Stumbling Blindly Into War

Is the President turning “new age”? Not only has he massaged the United Nations Security Council into a unanimous vote demanding that Iraq accept weapons inspections, but he seems to have embraced guided meditation practices. In his November 7th press conference at the Executive Office Building, President George W. Bush led the audience through a visualization exercise. “Imagine Saddam Hussein with a nuclear weapon,” he said, “Imagine how the Israeli citizens would feel. Imagine how the citizens of Saudi Arabia would feel. Imagine how the world would change, how he could alter diplomacy by the very presence of a nuclear weapons.”

Bush raised the issue of Hussein’s nuclear weapons at least three times in his 47-minute session with the press, saying at one point that the world community doesn’t “like the idea of Saddam Hussein having a nuclear weapon.”

Despite the emotional resonance of this exercise, Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons program appears to be little more than an idea. Reports from the Central Intelligence Agency, the International Atomic Energy Association, and other expert groups seem to confirm that Saddam Hussein does not have nuclear weapons, and could not easily build them for years.

The Central Intelligence Agency, in a report released in October, concluded, “Saddam Hussein probably doesn’t have sufficient material to make any [nuclear weapons]” although “he remains intent on acquiring them.” The report concluded, “Iraq is unlikely to produce indigenously enough weapons-grade material for a deliverable nuclear weapon until the last half of this decade. Baghdad could produce a nuclear weapon within a year if it were able to procure weapons-grade fissile material abroad.” But that is a big if.

Reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN agency responsible for inspections and disarmament of Iraq’s nuclear programs from 1991 to 1998, indicate that the facilities that housed Iraq’s nuclear weapons program were either destroyed during the 1991 Gulf War or in subsequent IAEA raids.

The IAEA withdrew from Iraq when the Clinton administration’s bombing campaign made it impossible to continue work, but their conclusions up until then support the CIA’s findings. The IAEA states that “nothing indicated that Iraq had produced more than a few grams of weapons-grade nuclear material through its indigenous enrichment processes, or that Iraq had secretly acquired weapons-usable material from external sources.”

One reporter asked the President to comment on CIA Director George Tenet’s statement that Saddam Hussein, “now appears to be drawing a line short of conducting terrorist attacks against the United States.” But if the U.S. attacked, he would “probably become much less constrained.” Bush failed to respond to the question, but Tenet’s statement raises concerns about Washington provoking Saddam Hussein to a higher level of aggression. The approach Washington is taking with North Korea’s nuclear program–working with regional partners, offering incentives for abandoning the nuclear program–appears to be working and could serve as an example.

Bush admitted that in his speech, saying, “by the way, we don’t know how close he is to a nuclear weapon right now. We know he wants one. But we don’t know. We know he was close to one at one point in time. We have no idea today.”

It’s one thing to argue that we need to vigilant in our efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, given the flaws in U.S. intelligence gathering. It’s quite another to go to war on the grounds that “we don’t know” how close a country is to acquiring them. If nuclear weapons are really the President’s concern, he should give UN inspectors the time they need to find out what Iraq’s capabilities are, and to eliminate them. And he should commit the United States to a concrete timetable for eliminating its own massive nuclear arsenal, along with a policy of neither using nor threatening to use nuclear weapons first in any conflict. Instead, his administration seems intent on using the first glitch in UN inspections, however minor, as a trigger for war, whether or not other UN Security Council members agree. That would be a terrible mistake, and a terrible precedent. Might makes right is a recipe for war without end, not the peace that President Bush claims to be seeking.