Time is running out, as President Bush and his advisers keep reminding Iraq, but the bell clangs no less for them. The question of the hour is this: Does the U.S. government have the goods on this guy? Do we have pretty firm evidence that Saddam Hussein is doing something, or has anything, which constitutes a threat both real and grave enough to justify war? If we do, then it's time to come out with it, now. As a last-minute pitch before U.N. Inspector Hans Blix delivers his report to the Security Council on Monday, Bush has been sending war's most eloquent advocates out on the hustings—National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to the New York Times op-ed page, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz to the Council on Foreign Relations, even Secretary of State Colin Powell to perform prodigal-son penance in the wake of betrayal by his new ex-best friends, the French. Yet these addresses leave the reader dizzy in dismay. Is this really, one wonders, the best our leaders can do?
Wolfowitz's speechon Thursday was dreadful to a degree not remotely suggested in news accounts. His basic theme, which he states right off and repeats throughout, is Iraq as an extension of al-Qaida and the upcoming Gulf War II as an answer to 9/11. "Iraq's weapons of mass terror and the terror networks to which the Iraqi regime are linked are not two separate themes, two separate threats—they are part of the same threat," Wolfowitz says. This is a point that he and his boss, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, have been pitching for months now. Last fall they even set up a separate intelligence network, within the inner rings of the Pentagon, to find evidence of some Iraqi-terrorist link that the CIA and even the Defense Department's own spy agency had overlooked. If they have discovered a connection in the months since, they haven't told anybody about it. Nor does Wolfowitz reveal the proof here. He merely behaves as if stating it is proof enough. "Disarming Iraq of its chemical and biological weapons and dismantling its nuclear weapons program," he says, "is a crucial part of winning the war on terror."
Does Iraq have chemical and biological weapons? Is it developing a nuclear weapons program? Much of the world regards these as verifiable questions. Wolfowitz sees their affirmative answers as the a priori premise. He notes that Iraq's Dec. 7 declaration—which was to have been a comprehensive catalog listing all its weapons of mass destruction, past and present—omitted the status of some 1.5 tons of VX nerve gas, 550 mustard-filled artillery shells, and 400 biological-capable aerial bombs, all of which were to have been destroyed years ago. The Iraqis say they got rid of the stuff but, ahem, lost the documents proving as much.
Wolfowitz is right to dwell on this. U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441 defines as a "material breach" not just "false statements" but also "omissions," and this is quite an omission. But then Wolfowitz trivializes his point. "When an auditor discovers discrepancies in the books," he says, "it is not the auditor's obligation to prove where the embezzler has stashed his money. It is up to the person or institution being audited to explain the discrepancy." Bush should hope that the Security Council doesn't take this analogy too seriously. Not even the IRS argues that tax frauds should get the death penalty; rarely do they serve so much as jail time; most often, the feds and the felon work out a payback plan, under very close monitoring. Which, the French and Germans might argue, is pretty much how the United Nations has Iraq pinned down now—swarming with inspectors, surrounded by (mostly U.S.) troops, planes, and warships—so what's the rush to war?
Many have understood, from the moment this U.N. process began, that the Security Council would likely approve moves to war only if the inspectors found positive evidence that the Iraqis were up to no good or if the Iraqis blocked the inspectors in particularly blatant fashion (as they did consistently in the 1990s). This is why the hawks were suspicious of going the U.N. route all along. They feared that the inspectors might come up blank (a reasonable fear, given that Bush's we're-coming-to-get-you speeches allowed Saddam a year to hide whatever stuff he might have). And neither the most optimistic dove nor the most Machiavellian hawk could have predicted how cooperatively (albeit passively) the Iraqi guards have treated the inspectors' requests for entry.
And now the hawks are in a bind. They're set to go to war, but they've got nothing hard to go on. The fact that the Bush administration has so heavily stressed the need to talk privately with Iraqi scientists further bolsters this impression. Certainly neither Wolfowitz's speech nor Rice's op-ed piece presents anything new or compelling. The dozen empty artillery tubes? Trivial in quantity; a plausible oversight by any stretch. The documents revealing Iraq's quest for aluminum tubes that would be suitable for enriching uranium? Upon inspection, it turns out the Iraqi explanation—that the tubes were for short-range, conventional artillery rockets—is almost certainly correct. Rice oddly reserves her bitterest language for the following outrage: "Iraq's declaration even resorted to unabashed plagiarism, with lengthy passages of United Nations reports copied word-for-word (or edited to remove any criticism of Iraq) and presented as original text."
No! (Is Condi looking for an exit strategy back to Stanford or merely appealing for an amicus curae from the MLA?)
This is not a game, as Wolfowitz properly states in his speech. Then why are he, Rice, and the others treating it as one? They have consistently missed the main element in the international debate that's currently raging, and this cluelessness was most poignantly revealed in the question-answer session at the Council on Foreign Relations. Wolfowitz was telling his audience about "a lot of evidence," proving Iraqi violations, that he just couldn't talk about. When someone asked him why they should believe him, he replied, "I must say, I sort of find it astonishing that the issue is whether you can trust the United States government. The real issue is, can you trust Saddam Hussein?"
Therein does lie the astonishing—yes, "astonishing" is a good word—tragedy of the situation. The world's leaders, including many of our closest allies, don't really trust the U.S. government.
Back in November, when the Security Council was embroiled in debate over the wording of the U.N. resolution on Iraq, the main objections came from the French and the Russians, who argued that the language contained a "hidden trigger" that would give America the authority to declare war as soon as the measure passed. The U.S. delegates considered the argument disingenuous. But one Western diplomat explained to me at the time that there was a real issue here. The council had to come up with new language, the diplomat said, "to bridge the gap of trust." This distrust "partly reflects worries about the U.S. use of power. And I suppose the doctrine of 'pre-emption' "—which Bush was putting forth with great enthusiasm—"stirs people's worries." The point is that this diplomat, who represented one of the closest U.S. allies, made these remarks with concern, even sorrow, not in confrontation or glee.
So, at home and abroad, it is no longer enough for Team Bush to bang the gavel, pronounce guilt, and send in the Marines. Secrecy is necessary to protect intelligence sources and military tactics. But nobody deliberately embarks on war for reasons that are too sensitive to discuss. If Bush has reasons, it's time to lay them out.