Politics & Policy

The Vanishing Story

Kerry's Monday talking points were weak.

Explosives are missing in Iraq. This news ordinarily would not be the stuff of breathless political attacks, but in the final days of a presidential election anything will do–especially if you are John Kerry, waging your campaign on whatever fodder the New York Times happens to provide you on any given day. The latest is Monday’s Times story detailing how powerful conventional explosives, HMX and RDX, were removed from a huge weapons site in Iraq called Al Qaqaa.

In the larger context of Iraq, this is hardly surprising. The country is bristling with weapons and explosives. According to the Duelfer report, 10,000 weapons sites have been reviewed and cleared since the war; 240,000 tons of explosives have been destroyed; and another 160,000 tons have been consolidated for destruction. Given the massive amount of material in play, it’s not shocking that some of it would go missing or fall into the wrong hands. But the conception of immaculate warfare held by Bush’s critics does not allow for such unfortunate incidents or operational mistakes–the realities of war.

“The story of Al Qaqaa

is more complicated than anti-Bush

partisans are portraying it.”

The story of Al Qaqaa is more complicated than anti-Bush partisans are portraying it. According to the Times, U.N. weapons inspectors discovered Al Qaqaa after the first Gulf War. The powerful explosives, which can be used as the trigger in a nuclear device, weren’t destroyed then because Saddam pleaded to keep them for use in mining and construction (uh-huh). After the inspectors were booted in 1998 and returned in late 2002, they realized that 35 tons of HMX had been taken in the meantime. So it is clear that the inspections process Kerry and others wanted to rely on to deal with Saddam was inadequate.

Now, it seems another 377 tons of high-power explosives are gone. The thrust of the Times story is that they are missing because of the Bush administration’s carelessness right after the liberation. But even International Atomic Energy Agency experts cited in the Times report say Iraqi officials probably removed the explosives prior to the war. These experts, it is true, contend that the officials didn’t take them far from Al Qadaa. But how do they know? According to administration sources, Coalition forces were at the site during and after hostilities and searched roughly 30 bunkers and 90 other buildings. They found nothing under IAEA “seal.” This raises the possibility that the bunkers the agency had sealed prior to the war were broken into, and the explosives taken, before or during the war, making it nearly impossible to stop. Indeed, NBC Nightly News reported Monday that NBC was embedded with the Army’s 101st Airborne when they searched the site three weeks into the war and confirmed that none of the powerful explosives were found.

Then again, it is not inconceivable that the explosives were taken in postwar looting, as Iraqi officials have said. In which case, the administration should have paid more attention to securing the facility amid the postwar chaos. But such mistakes are endemic to warfare. John Kerry’s position is that he won’t tell us whether or not he would have removed the dictator who was stockpiling HMX, but in the event that he had, he would have waged the war with fewer flaws than any other major military operation in history has been waged. This posture neatly combines cowardice with opportunism and over-promising: a trifecta of contemptibility.

Remember, Saddam had an interest in explosives like HMX for one reason: They could have played a role in the revival of his WMD program. President Bush has removed that possibility once and for all–and for that, the region and the world are in his debt.

* * *

John Kerry’s “faith speech” on Sunday serves as a reminder that in American presidential politics, there is no cultural Left–or rather, that its champions have to portray themselves as believers in old-fashioned, small-town values. Kerry’s strategy is to link his faith to his policy views where politically convenient, to separate them where not, and to present both tactics as matters of high principle. Kerry says that we must not have faith without deeds, and therefore must support his proposals to expand health coverage. Let us agree with Kerry that Christian social ethics do indeed compel us to fight poverty, sickness, and environmental despoliation, if not necessarily using his bureaucratic methods. But when Kerry turns to abortion and embryonic stem-cell research, he drops the hymnal. The candidate has said that life begins at conception. But to change the law to protect unborn human beings would, in his view, be wrong. Faith without deeds is all they get. Actually, it is worse than that: The candidate wants to subsidize their killing. Kerry says, “My task, as I see it, is not to write every doctrine into law.” Yet prohibiting people from killing human beings is not equivalent to compelling belief in the Trinity or even outlawing adultery. Kerry appears to think that his church’s opposition to legal abortion requires him to support it. Faith demands deeds that go against the faith. Norman Rockwell plus abortion-on-demand doesn’t make any sense, no matter how hard Kerry tries.

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