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Last Updated

17 May 2003

Source: Washington Post, May 17, 2003

Bush not likely to suffer if weapons search fails

By Dana Milbank and Jim VandeHei

WASHINGTON President Bush appears to be in no political danger from the failure to find chemical, biological and nuclear weapons in Iraq, with Democrats reluctant to challenge Bush on any aspect of the successful war and polls showing Americans unconcerned about weapons discoveries.

Disarming Saddam Hussein of his "weapons of mass destruction" was the main justification the Bush administration used both at home and abroad for attacking Iraq. But while other countries that opposed the U.S. military action claim they are vindicated by the failure so far to find those weapons, Americans even some of Bush's political opponents seem content with the low-casualty victory and believe the discoveries of mass graves and other Saddam atrocities justify the war.

Few Democrats are challenging Bush on the forbidden weapons, preferring to put the war behind them and focus attention on the economy, health care and other domestic issues.

Before the war, for example, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., accused the administration of exaggerating Iraq's nuclear capabilities, while other Democrats questioned whether Bush and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell were overstating Saddam's chemical and biological stockpiles.

This week, Pelosi said it is "difficult to understand" why the weapons can't be found. Yet she did not seem concerned about whether any are found. "I am sort of agnostic on it; that is to say, maybe they are there," Pelosi said. "I salute the president for the goal of removing weapons of mass destruction."

Why the reticence to remind Bush of the rationale for the war? Public opinion may be one reason.

According to a May 1 Gallup poll for CNN and USA Today, 79 percent of Americans said the war with Iraq was justified even without conclusive evidence of the illegal weapons, while 19 percent said discoveries of the weapons were needed to justify the war. An April Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 72 percent supported the war even without a finding of chemical or biological weapons. Similarly, a CBS News poll found that 60 percent said the war was worth the blood and other costs even if weapons are never found.

"If I were a Democratic candidate, I don't think I would be pushing this issue," said Andrew Kohut, of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. He cited a Gallup poll in the early days of the war determining that 38 percent thought the war justified even if the banned weapons were not found. Toward the end of the conflict, that figure jumped to 58 percent.

White House officials express confidence that Bush is not vulnerable on the absence of banned weapons in Iraq, if only because few people in either party doubted that Saddam had such weapons. "Both Republicans and Democrats alike know that Saddam Hussein had a WMD program," said White House communications director Dan Bartlett. "In fact, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution that confirmed it. So why would you criticize something the entire world knows to be true?"

In November, the Security Council's unanimously approved Resolution 1441, which found Iraq to be in "material breach" of its disarmament obligations and gave it a "final opportunity to comply." But now even some close allies of the Bush administration say they have serious doubts about the intelligence evidence Bush and his aides used to win passage of that resolution.

Before the war, the administration said that Iraq had not accounted for 25,000 liters of anthrax; 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin; 500 tons of sarin, mustard and VX nerve agent; and 30,000 munitions capable of delivering chemical agents. Bush said at the start of the war that Sadam "threatens the peace with weapons of mass murder."

But fewer than 60 days later, the group directing all known U.S. search efforts for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the 75th Exploitation Task Force, is winding down operations without any confirmed discoveries of prohibited weapons.

Gary Schmitt, of the pro-invasion Project for the New American Century, said investigators "may well not find stockpiles, because it may well be that Saddam figured out it was better to get rid of the stuff" and start over after inspectors left.

Schmitt says he thinks the absence of weapons will not undermine the public's view that the war was a success. With mass graves being unearthed by the day, Americans will have plenty of humanitarian justification for the war. The discovery of circumstantial evidence mobile biological labs, for example would provide assurance that Saddam had a prohibited weapons program if not many of the weapons themselves. They say ultimate success will be measured by whether Iraq prospers now, not what weapons were found.

But the international community may not be so understanding. False accusations about Iraq's weapons could make the rest of the world even more reluctant to join the next effort to enforce Bush's policy of striking at emerging threats. "The American public is moving on, but those countries that were skeptical of this war are going to continue to press on this point," said Jonathan Tucker, a weapons expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace. "The credibility of the administration and the U.S. intelligence community are still on the line. This whole doctrine of pre-emptive war is predicated on our ability to determine a country's potential threat before the weapons are used."