A slim reed

October 08, 2004

LET'S BE FRANK. The war in Iraq was not about chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. They were merely emblems - potent emblems, to be sure - of the Bush administration's fears for the Middle East. They were something everyone could easily understand, as Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz acknowledged in 2003. The idea for war may have drawn strength from the unfinished business of 1991, or from a Bush family obsession with Saddam Hussein, or from a desire to look strong after 9/11. But behind it all lay a clear desire by Washington to impose an American-regulated stability not only on Iraq but on an entire treacherous and oil-rich region. The weapons of mass destruction served to make the need for action seem real and urgent.

Now, half a war later, there is a problem. The weapons weren't real and Mr. Hussein's desire for them wasn't urgent.

That's what the top American arms inspector for Iraq said this week in his definitive and - considering how the administration whipped up so much hysteria over the imaginary weapons - strangely earnest report. Yet President Bush continued to assert yesterday that invading Iraq was the right thing to do.

Clearly, he's in a bind. If he acknowledges that the weapons weren't the real reason for the war, millions of Americans who believed otherwise will feel sorely misled. Moreover, if he confesses that the war was really launched to impose order on Iraq and the Islamic Middle East, it becomes pretty obvious that it has been a near-total failure. So he is reduced to this: clinging to the argument that Mr. Hussein hoped someday to reconstitute his weapons programs and might then have shared his illicit arms with terrorists. By this feeble measure, with the dictator now in custody, the war looks like a great success.

But it's preposterous. The inspector's report conclusively shows that the sanctions against the regime were working; Mr. Hussein dismantled his weapons programs so as not to provoke the United Nations any further. If he had lasted in office much longer, a smart and consistent approach by the United States would have eventually rendered him toothless.

And then there's this: The administration loves to talk about the threat of WMD (though doing little about them when the proliferators are the Pakistanis). Yet by now it should have escaped no one's notice that the very effective terrorist attacks of the past three years - in America, Russia, Spain, Indonesia - have been carried out with box cutters, explosives and bullets. Of course a dirty bomb is a terrifying notion, but al-Qaida and its cohorts do quite well spreading mayhem even without exotic weapons from evil dictators. It's the terrorist, and not the potential though highly improbable supplier of anthrax or sarin, who deserves the emphasis.

President Bush declared in 2002 that America has the right to wage pre-emptive war. So far, by the argument he made yesterday, 1,067 Americans have died in order to pre-empt Mr. Hussein's possible future intentions. And they're still dying. This is senseless, and dishonest.

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