Did Iraq Need Defanging?

On the Democratic presidential campaign trail and in the British House of Commons, opponents of the war in Iraq - and even some who supported it - are now challenging the main reason given by the US and Britain for marching into battle: Ridding Iraq of any chemical and biological weapons.

Such weapons haven't been found in the few weeks since American troops entered Baghdad, and unless they are found - or at least a technical capability to manufacture them quickly is verifiably discovered - both President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair face that old political charge: a credibility gap.

The high-stakes politics of this issue has reached the point where some opponents of Mr. Blair wonder if he'll need to be replaced as Labour Party leader; while in the US, some Democrats ask if Mr. Bush could likely be impeached for deception.

These criticisms reflect some or all of these four points: (1) an impatience with the ongoing search; (2) a desire by many politicians to justify an opposition to the war to their followers; (3) a hope that the issue can be a winner in the next election; (4) a serious debate over whether any future war to preempt a perceived threat needs a higher standard of intelligence.

Patience at work

Both Bush and Blair have pleaded for more time to allow interviews of Iraqi scientists and inspection of potential weapons sites. Only now are 1,400 experts in unconventional weapons being sent to Iraq. The two leaders promise a full accounting soon, and still express the same confidence as they did before war that weapons will be found.

(Patience could also have been used in the postwar reports claiming the Iraq National Museum was fully looted as US troops entered the capital; only later did the world learn that most of the major artifacts had been kept safe by museum staff).

Perhaps to deflect criticism over weapons not yet being found, Bush and Blair are highlighting other beneficial outcomes of the war.

One of them is that other Middle East nations that either support or condone terrorism have received the message that the US is serious about using its muscle to end terrorism. Also, the massive killing of Iraqis by Saddam Hussein has ended, and the chance that Iraq will again threaten its neighbors with invasion has disappeared for now. And Hussein's financial support of families of Palestinian terrorists has ended.

But in selling the war to the public, Bush and Blair chose to highlight the risk of unconventional weapons in Iraq, perhaps to play to post-Sept. 11 fears. At some point, they must be held accountable for that justification.

In the meantime, critics have decided to ask if intelligence officials came under any pressure to alter their data or stated views about Iraq's weapons capability to help make the case for war. That's a charge difficult to prove. But it does help the critics keep the weapons issue alive.

It's no surprise that different US government agencies had different evaluations of the available intelligence before the war. The real news would be if they didn't. The United Nations weapons inspectors, too, still wonder what happened to the chemical and biological agents they knew existed in Iraq in the mid-1990s.

The CIA, Congress, and the British Parliament are all investigating what the coalition knew before the war and how it interpreted that information. Such reviews are welcome and a necessary part of democracy.

But the latter-day conspiracy theorists who contend Iraq had neither weapons nor the labs to make them also have to explain why Hussein put up with UN sanctions for so many years. They must also ask if such a tyrant and aggressor, who invaded two countries and used unconventional weapons twice to kill thousands of civilians, would throw those weapons away or even eliminate all knowledge and capability to make them.

They can also ask themselves why top Clinton-administration officials and French officials also believed intelligence about the existence of Iraq's weapons.

Politicizing the issue premature

Still, one report out of Iraq says Hussein did destroy the weapons but kept clandestine teams on the ready to produce them quickly. In that case, the evidence will be in the form of laboratories and testimony of participants. And if true, that doesn't reduce the threat that Iraq posed before the war, but it calls into question US intelligence claiming weapons existed.

Politicizing this issue now is premature. More thorough probing of both Iraq and what the intelligence agencies knew, however, is needed.

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