Weapons of Self-Destruction?

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When President Bush meets his European counterparts this weekend for the first G8 summit since the Iraq invasion, all sides plan to put the Iraq unpleasantness behind them. Eager as they are to restore relations with Washington, however, the antiwar Europeans haven’t given any ground on the question of whether the war was justified. Quite the contrary: On the central argument for the invasion — that Saddam Hussein had purportedly stockpiled hundreds of tons of chemical and biological weapons and was pursuing nuclear weapons, and that his alleged relationship with al-Qaeda made these an intolerable and immediate threat to the West — Washington has yet to produce the evidence to validate its case. So while Bush may be feeling good about his quick and decisive ousting of the dictator, the antiwar Europeans may be feeling quietly smug about the Americans’ failure to find the weapons they claimed warranted a war.

Sure, the U.S. has found two trucks carrying fermenters, which the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency have concluded were mobile bio-weapons labs. That’s a decidedly limited haul given the scale of the WMD alleged, for example, in Secretary of State Colin Powell’s UN presentation — which spoke, among other things, of bio-tipped Iraqi missiles hidden in palm groves in Western Iraq, and numerous other specifics that have not panned out — or President Bush’s State of the Union speech in which he warned that Iraq had enough materials to produce 500 tons of chemical weapons and 30,000 munitions to deliver them. Even the two fermenter trucks represent circumstantial, rather than forensic evidence: U.S. intelligence concluded they’re bio-weapons labs simply because they can see no plausible innocuous purpose for their equipment, and they conform to the description provided of such a facility by a defector.

The failure, thus far, to find Iraq’s alleged WMD stockpile does little damage to the Bush administration at home. Opinion polls show that almost two thirds of the U.S. electorate cares little whether or not WMD are ever found in Iraq — having gotten rid of a noxious dictator may have been enough for them, and victory provides its own validation for the war. But for the European governments who defied their electorates to support the war, the absence of proof could be catastrophic — nowhere more so than in Britain, where Tony Blair’s government is in deep trouble as the British media, and politicians from his own party and the opposition, begin to ask more and more insistently whether there was ever any there, there.

Many of Blair’s problems, of course, are homegrown. The BBC reported this week that the prime minister’s office deliberately doctored a British dossier on Saddam’s WMD capability to make it "sexier," telling a wavering parliament, for example, that Saddam’s WMD could be ready for use within 45 minutes. And further embarrassments are in the works as the state-owned network prepares to run a documentary series that has Defense Minister Geoff Hoon repeatedly insisting that the reason for the war is Saddam’s WMD arsenals, and making statements such "I am confident that once the military campaign is over, or even before, we will find these weapons and will hold them up for public display."

Worse, perhaps, for Blair, the reported transcripts of discussions between Powell and his British counterpart, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, in which both men express serious misgivings about the nature of the intelligence on which the Anglo-American case for war was being made at the very point they were trumpeting it most loudly.

Blair is sticking to his guns, trying to ride out the storm and insisting that WMD will be found, although adding that the search for them was “not the most urgent priority” when compared with the challenges of rebuilding Iraq — a rather odd claim, if the aim of the war was to stop such weapons falling into the hands of terrorists. But one reason Blair may be trying to change the subject could be the response in Europe to the wave of recent comments from Bush administration officials designed to lower expectations that any smoking gun will be found. Just this week, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld suggested that one reason no WMD had been found in Iraq might be "that they decided that they would destroy them prior to a conflict." Perhaps it’s by growling at journalists (and occasionally, if Bob Woodward is to be believed, poking them in the chest) that Rumsfeld gets a free ride in the U.S. media on such comments. Less so elsewhere. Former British foreign minister Robin Cook, who resigned from Blair’s cabinet over the war, suggested it required an impossibly elastic imagination to picture Saddam Hussein clinging to his WMD until war was inevitable — presumably in the belief these were indispensable to his regime’s survival — and then destroying them on the eve of an invasion to seek vindication in defeat. "If Donald Rumsfeld is now admitting the weapons are not there, the truth is the weapons probably haven't been there for quite a long time," Cook said.

Worse news for the European allies was this week’s revelation that Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, the intellectual author of the war, told Vanity Fair that weapons of mass destruction were settled on for bureaucratic reasons as a reason for war that everyone could agree on. And that wasn’t the first comment from administration officials subtly shifting the goalposts. ABC’s Nightline was told, last month, that the real reason for going to war was to mount a show of force against terrorism and in support of democracy in the Arab world, and that the weapons of mass destruction issue was emphasized (the implication was exaggerated) in order to win domestic political support and establish a legal basis for the invasion.

Equally troubling for the Europeans, perhaps, is the decision by the CIA to launch an internal review of prewar intelligence gathering and analysis. That inquiry may be a sign of finger-pointing to come, arriving hard on the heels of reports of widespread fury in the U.S. intelligence community over alleged political manipulation of intelligence to make the case for war, and charges that Pentagon hawks had created their own parallel intelligence structure when the conclusions reached through the regular channels didn’t make strong enough case for war. Neither has the media been immune. Slate this week cheekily wondered why the New York Times devoted so much effort to the fictions of Jayson Blair while accepting at face value unchecked claims of WMD finds in Iraq reported by Judith Miller. Turns out that Miller’s prime source for her front page WMD scoops was the organization led by Ahmed Chalabi, an Iraqi exile of 45 years convicted in Jordan of bank fraud who has been agitating for years to be returned to Baghdad as an anointed sovereign on the back of a U.S. invading force.

It may not matter much to the electorate, but Washington is plainly feeling the heat. The Pentagon on Friday announced a major expansion of the U.S. inspection team searching for WMD in Iraq, while Donald Rumsfeld scrambled to correct the impression created by his earlier remarks and reiterated that they would be found.

But until such time as the U.S. and its allies unearth weapons stocks and programs commensurate with the allegations made by Bush, Blair and Powell on the world stage, France, Russia and Germany may refrain from crowing, but they’re hardly about to bow their heads in shame.