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Last Updated

15 Dec 2002

Source: Washington Post, June 3, 2002.


Weighing an Attack on Iraq . . .

By Fred Hiatt

On a Sunday morning talk show, the defense secretary was blunt about the danger posed by Saddam Hussein and his possession of anthrax, a five-pound bag of which could destroy, he said, half the population of Washington.

"Days may go by without posing a threat immediately, but weeks or months, and then he's able to reconstitute his capacity to develop large amounts of chemical and biological weapons," the Pentagon chief said. "We're well aware of the ticking of the clock."

Donald Rumsfeld, speaking yesterday? Not quite. The warning came from President Clinton's defense secretary William Cohen in November 1997 -- some 236 weeks ago. It's been that long since U.N. weapons inspectors were able to do their job effectively and almost as long -- since December 1998 -- since they were in Iraq at all. Saddam Hussein has been free to seek nuclear weapons and add to his stock of chemical and biological arms.

David Albright and Kevin O'Neill, nonproliferation experts, explained it this way in a paper last June: "The lack of inspections and monitoring in Iraq makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to detect, let alone assess, Iraqi efforts to reconstitute its nuclear weapons program and other WMD [weapons of mass destruction] programs. Given Saddam Hussein's long-standing commitment to obtain nuclear weapons, it is likely that Iraq continues this quest. . . . [R]esearch and development efforts for the nuclear weapons program, which may have been small and dispersed before the end of 1998, could have proceeded more openly and with little fear of discovery since then."

Back in 1998 there seemed to be consensus about the danger of leaving Saddam Hussein unchecked in this way. National security adviser Sandy Berger noted that, unlike any other living dictator, Iraq's leader had used chemical weapons repeatedly. "And I have no doubt he will use them again if his capacity to rebuild his arsenal is left unchecked," Berger said.

President Clinton agreed that the United States could not stand by while the Iraqi dictator flouted the international community. "If we fail to respond today, Saddam [Hussein], and all those who would follow in his footsteps, will be emboldened tomorrow by the knowledge that they can act with impunity, even in the face of a clear message from the United Nations Security Council and clear evidence of a weapons of mass destruction program," Clinton said.

Since then Saddam Hussein has acted with impunity; the United States has suffered an unsolved attack-by-anthrax; the president has eloquently explained why Iraq belongs on the axis of evil; and yet, the only change in Iraq is that it is selling more and more oil. The debate about Iraq has shriveled to the question of whether Mohamed Atta traveled to Prague. Why?

The answer is that doing something about Saddam Hussein and his anthrax is difficult. It was difficult for President Clinton, which is why he stopped pushing and delivering rousing speeches after 1998, and it is difficult for President Bush today.

It's unlikely that U.N. inspectors could uncover what Saddam Hussein has had 3 1/2 years to hide. In any case, Iraq refuses to let inspectors in. Economic sanctions have not succeeded in modifying his behavior. Which leaves force, with all its risks and uncertainties.

It should not come as a surprise that the Joints Chiefs of Staff are reluctant. Institutionally, they are designed to worry about present dangers: first, that many people would die in a war, but also that allies would not cooperate or offer staging grounds; that Saddam Hussein would use his weapons of mass destruction when attacked; that he would prove as difficult to locate as Mullah Omar; that Iraq would fracture, or find itself ruled by someone just as odious; that U.S. forces would be stretched and vulnerable in other parts of the world.

It is the president's unenviable job to think further ahead -- to balance all those dangers against the even less quantifiable, but no less prodigious, risk of allowing a known war criminal and sponsor of terrorism to continue to accumulate these fearsome weapons. It's not a choice that can be made with certainty ahead of time, and even in retrospect you may not be sure.

It's possible, that is, that Saddam Hussein already has attacked with anthrax, and will do so again, more lethally, and we will not know the source. As far back as 1997, the ever-playful Tariq Aziz, Saddam Hussein's deputy prime minister, told Time magazine that his government did not engage in terror attacks ("You know that") but that others did, and that as a result of U.S. attacks on Iraq, "more people would be in that mood."

So it is a quandary. If Bush continues to do nothing, and Saddam Hussein dies quietly in his sleep, to be succeeded by a peace-loving and democratic government, the reluctant generals will be proven right. If he acts to unseat Saddam Hussein, we will never know whether the resulting casualties and disruptions prevented something worse. And if Saddam Hussein slips some germs or toxins out of Iraq in a diplomatic pouch to loosely allied terrorists who distribute them over Washington, the most ardent hawks, even those who survive, may never be sure enough to say I told you so.