The United States has discovered weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. I know this because I read it on the front page of the very liberal New York Times. Of course, the Times was only trying to hurt the administration. In the rush to Baghdad during the war, our troops bypassed and failed to secure one of Saddam’s key nuclear facilities. That facility was looted by local villagers, who ransacked vaults and warehouses looking for anything of value. Many of the villagers took home radioactive barrels, and are now suffering from radiation poisoning. According to the Times, the looted nuclear facility, “contained ample radioactive poisons that could be used to manufacture an inestimable quantity of so-called dirty bombs.”
So in the course of trying to embarrass the administration, the Times has inadvertently raised a very important point in the administration’s defense. Saddam’s nuclear-weapons program contained sufficient material to pose a serious threat to the United States. In the hands of terrorists, nuclear dirty bombs supplied by Saddam could have rendered landmarks and key sites in American cities uninhabitable for the foreseeable future.
And why did Saddam have a nuclear facility in the first place? It was, of course, part of his effort to produce a nuclear bomb. In fact, the nuclear site reported on by the Times was connected to the facility bombed years before by the Israelis, who had become convinced that Saddam was attempting to build a nuclear weapon. Thank goodness the Israelis acted. Thank goodness we did too.
Now it’s true that this was a site that the inspectors knew about. That, however, might not have prevented Saddam from transferring the small amount of nuclear material necessary for a dirty bomb to terrorists. And the Iraqis may well have been carrying out other critical tasks in pursuit of a nuclear bomb at secret facilities. And there was always the danger that, in the absence of regime change, the Europeans would have tired of sanctions and inspections — as they’d done before — and let Saddam complete his nuclear work. The Europeans’ renewed interest in sanctions was only prompted by America’s preparations to invade, and we could not have kept our troops at the ready forever.
Another serious danger was the possibility that, at a propitious moment some time down the road, Saddam might simply have kicked the inspectors out. After all, that’s what the North Koreans did. They waited till we were tied down by our struggle with Iraq, booted the inspectors out, and powered up their nuclear program. Had we failed to invade, Saddam could have waited until a weaker president was in power, and/or until the U.S. was tied down in a war (perhaps with Korea), and simply thrown the inspectors out. After all, he’d done it before.
Prior to the war, it was impossible to tell how close Saddam was to building a nuclear bomb. We hoped and believed that he was still at least a year or two away from success, although the possibility that he might be even closer than that had to be reckoned with. After all, our intelligence had once before proven wrong. We had underestimated the progress of Saddam’s nuclear program, as we eventually learned from defectors. But even if Saddam was a couple of years away from a bomb, the need to invade was urgent. The point was precisely to stop Saddam before he got close enough to a bomb to exploit our uncertainty about his capacity and blackmail us. That, after all, is exactly what the North Koreans have been doing for some time.
All of this was publicly discussed before the war. Opponents of invasion emphasized that Saddam was probably at least a couple of years away from building a bomb. And they argued that conventional deterrence could in any case keep a nuclear-armed Saddam under control. Proponents of the war argued that Saddam might be closer to a bomb than we realized, and that, in any case, it was necessary to strike him quickly, when he was (we hoped) too far from a bomb to blackmail us.
Drawing on Kenneth Pollack’s powerful case for invasion, proponents of the war argued that, once in possession of a bomb, Saddam could not be deterred in the way the Soviets once were. Opponents of war asked why we were not invading North Korea, which was so obviously close to having a bomb. Proponents of the war countered that we were invading Iraq to prevent it from becoming a North Korea — which was, by all accounts, far too close to having a bomb to safely invade.
In two pieces published in the run-up to the war, “Brave New World” and “Why Invade,” I explained that the administration had not been able to fully and frankly emphasize the connection between Saddam’s nuclear ambitions and the war. Both the president and the vice president did, of course, talk about the potential threat of a nuclear-armed Saddam. But to emphasize that, and especially to spell out the danger scenarios outlined explicitly by Kenneth Pollack, would have been difficult and awkward. It would have harmed American power to note in too much detail just how vulnerable we were to nuclear blackmail. The same dynamic helps explain the administration’s relative silence about the barrel over which the North Koreans now have us. We do our best to pretend that Kim Jong Il has not got us in as difficult a situation as he in fact does.
But, again, this dynamic was by no means a complete secret before the war. The administration did include the danger of nuclear blackmail from Iraq in its publicly stated reasons for the war. And pundits did argue about all this. In particular, the war’s proponents made the point that, Saddam’s being perhaps a year or two away from a nuclear weapon (if we were lucky) made this exactly the moment to strike.
So the failure of the administration to turn up any chemical or biological weapons in Iraq is, from my perspective, not the key point. As I said repeatedly at the time, we were going to war to prevent Saddam from eventually producing nuclear weapons. That fact was known and even announced by the administration, but for reasons inherent to the nuclear game, could not be fully emphasized and spelled out.
Did the Iraqis have chemical and biological weapons? No one doubts that they did. Did they destroy or move them out of the country prior to the inspectors’ arrival to prevent their discovery from justifying an invasion? Quite possibly. If so, in an effort to preserve the deterrent effect of our belief that he still possessed chemical and biological weapons, Saddam evidently decided not to give us evidence of their destruction. That was a very dangerous game to play — a game Saddam lost.
But the New York Times report on Iraq’s pillaged nuclear facility reminds us that Saddam did in fact possess weapons of mass destruction — nuclear materials that could easily have supplied terrorists with “an inestimable quantity of so-called dirty bombs.” And that very real danger was only the promise of a full-fledged nuclear bomb a few years down the road. We are all in debt to President Bush for acting, while there was still time, to prevent that disastrous outcome.