I must confess that

January 28, 2003 9:19 a.m.

I must confess that the current state of affairs on Iraq fills me with equivocation and no small bit of uncertainty. This is one reason I’m eager to hear what Ken Pollack has to say in the interview TPM will be running with him later this week. (As you know, Pollack is the author of The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq, which TPM reviewed quite favorably here in The Washington Monthly.)

Here, I think, is what we know about the current situation.

1. Iraq isn’t complying with the relevant UN disarmament resolutions. It’s doing the minimum necessary to avoid an open breach with the UN. There’s a big difference.

2. The conversation we’re having is about “weapons of mass destruction.” But this term of art — WMD — obscures the vastly important distinction between chemical and biological weapons on the one hand and nuclear weapons on the other. As I said in my review of Pollack’s book “One theme running through this book is Pollack’s belief–no doubt accurate–that nuclear weapons are the real issue, with chemicals and bioweapons running several laps behind. Frightening as they are, it is simply very difficult to kill large numbers of people with chemical or biological weapons.”

Nuclear weapons capacity is intrinsically more difficult to conceal than chemical and biological weapons capacity. Therefore inspections are a more credible response. And from what we knew going in and even more from what we know from the IAEA inspections, it seems very unlikely that Saddam currently has a serious nuclear weapons programs in place now. I don’t say that as a matter of certainty because I don’t have all the evidence at hand. But from everything I know about the subject it’s what I think is true. Does Saddam want nukes? Absolutely. If left to his own devices would he eventually get them? More than likely. But to the extent that we’re talking about today, and the certainty that Saddam hasn’t given up his WMD programs, I think we’re really talking about chem and bio. That doesn’t exonerate Saddam but it speaks to the question of timing.

3. Waiting indefinitely isn’t necessarily as easy as it sounds. One of the arguments I found most convincing in Pollack’s book was that Saddam’s ability to play the inspections game is inherently more elastic than ours. His freedom of action is far greater and far more sustainable.

Simply put, he’s there. We’re not. Or, at least, not in strength. Here’s the argument: We’ve now mobilized a big force to the region. And as long as we’re there with our finger at the trigger, he’s going to lie very, very low — as he’s doing now. But we can’t keep those troops there indefinitely. For money and preparedness reasons we’ll eventually have to draw down. Then Saddam can start gaming the system again because our ability to retaliate will be greatly diminished. Then we build up again and Saddam draws back again. That could go on forever. Unfortunately, it’s easy for Saddam to go back and forth, but very hard for us. We can’t just send a quarter million drops back and forth to the Gulf a couple times a year. It’s easy for him but it’ll eventually bleed us dry.

Eventually, we’d just have to say, ‘Okay, this is lame. We’re going to have to settle this once and for all.’ Folks like Pollack, certainly the hawks in the administration, and possibly now Colin Powell too, think we’re already at that point. And I’m not at all certain they’re wrong.

4. It’s hard to ignore the fact that Norman Schwarzkopf isn’t convinced we should go to war right now. And believe me, he speaks for lots of career officers at the Pentagon whose job it rightly is — since they’re still in uniform — to give candid advice in private but follow the orders of their civilian superiors.

5. We signed on to inspections. Like it or not, we did. It’s very hard for us to say the process has run its course. Hard to say primarily since it’s not true. That just raises a problem of consistency for the US. The point of going this route is to push the process hard enough that — in concert with good data from US intelligence agencies — the inspectors either find something or we get to some point where the Iraqis stand in the doorway of some factory or building and don’t let them do their work. Then the process has broken down. There are reasons I’ve noted above that weigh heavily against waiting. But for the moment I think it leaves us with a problem of logic if not of policy. If we’ve got evidence from our intelligence sources that will advance the ball and prove our contentions — and I’m sure we do — we need to go as far as we can to make it public.

This list isn’t meant to cover all the bases or arrive at any conclusions. It’s just meant to address some basic points. I think we’re still back to the same basic point. If the issue is whether Saddam is an immediate threat, we’ve got time and there’s no need to act now. Forget Ken Adelman’s hokum about a mushroom cloud over an American city. But if we’ve made the decision that Saddam is a longterm threat to the region and that we have to remove him, maybe it’s no time like the present.

I’ll stand on what I wrote in this article a few months back.

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