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Confusion on Iraq

December 13th, 2002

Confusion regarding Iraq and the Middle East is everywhere. Scuds from North Korea hidden under a load of cement are apparently a legitimate cargo. The WashPost runs a story quoting Administration officials saying Saddam has given VX gas to Al-Qaeda and it’s already on its way to the West. If correct, this would certainly justify war, but would also give it a ‘shutting the stable door’ quality. The next day, the report seems to be little more than a rumor.

Meanwhile the Iraqi declaration and the US response are puzzling in the extreme. In the standard warblogger scenario, the declaration was the trigger. Once it came out, the US would produce the evidence to show Iraq was lying and the war would be under way. The peaceful resolution scenario was that Iraq would ‘fess up and destroy its weapons. Instead, Iraq is denying everything but the US is in no hurry to prove that Saddam is lying.

Today’s NYT quotes US officials as saying that the report fails to account for stocks of WMDs that were already located by the last round of inspections. If this claim stands up, it would make a pretty strong case for declaring Iraq in material breach. But, as the NYT says, it’s hard to prove a negative. What I find really bizarre is this:

The second [option] is to continue with the inspections, and to aid inspectors with intelligence that would guide them to suspect locations. But Mr. Fleischer said earlier this week that the inspectors would receive no information that revealed the sources and methods used to collect them.

How serious a threat can Saddam be if it’s more important to protect any and all intelligence sources than to produce the evidence that would justify his overthrow. You can imagine cases where the US would put sources first – for example a highly-placed mole in Saddam’s entourage. But the kind of evidence that’s been hinted at so far is nothing like this – it’s routine surveillance using satellites, phone intercepts etc. Kennedy compromised sources far more sensitive when he produced the photos proving the Russians were building missiles on Cuba.

The only interpretation that makes sense is that, despite all the dossiers that were waved about a few months ago – including satellite images of ‘suspect’ sites – the Administration doesn’t really have anything beyond some suspicious purchases.

Blix will apparently give his assessment of the Iraqi document next Thursday, My guess is that he won’t give much support to a ‘material breach’ finding and will instead call for more inspections. That puts any real action off until the first inspection report, due on January 26 as I recall.

There’s still a significant chance that Saddam will be nailed on a clear falsehood in the declaration or that inspectors will turn up something damning. And there’s an outside possibility that the alleged links to Al-Qaeda will pan out. But it’s becoming more and more likely that neither terrorist links nor WMDs will be solid enough evidence to justify an invasion.

What’s left of the case for war is the obvious fact that Saddam is an evil dictator and a menace to peace in the Middle East. The problem is that a war based on this argument must be conducted very differently from one based on evidence that Saddam is aiding terrorists or hoarding WMDs. Overthrowing one oppressive dictator in a region full of them is not a sustainable policy. Unfortunately many of the dictators are US allies, just as Saddam was 20 years ago. And the oppressive Middle Eastern regime that arouses the most resentment is that operated in Palestine by America’s closest ally. The fact that the same ally operates the only real domestic democracy in the region makes things even trickier.

Quite frankly, I don’t believe the US Administration is capable of managing a war for democracy in the Middle East. But if they show that they can, for example by demanding an immediate start to the dismantling of Israeli settlements in Palestine, and dumping their friendly dictators, I’ll be the first to cheer them on.

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