The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), has announced that he plans to hold hearings on Iraq starting tomorrow.
Given Sen. Biden’s open embrace of regime removal in Baghdad, there is a real risk that any such hearings may devolve into a political cover for the passing of a congressional resolution authorizing the Bush administration to wage war on Iraq. Such hearings would represent a travesty for the American people.
Sen. Biden would do well to focus his attention on the case for war against Iraq. Discussion should ensue on both Iraq’s potential and, more importantly, known weapons of mass destruction capability.
On Sept. 3, 1998, I provided detailed testimony before a joint hearing of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees concerning the circumstances of my resignation as a chief inspector of the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM). The testimony also dealt with Iraq’s obligation to be disarmed of its proscribed weapons of mass destruction capability in accordance with relevant Security Council resolutions. In the nearly four years that have passed, much has been made of this presentation, especially by those who seek to use my words to reinforce the current case for war against Iraq.
My testimony was an accurate, balanced assessment in full keeping with the facts available. As of September, 1998, Iraq had not been fully disarmed. UNSCOM was pursuing important investigatory leads concerning (among others) Iraq’s VX nerve-agent program, disposition of biological bombs and warheads, and ongoing procurement activity in the field of ballistic missiles with potential application for use in systems with a range greater than the permitted 150 kilometers.
Iraqi obstruction prevented UNSCOM from fully discharging its mandated tasks. We could account for 90 percent to 95 percent of Iraq’s proscribed weaponry, versus the 100 percent required by the Security Council. Based upon an assessment of intelligence information available to UNSCOM, once inspection activity had ceased in Iraq, the government of Saddam Hussein could be in a position to resume aspects of his mass weapons programs within a period of six months. While most of this would be related to organizational realignment of dispersed capability, some small-scale weapons production capacity could potentially be reconstituted.
The potential for Iraq to restart its programs, however, did not, and does not today, mean that such reconstitution would be inevitable. The danger in the collapse of the weapons-inspection program lay in the elimination of a major obstacle to any such decision being made by Baghdad, as well as the means to detect any related actions. As such, I spent a great deal of my testimony speaking of the need to maintain a robust regime of inspections that objectively implemented the mandate of the Security Council.
While much attention has been given lately to my discussion of the potential threat posed by Iraq, little has been made of what I then considered to be the main crux of the issue: the collapse of the UNSCOM inspection regime, and the absolute need to get UN weapons inspectors back to work in Iraq. The current war-like posturing of the United States towards Iraq, centered on unsubstantiated speculation about the grave and imminent risk posed by Iraq’s current alleged weapons of mass destruction capabilities, makes the issue of inspections as relevant today as they were in 1998.
In 1998, I told the Senate that UNSCOM had a job to do and we expected to be able to carry it out in accordance within the framework of relevant Security Council resolutions. I emphasized the danger of entering into inspection activity that lacked any compelling arms control reason, noting that in doing so we would be heading down a slippery slope of confrontation that was not backed by our mandate. I pointed out the importance of the United States keeping commitments made to the Security Council. This meant not only holding Iraq accountable for its actions, but also preserving the integrity of the overall inspection operation so that any potential issue of confrontation would be about Iraq’s non-compliance, versus issues not expressly covered by the mandate of the Council. I reiterated again and again the harm done to the inspection process by the continued interference by the United States.
Unfortunately my warnings were not heeded. In December, 1998, continued manipulation of the UNSCOM inspection process by the United States led to a fabricated crisis that had nothing to do with legitimate disarmament. This crisis led to the United States ordering UNSCOM inspectors out of Iraq two days before the start of Operation Desert Fox, a 72-hour bombing campaign executed by the United States and Great Britain that lacked Security Council authority. Worse, the majority of the targets bombed were derived from the unique access the UNSCOM inspectors had enjoyed in Iraq, and had more to do with the security of Saddam Hussein than weapons of mass destruction. Largely because of this, Iraq has to date refused to allow inspectors back to work. The ensuing uncertainty has created an atmosphere that teeters on the brink of war.
Through his propossed hearings, Sen. Biden has an historic opportunity to serve the greater good of the United States. If a substantiated case can be made that Iraq possesses actual weapons of mass destruction, then the debate is over – the justification for war is clear. But, to date the Bush administration has been unable – or unwilling – to back up its rhetoric concerning the Iraqi threat with any substantive facts.
For Sen. Biden’s Iraq hearings to be anything more than a political sham used to invoke a modern-day Gulf of Tonkin resolution-equivalent for Iraq, his committee will need to ask hard questions – and demand hard facts – concerning the real nature of the weapons threat posed by Iraq. Void of that, it is impossible to speak of Iraq as a grave and imminent risk to American national security worthy of war. Therefore, it is imperative that the Senate discuss means other than war for dealing with this situation – including the need to resume UN-led weapons inspections in Iraq.
Scott Ritter, a former UN weapons inspector, is author of “Endgame: Solving the Iraq Problem, Once and For All.”