It is ironic that the critics who so admonished the intelligence agencies and the administration for failing to connect the dots before 9/11 are so reticent to do so themselves in the case of Iraq. For example, Senator Kennedy has suggested a nonbinding Sense of the Senate resolution calling for the president to present Congress “convincing evidence of an imminent threat” before troops are ordered to attack Iraq. Senator Kennedy opposed the first military engagement with Iraq in 1991, when Kuwait was subjugated by Iraqi arms, so one wonders how he defines the term “threat” and what manner of evidence would be satisfactory. The proposal also seems a bit risky — how imminent should the threat be? Shall we let Saddam Hussein prepare another act of aggression before we intervene? And isn’t the point of preemption to stop problems while they are still relatively easy to deal with?
Many members of the Parti Democratique have taken a similar line. Both in their State of the Union pre-buttal on Monday, and in numerous statements since, the Democrats have hinged their argument on the question of evidence. They have charged the president with a credibility gap, but in so doing have tied their own credibility to this issue. They thus gave the president a high hanging curve ball, to which he responded by announcing that Secretary of State Powell will present the requested proof of Iraqi arms violations before the United Nations on February 5. The event will present an opportunity for recalcitrant countries that may regret overstating their positions to save face. France, Germany, and Russia are already showing — if not softening — at least a marked ambiguity in their antiwar postures. In addition, eight European leaders have published an editorial calling for solidarity with the United States, stating in particular that “the transatlantic relationship must not become a casualty of the current Iraqi regime’s persistent attempts to threaten world security.”
But what manner of evidence will be convincing to the president’s domestic critics? Senator Daschle suggested something akin to the reconnaissance photographs revealed dramatically in the U.N. by Adlai Stevenson on October 25, 1962, as the Cuban Missile Crisis came to a head. Stevenson memorably said he was prepared to wait “until Hell freezes over” to get a straight answer from the Soviets, and in order to encourage them he produced the damning photos. The indisputable evidence literally silenced the Soviet side, until Khrushchev changed the party line from “there are no missiles” to “those are simply defensive weapons.” It was a great moment in political theater.
The problem is, this is not 40 years ago. Back then the bad guys were not as adept at hiding things from eyes in the sky, and they probably did not think they had to. In 1962 it was easy enough to show photographs of missile sites — fairly unambiguous and with only one purpose — and make a decisive point. But the threat is more nuanced than it used to be. For example, how do you show a convincing photograph of anthrax spores, especially taken from a satellite? Suppose the Iraqis have outfitted mobile chem-bio laboratories that they keep on the move and away from inspectors. One would guess the labs look a lot like trucks. Suppose chemical-weapons components are being offloaded into a warehouse — OK, there’s a building, here men move boxes. Even a nuclear weapon would not necessarily look like a World War II-era bomb with great big fins and radiation symbols painted on the side. It might look like a shipping container, which when you think about it is even more alarming.
Interpreting the evidence and assessing the magnitude of the threat will require more than simple photo analysis. One will have to consider the historical patterns of Iraqi aggression, their poor record on cooperation with the U.N. in disarming, the nature and character of Saddam Hussein’s regime, and other such factors to understand what such images might mean. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld took this tack with a reporter who asked about the nature of the soon-to-be-released evidence. He suggested looking first at the “fact pattern,” the total context of Iraqi behavior, and that of countries such as South Africa and Ukraine which have dismantled nuclear-weapons programs (and in the latter case, a massive arsenal) in order to frame the evidence. Intuition and reasonable inference always play a role in intelligence analysis. But the reporter was fixated on seeing a “smoking gun,” a “photograph.” Hmmm, a photograph of what exactly? Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden shaking hands in a room filled with banned weapons? Would that connect the dots? Oh, but maybe it was just a reception photo, can we prove they were actually plotting anything?
No amount of evidence will convince everyone. Moreover, the best of it will remain classified even after February 5. However, the administration has a serious opportunity to cinch the case it has been building at least since the president’s speech before the U.N. last September. And we will have the answers eventually. Let’s pick up the debate again once Saddam’s archives are in Allied hands; let’s see where the dots lead us next.
— James S. Robbins is a national-security analyst & NRO contributor.