After Secretary Powell’s multimedia presentation on Iraqi deception before the U.N. Security Council, you have to wonder what more the critics of the U.S. approach would want in terms of evidence. The briefing did not reveal everything the intelligence community has–it probably was not even the best material. After all, sources and methods must be protected. But it was more than previously had been seen, and it confirmed methods of Iraqi duplicity that previously had only been alleged. It highlighted the plight of the U.N. inspectors, and why they have not been able to locate the weapons Iraq denies having but all but the most credulous believe exist. The Iraqis hide weapons, they move them, they even develop them on mobile platforms. They conceal evidence in private homes, and threaten those who would tell the whole truth to inspectors with death. It’s no wonder UNMOVIC can’t turn up much. And the inspection teams do not have the technical or human capabilities of the intelligence communities of the United States or its allies, so they can’t get this level of evidence themselves. Yet they are banned from cooperating closely with intelligence agencies, so it places them in a Catch-22. Those who know, can’t search; those who search, can’t know.
Powell’s presentation was part intelligence briefing, part prosecutorial lecture. It was a convincing argument to me, but I had been convinced long ago, particularly because I have always been more willing to believe that the “credibility gap” was on the Iraqi side rather than ours. It is a viewpoint based on history, experience, and knowledge of human nature, but I have found it to be amazingly durable when facts are revealed. However, premises can differ on this issue as any other, and the spectrum of reactions to the evidence so far have been predictable. Those who believed in the threat still believe, those who were reticent remain so, or call for more time, or more proof, or, in extreme cases, say the evidence was all fabricated. The last charge is absurd on its face–fabricated evidence would have looked a lot more like the “smoking gun,” the golden fleece of the current debate. If you are going to fabricate radio intercepts, try having the recording say something like “The inspectors are coming, hide all the illegal weapons and pretend you make baby formula!”
The opposition to intervention in Iraq will never define what constitutes “proof” for fear that the United States might be able to produce it, so they adopt the technique of simply questioning what evidence is uncovered. So while the presentation was proof enough for those who acknowledge that there is a degree of ambiguity in the process (at least in what can be publicly known), for those demanding something more definitive, it was hardly proof at all. Ultimately the quest for proof becomes a question of risk balancing. No action–or inaction–is risk free, so the most important question facing the strategist is, what level of risk is tolerable? Does one wait until Iraq tests or uses a nuclear weapon to accept as absolute proof that such a weapon was under development? That pegs high on the lack-of-ambiguity scale, but is extremely negligent with respect to risk. Or take the Iraqi mobile bioweapons-development labs. Do we take Secretary Powell’s word for it that there are four people who either witness or were directly involved with them? Perhaps they should be named? It would be a death sentence for those still in Iraq, and dry up any future sources–and the skeptics would still not be convinced. Maybe they could be brought before the U.N. themselves to testify. But then, why should the skeptics believe them? Can they prove they saw what they claim to have seen? Or that they are even who they say they are? Perhaps one of the mobile biolabs could be produced–but could we prove it is not a food inspection lab, as the Iraqis claim? That approach to assessment not only leads to paralysis, it is intended to do so. Fortunately not everyone is falling for it.
Weapons of mass destruction aside, the most interesting information in the speech concerned Iraqi links to international terrorism. Secretary Powell discussed briefly the activities of Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, an al Qaeda operative with ties to Iraq, who helped organize the Salafist group that had planned a wave of chemical attacks in Europe. Fortunately the group’s plans were interrupted by European law-enforcement agencies before they could be carried out. The Zarqawi evidence is important beyond the issue of Iraq or Iraqi support for al Qaeda. Those who insist that hard evidence must be produced linking Iraq to 9/11 for the ties to terrorism to be relevant are missing the big picture–in the long term the global terror network will persist even if Saddam’s regime is overthrown. Mapping out and dismantling this terror system even as the threat evolves and adapts to the forces seeking to destroy it will be a continuing international-security challenge, and it is important to begin to focus on it now. The evidence from Saddam’s archives, once it becomes available, will be of immeasurable value in prosecuting this next phase of the war on terrorism.
Secretary Powell’s presentation should also be viewed as the definitive account of the internal viewpoint of the Bush administration itself. I thought about a statement from candidate Bush back during the 2000 election campaign; he said that if as president he learned that Saddam Hussein was manufacturing weapons of mass destruction he would “take him out.” Or his statement as president-elect on the same topic: “If we catch him developing weapons of mass destruction in any way, shape or form, I’ll deal with that in a way he won’t like.” I don’t think anyone would argue that the administration has established these conditions to its satisfaction. As such, it seems that the internal debate is over and the promised response awaiting final word. There may be a few more weeks of public discussion as Allied forces move into position, but the matter of proof has been settled for those who will make the decision to act. Whether Saddam Hussein is willing to come to grips with reality in time to ward off conflict remains to be seen, but the burden of proof currently rests with Baghdad.
— James S. Robbins is a national-security analyst & NRO contributor.