Propped on the rickety stilts of one of history’s great eleventh-hour hoaxes, to which the co-conspiring New York Times alarmingly refers this morning as “the disappearance in Iraq of a huge cache of powerful explosives,” Senator John Kerry yesterday intensified his indictment that President Bush has exhibited “incredible incompetence” as commander-in-chief.
If competence is even slightly related to coherence, the Nabob of Nuance is a fine one to be lecturing about it, having intoned that Saddam Hussein was a threat before he was not a threat; that Hussein’s forcible removal, which Kerry supported before he didn’t support it, was both the right thing to do and the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time; and that the failure to fund Iraq operations would be grossly irresponsible before voting not to fund them (but, naturally, after voting to fund them). Nonetheless, 72 hours into the shamelessly choreographed October surprise, competence is an apt topic.
There may be a reason to question the president’s judgment, but it has utterly nothing to do with high explosives. He, and we, are sadly bearing the price to be paid for his signing into a law a gross infringement of the First Amendment–a wolf in the sheep’s clothing of “campaign-finance reform”–that he unwisely, and as it turned out, incorrectly, hoped the Supreme Court would veto so he wouldn’t need to expend the political capital of doing it himself. This has proved double damage.
First, the McCain-like fawning press he might have been hoping to bathe in was never coming the president’s way in any event. For the mainstream media, it’s never been about his handling of any particular issue. He is the issue for them, and they were going to move heaven and earth to try to defeat him no matter what.
Second, and far more important, the mainstream-media hypocrisy is now unmasked. For all their high dudgeon, the Times, CBS, and the other hatchet outfits pushing the missing-weapons story never believed in a populist principle that deep pockets should not dominate the projection of political speech. Instead, they covertly hewed to a power principle: If the deep pockets are sewn shut 60 days before an election, their own voices will dominate the projection of political speech. If Bill Gates had tried to pull what the Sulzbergers have accomplished with campaign-finance reform, the Times would be screaming for a perp walk.
What is the result? In this instance, it is a non-story–or, competence being the order of the day, an incompetently investigated story–that has been hyped in a brazenly coordinated fashion by the Kerry campaign and its media allies to drop an “explosive” on the president. Worse, it has been transparently timed for the waning days before the election when, thanks to campaign-finance reform, Bush supporters who might have the Times’s resources but lack its legal exemption, are silenced.
Fortunately, the MSM did not account for the cumulative braking effect of the new media, thanks to which we already know the knowable, salient facts. Less than 400 tons of the high explosives HMX and RDX were last physically eyeballed at al Qaqaa, an Iraqi munitions facility associated with Saddam’s nuclear program, in January 2003 by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors, headed by Mohammed El-Baradei, a motivated opponent of the Bush administration. The explosives may still have been there in March 2003, before the American invasion of Iraq.
On that score, we must say “may” rather than “were” because the IAEA inspectors did not actually inspect the explosives. Rather, they assumed the explosives were still there because the IAEA seals previously placed on them had not been broken. Thereafter, according to the Times, the American Third Infantry Division engaged Iraqi forces at al Qaqaa on April 3, but proceeded forward without securing the facility. The 101st Airborne also passed through the facility around April 10, spending a day, performing at least a cursory search, and not locating any containers with IAEA seals.
In May 2003, the CIA’s Iraq Survey Group conducted inspections at al-Qaqaa and, again, found no containers with IAEA seals. One would think the absence of these explosives would be a footnote at best given the WMD that were not found in Iraq. El-Baradei, however, turned it into a blockbuster, on the eve of the American election, by purporting to have received a letter from Mohammed J. Abbas, a senior official at Iraq’s ministry of science and technology, that claimed the explosive tonnage was missing due to theft–i.e., due to U.S. military incompetence in securing al Qaqaa rather than the incompetence and unaccountability of the IAEA inspection process. The bona fides of this letter, much less the truth of its assertions, has not been established to this point.
It is amusing to find the same media outlets who blare that “Bush lied” about Saddam’s possession of WMDs leaping to conclusions about their whereabouts of these explosives on these facts. While it is possible that the explosives were still at al-Qaqaa when the Americans first arrived there, it is anything but certain, the probabilities tend in the opposite direction, and a lot more investigating was necessary before responsible blame assessment could have begun.
