Should the U.S. Invade Iraq? Week 2

Aflatoxin
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Oct. 3 2002 3:47 PM

Should the U.S. Invade Iraq? Week 2

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David Plotz has offered a not-unconvincing argument for Saddam's removal, but let me offer a better one: aflatoxin.

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In 1995, the government of Saddam Hussein admitted to United Nations weapons inspectors that its scientists had weaponized a biological agent called aflatoxin. Charles Duelfer, the former deputy executive chairman of the now-defunct UNSCOM, told me earlier this year that the Iraqi admission was startling because aflatoxin has no possible battlefield use. Aflatoxin, which is made from fungi that occur in moldy grains, does only one thing well: It causes liver cancer. In fact, it induces it particularly well in children. Its effects are far from immediate. The joke among weapons inspectors is that aflatoxin would stop a lieutenant from making colonel, but it would not stop soldiers from advancing across a battlefield.

I quoted Duelfer, in an article that appeared in The New Yorker, saying that "we kept pressing the Iraqis to discuss the concept of use for aflatoxin." They never came up with an adequate explanation, he said. They did admit, however, that they had loaded aflatoxin into two warheads capable of being fitted onto Scud missiles.

Richard Spertzel, who was the chief biological weapons inspector for UNSCOM, told me that aflatoxin is "a devilish weapon. From a moral standpoint, aflatoxin is the cruelest weapon—it means watching children die slowly of liver cancer."

Spertzel went on to say that, to his knowledge, Iraq is the only country ever to weaponize aflatoxin.

In an advertisement that appeared in the New York Times on Tuesday, a group of worthies called upon the American people to summon the courage to question the war plans of President Bush. The advertisement, which was sponsored by Common Cause, asks, in reference to the Saddam regime, "Of all the repugnant dictatorships, why this one?"

I do not want, in this space, to rehearse the arguments for invasion; Jacob Weisberg  and Anne Applebaum  have done a better job of that than I could, and they have also explained why multilateralism and congressional sanction are not the highest moral values known to man. There is not sufficient space, as well, for me to refute some of the arguments made in Slate over the past week against intervention, arguments made, I have noticed, by people with limited experience in the Middle East (Their lack of experience causes them to reach the naive conclusion that an invasion of Iraq will cause America to be loathed in the Middle East, rather than respected). I will try, instead, to return to the essential issues: the moral challenge posed by the deeds of the Iraqi regime; and the particular dangers the regime poses to America and its allies. Everything else, to my mind, is commentary.

There are, of course, many repugnant dictators in the world; a dozen or so in the Middle East alone. But Saddam Hussein is a figure of singular repugnance, and singular danger. To review: There is no dictator in power anywhere in the world who has, so far in his career, invaded two neighboring countries; fired ballistic missiles at the civilians of two other neighboring countries; tried to have assassinated an ex-president of the United States; harbored al-Qaida fugitives (this is, by the way, beyond doubt, despite David Plotz's assertion to the contrary); attacked civilians with chemical weapons; attacked the soldiers of an enemy country with chemical weapons; conducted biological weapons experiments on human subjects; committed genocide; and then there is, of course, the matter of  the weaponized aflatoxin, a tool of mass murder and nothing else.

I do not know how any thinking person could believe that Saddam Hussein is a run-of-the-mill dictator. No one else comes close—not the mullahs in Iran, not the Burmese SLORC, not the North Koreans—to matching his extraordinary and variegated record of malevolence.

Earlier this year, while traveling across northern Iraq, I interviewed more than 100 survivors of Saddam's campaign of chemical genocide. I will not recite the statistics, or recount the horror stories here, except to say that I met enough barren and cancer-ridden women in Iraqi Kurdistan to last me several lifetimes.

So: Saddam Hussein is uniquely evil, the only ruler in power today—and the first one since Hitler—to commit chemical genocide. Is that enough of a reason to remove him from power? I would say yes, if "never again" is in fact actually to mean "never again." 

But at a panel this past weekend on Iraq held as part of the New Yorker festival, Richard Holbrooke scolded me for making the suggestion that genocide was reason enough for the international community to act against Saddam. Holbrooke, who favors regime change, said the best practical argument for Saddam's removal is the danger posed by his weapons programs. He is right, though the weapons argument, separated from Saddam's real-life record of grotesque aggression, loses its urgency. Because Saddam is a man without any moral limits is why it is so important to keep nuclear weapons from his hands.

On the subject of Saddam's weapons programs, let me quote once more the Common Cause advertisement: "Do we have new information suggesting he has obtained or is about to obtain weapons of mass destruction (including nuclear warheads) and the capacity to deliver them over long distances?," it reads.

Yes, actually. There is consensus belief now that Saddam could have an atomic bomb within months of acquiring fissile material. This is not unlikely, since the international community, despite Kate Taylor's assertion, is incapable in the long run of stopping a determined and wealthy dictator from acquiring the things he needs. It is believed now that Saddam's scientists could make the fuel he needs in as little as three years (the chief of German intelligence, August Hanning, told me one year ago that he believed it would take Saddam three years to go nuclear).

The argument by opponents of invasion that Saddam poses no "imminent threat" (they never actually define "imminent," of course) strikes me as particularly foolhardy. If you believe he is trying to acquire an atomic bomb, and if you believe that he is a monstrous person, than why would you possibly advocate waiting until the last possible second to disarm him?

After returning from Iraq, I dug out an old New York Times editorial, which I recommend people read in full. It was published on June 9, 1981 under the headline, "Israel's Illusion."

"Israel's sneak attack on a French-built nuclear reactor near Baghdad was an act of inexcusable and short-sighted aggression," the editorial states. "Even assuming that Iraq was hellbent to divert enriched uranium for the manufacture of nuclear weapons, it would have been working toward a capacity that Israel itself acquired long ago."

Israel absorbed the world's hatred and scorn for its attack on the Osirak reactor in 1981. Today, it is accepted as fact by most arms-control experts that, had Israel not destroyed Osirak, Saddam Hussein's Iraq would have been a nuclear power by 1990, when his forces pillaged their way across Kuwait.

The administration is planning today to launch what many people would undoubtedly call a short-sighted and inexcusable act of aggression. In five years, however, I believe that the coming invasion of Iraq will be remembered as an act of profound morality.

—Jeffrey Goldberg is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a frequent contributor to Slate.

Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for the Atlantic and the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror.

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