The Right Coast

September 14, 2004
Iraqi WMDs Reconsidered
By Ilya Somin

There's a lot to criticize about the Bush Administration's conduct of the Iraq War. But perhaps no other problem has been as damaging politically as the failure to find WMDs. As prominent liberal blogger Joshua Micah Marshall, puts it, "If a chamber of horrors had been found in Iraq's WMD factories, Americans would have judged the war a success even if the aftermath would have been as bloody and chaotic as it is today. For most, the necessity of the invasion would have been vindicated." For Marshall and many others, the failure to find WMDs has discredited what they see as the main rationale for the war.

This widely accepted conventional ignores two critical facts:

1) US forces DID find an active WMD development program that posed a serious longterm threat, even assuming there were no actual weapons stockpiles.

2) WMDs have in fact been found in Iraq, though in far smaller quantitites than was expected.

Let's take point 1 first. David Kay, head of the US government Iraq Survey Group created to investigate Iraqi WMD programs after the war, testified to Congress that "We have discovered dozens of WMD-related program activities and significant amounts of equipment that Iraq concealed from the United Nations during the inspections that began in late 2002." I won't go through all the details here, but see the link above for some of them. There is much more in the ISG report submitted to Congress in January, which unfortunately I have not been able to find online. The bottom line: Iraq was working on a wide enough range of WMDs that Kay - while fully acknowledging that the prewar intelligence was seriously "mistaken" - concluded that Saddam was "far more dangerous than even we anticipated."

Why should we care about WMD programs that had not (yet) been turned into actual weapons stockpiles? There are many reasons, but perhaps the most important is the fact that they could be turned into actual weapons whenever Saddam found it convenient to do so - especially if, as was likely to occur, the UN sanctions regime began to weaken under pressure from France and Russia. Furthermore, even simple R&D could potentially be transferred to terrorists in ways that would make it easier for them to make their own weapons. An active WMD program that can be converted into weapons in relatively short order is only marginally less dangerous than an already existing stockpile of WMDs.

Ironically (in view of Bush's prewar belief that the actual stockpiles were there), the point at which a rogue state has a WMD program but few or no actual WMDs may well be the best time to attack it, since an attack after WMDs have already been deployed creates a serious risk that the enemy will use them.

Point 2 is also significant. Although it was only briefly reported by the media, Coalition forces did in fact WMDs in Iraq on two separate occasions this year: In May, US troops found an artillery shell filled with sarin gas, and in June Polish forces found two shells filled with the deadlier cyclosarin. Even relatively small amounts of these nerve agents can be used to kill large numbers of people. More importantly - while the jury is still out, it is difficult to believe that Saddam's prewar stockpile was actually limited to these three weapons. If you were the Iraqi dictator, would you really get rid of all your other WMDs, but keep three artillery shells? Wouldn't you rather keep your last remaining cache of sarin (if it really was the last) in a more easily usable and/or more difficult to detect form?

The evidence from the ISG and the sarin finds by no means refutes all the many arguments against the war. But it does punch a big hole in the claim most often heard from war critics: that the failure to find WMDs shows that Saddam's WMD program was not a real threat.

The Bush administration bought into flawed intelligence and failed to adequately consider the possibility that we would find WMD programs in Iraq but few or no actual weapons. They deserve at least some of the resulting political damage. Unfortunately, however, there are far larger issues at stake than Bush's reputation, and that is why it is essential we put the WMD issue in proper perspective.