First, it cannot even be said for sure that the explosives were still at al Qaqaa even in March 2003. For all the blather now about how important it was to be painstakingly careful with munitions of this nature, the IAEA didn’t bother to break the seals, ensure that Saddam hadn’t played bait-and-switch, and affix new seals. That should certainly should fill all of us with great confidence about the sterling work El-Baradei’s team has been doing in North Korea, Pakistan and Iran, no? You would think that if there were a shortage of seals at IAEA, El-Baradei might have squeezed a few Oil-for-Food bucks out of Kofi Annan to replenish the supply. But, in any event, does Senator Kerry think taking the seals at face value rather than actually inspecting the contents of the containers was competent?
Second, assuming for argument’s sake that the explosives were at al Qaqaa when the IAEA left in March, the American forces did not see them when they arrived there in April. Could the troops have missed them? It’s possible–just as it’s possible that lightening can strike the same spot twice.
While the MSM keeps using the term “looting,” this is not like snatching a TV set out of the local P.C. Richards in the middle of a blackout. We are talking about 380 tons–or 760,000 pounds–of high explosives that would be of very little use to ordinary Iraqis. At a time of military siege and rampant surveillance as American forces marched on Baghdad while securing their supply lines, it would have been the height of daring–no, it would have been suicidal–for hundreds of insurgents to descend on the compound with the scores of tractor trailers (not to mention the time) that would have been necessary to load the explosives and transport them, unnoticed by over 150,000 Coalition personnel, to some secret location–from which, to date, there is no indication they have been used since notwithstanding the vigor of the terrorist insurgency.
To the contrary though, a regime such as Saddam’s, awash as it was in weaponry, had the time, the expertise, the opportunity and the means to move the explosives while preparing–as we know it was preparing–for the U.S. attack. We also know, moreover, that there was a flurry of transport activity immediately preceding the invasion, which interestingly included lots of convoy traffic of a suspicious but undetermined nature at the Iraq/Syrian border.
Why is it more plausible that the U.S. forces incompetently safeguarded the site than that Saddam cleaned it out beforehand? It’s not. That, no doubt, is why Kerry foreign-policy adviser Richard Holbrooke candidly told Fox’s John Gibson yesterday that he did not know the truth of what had happened. But a non-story doesn’t help Kerry, and a story that points to the Iraqi dictator as the culprit would only underscore the danger that Saddam posed and further validate President Bush’s determination to remove him.
So the Kerry wags instead weaved a story that made Bush and the military into the keystone cops. The Kerry camp was so clued in that they had a campaign ad up by the close of business. Just imagine, though, what the Times and CBS would say if the Justice Department brought an indictment based on the dearth of evidence Kerry is now using to accuse the president of the United States of being an incredible incompetent.
Still, the bigger questions about competence remain. Saddam didn’t have 380 tons of high explosives; he had 400,000. Using the Kerry math–now ludicrously deployed to evoke images of Pan Am 103 after months of Democrat insistence that Saddam and terror were like oil and water–this would compute to 80 million planes that could have been exploded out of the sky.
That can’t happen now, however. Under President Bush’s leadership, over 99 percent of that 400,000 tons is now in American hands. Under a President Kerry, 100 percent of them would have been in the hands of a free Saddam who, having bought off the allies with whom Kerry longs to summit, would be thisclose to ending the sanctions and regenerating his ambitious WMD programs–with Abu Musab al Zarqawi happily ensconced in Northern Iraq and Osama bin Laden perhaps cashing in on Saddam’s long pending offer of safe harbor.
Kerry’s latest riff, of course, has been that the president rushed into a war (that Kerry voted to authorize) instead of “giving the inspections a chance to work.” Is no one–not Kerry, not the Times, not CBS–troubled by the fact that their vision of the “inspections working” is one in which Saddam was blithely permitted to keep 400,000 tons of high explosives, constituting components for nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles–components that were supposed to have been removed, destroyed or rendered inert a dozen years earlier under the resolutions that ended the Gulf War.
Just what does American national security get out of summitry and IAEA inspections? If that’s competence, let us hope for more “incredible incompetence.”
–Andrew C. McCarthy, who led the 1995 terrorism prosecution against Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and eleven others, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.