tyrant may well have some chemical and biological agents stowed away for investigators to find, and he no doubt wished to make more in the future.

But key arguments against the war remain valid:

Contrary to President Bush’s pronouncements and Colin Powell’s satellite photos, the world had no reason to believe that the Ba’ath regime presented any real danger to its neighbors, far less to the United States. Saddam’s military forces were decimated in the first Gulf War. Subsequent U.N. inspections made significant progress in eliminating what weapons remained, and any hidden stocks of chemical agents would have degraded substantially during a decade of crippling sanctions. In short, Iraq had been effectively contained as a threat.

Beyond that, the new wave of inspections was working. Saddam’s on-going ambition to produce banned armaments merited international attention, but hardly a 20 billion-dollar blitzkrieg, a subsequent occupation by the Marines, and the loss of uncounted thousands of lives. Given the hostility with which the Bush Administration treated the idea of allowing Blix’s team time to do its job, it was always hard to consider weapons of mass destruction a real concern, rather than a convenient pretext for war.

The media watchdogs at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting captured the irony of the situation perfectly by recalling a March 4 article in The New York Times: “More Missiles Destroyed; Washington Is Concerned Over Complications for Effort to Disarm Iraq.” NBC Nightly News correspondent Andrea Mitchell added, “For the US, it’s a nightmare situation. If Iraq destroys the missiles, it will be much harder to get support for military action.”

Now that George Bush and Tony Blair are again under political pressure to produce incriminating evidence about banned weaponry, we can be sure that fresh charges will be forthcoming. Reports of an unnamed Iraqi scientist claiming to know of destroyed chemical agents qualifies as the military’s best lead so far in a search that has heretofore come up empty-handed.

Yet the world still has reason to be skeptical of the military’s claims. And Americans concerned with genuine global security have reason to support the global demand for independent investigation.

In the past, the U.S. government has shown itself all too willing to make up the evidence it needs to justify war. And, too often, the press has dutifully followed suit. Perhaps the most famous historical precedent is the 1898 sinking of the USS Maine off the coast of Cuba. Thanks to campaigning on the part of Hearst newspapers, President McKinley was able to blame Spain for the mysterious incident, and thus pursue imperial interests in the Spanish-American War.

The fraudulent 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, in which President Johnson announced an unprovoked attack by North Vietnamese PT boats on American destroyers, provided an excuse for the U.S. to commence air strikes on North Vietnam. The press corps ate it up. (By 1965, however, Johnson admitted, “For all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales out there.”)

In advance of the 1991 Gulf War, the first Bush Administration perpetuated accounts of Iraqi soldiers yanking babies from incubators in Kuwait’s hospitals. Why anyone would need to make up stories about a regime that already possessed a long history of cruel misdeeds is anybody’s guess. Nevertheless, this turned out to be a fake, managed with the help of public relations firm Hill & Knowlton.
Washington’s track record for honesty during the current conflict, too, has been poor. U.S. intelligence sources hyped up forged documents in an attempt to strengthen support for an invasion. In a recent interview, Hans Blix pointed to the accusations that Iraq attempted to purchase nuclear materials from the Central African nation of Niger. “This was a crude lie,” Blix explained. “All false. The information was provided to the International Atomic Energy Agency by the U.S. intelligence services. As for the mobile laboratories, in attempting to verify the data that was passed on to U.S. by the Americans, we only found some trucks dedicated to the processing and control of seeds for agriculture.”

Despite such troubling facts, outlets like Fox News always treated suspicions of illegal weapons as established truth. For them, news items like the April 16 headline in The New York Times reading, “U.S. Inspectors Find No Forbidden Weapons at Iraqi Arms Plant,” are only evidence of that paper’s egregious wimpiness and lingering Communist sympathies.

Yet, Fox’s past headlines like “Iraq Arming Troops With Chemical Weapons” now appear overeager, at best, as justifications for war. They make Bush’s “uniquely evil” adversary seem uniquely restrained in not deploying the banned armaments during the war, when he faced a force hell-bent on his elimination.

Government deception and suspect reporting has engendered skepticism even within the intelligence community. The news service Agence France Press recently published an interview with retired CIA intelligence analyst Ray McGovern, who says “Some of my colleagues are virtually certain that there will be some weapons of mass destruction found, even though they might have to be planted.”

“I’m just as sure that some few will be found,” he argued, “but not in any amount that by any stretch would justify the charge of a threat against the U.S. or anyone else.”

The Bush Administration’s rejection of independent investigations represents a further step down the road of dangerous unilateralism. Promoting international cooperation and goodwill is vital to any real pursuit of global security, yet these are precisely the things undermined by Washington’s belligerence.

Even from a narrow view of America’s foreign policy interests, the U.S. government should want independent verification to vindicate its accusations and to dispel lingering doubts.

That is, unless the old maxim applies, and truth has once again become a casualty of war.

Mark Engler, a writer based in New York City, can be reached at <[email protected]>. Research assistance for this article provided by Katie Griffiths.

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