"U.S. 'Almost All Wrong' on Weapons" read the headline on the October 7 Washington Post. "Report on Iraq Contradicts Bush Administration Claims" read the subhead. But these headlines conceal the real news in the report of Iraq Survey Group head Charles Duelfer. For the report makes it plain that George W. Bush had good reason to go to war in Iraq and end the regime of Saddam Hussein.
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First of all, Saddam retained the capability to manufacture weapons of mass destruction. On chemical weapons, "Saddam sought to sustain the requisite knowledge base to restart the program eventually and, to the extent it did not threaten the Iraqi efforts to get out from under sanctions, to sustain the inherent capability to produce such weapons as circumstances permitted in the future." On nuclear weapons, "Saddam did not abandon his nuclear ambitions. . . . Those around Saddam seemed quite convinced that once sanctions were ended, and all other things being equal, Saddam would renew his efforts in this field." Moreover, Duelfer concluded that Saddam in his missile program was developing missiles that exceeded the range limits set in U.N. Security Council Resolution 687.
Duelfer also reported that Saddam asked subordinates how long it would take to develop chemical weapons once sanctions ended. One Iraqi chemical weapons expert said it would require only a few days to develop mustard gas. Former Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz said that Iraq could have had a WMD capacity within two years after the end of sanctions.
If the weapons inspectors had been given more time to conduct inspections, as John Kerry has on occasion advocated, we now know they would not have found any WMDs. Nor does it seem possible that they would have uncovered Saddam's attempts to maintain WMD capability. There would have been heavy pressure then from France, Russia, and Chinawhose companies were given kickbacks and windfall profits from the Saddam-administered U.N. Oil for Food program, Duelfer reportsto disband U.S. military forces in the Middle East and to end sanctions. And once sanctions were gone, there would have been nothing to stop Saddam from developing WMDs.
In other words, we were facing a brutal dictator with the capability to develop WMDs and the proven willingness to use them. A dictator whose regime had had, as the 9/11 Commission has documented, frequent contacts with al Qaeda. We have no conclusive evidence that he collaborated with al Qaeda on 9/11but also no conclusive evidence that he did not. Under those circumstances, George W. Bush acted prudently in deciding to remove this regime. He would have been imprudent not to have done so.
One more thing needs to be said. There was, despite the headlines and charges to the contrary, no "intelligence failure" here. How were U.S. intelligence agenciesor those of other serious countries, who reached the same conclusionto learn that Saddam was not currently actively developing WMDs? How could they do that when even high officials in Saddam's government did not know whether such programs were ongoing or not? This was a secretive regime, not given to public announcements of its weapons development, not subject to a Freedom of Information Act. Even if we had had human intelligence sources at the top levels of the Saddam regime who assured us WMD programs were not ongoing, how could we have prudently relied on them?
Intelligence is an inexact business. It deals with things that cannot be known for sure. In this case, it dealt with something that even an ideal intelligence agency could not determine for certain. Our intelligence agencies and those of other countries that concluded that Saddam had WMDs turned out to have erred, but they erred on the proper side, on the side of pessimism, as they had tobecause the man had a record of developing WMDs and using them. And he had a record, we now know thanks to Charles Duelfer, of maintaining the capability of using WMDs again. The world and the United States are safer with Saddam in prison.