I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Never let the WMD dream die

Just as President Bush admitted for the first time what the world has well known for over two years now -- namely, that the WMD intelligence his Administration hyped in order to sell the war was "wrong," meaning inaccurate and false -- certain True Believers are still insisting that Saddam really did have WMDs and he simply "moved" them to Syria before the war. The always steadfast New York Sun beats this drum loudly today:

Saddam Hussein moved his chemical weapons to Syria six weeks before the war started, Israel's top general during Operation Iraqi Freedom says. . . .

The Israeli officer, Lieutenant General Moshe Yaalon, asserted that Saddam spirited his chemical weapons out of the country on the eve of the war. "He transferred the chemical agents from Iraq to Syria," General Yaalon told The New York Sun over dinner in New York on Tuesday night. "No one went to Syria to find it."

According to the Sun article, this now-retired Israeli General previously offered up this theory -- which has long been the last, best hope to which many war proponents have clung in order to salvage the WMD claims -- only as speculation, saying in 2004: "Perhaps they transferred them to another country, such as Syria." Now he is asserting it more definitively, but it's hard to believe he actually has obtained hard information enabling him to transform his speculation into fact, primarily because if such information existed, it would undoubtedly have been disclosed.

But even assuming that the Sun's "relocated WMD" theory is accurate, it would change very little. The term "WMDs" has joined terms such as "terrorist" and "torture" on the list of phrases that are so vague and ill-defined that they are wholly impoverished of meaning, and are now used almost exclusively to propagandize and manipulate, rather than illuminate or advance rational arguments.

Is every "chemical weapon" really a "weapon of mass destruction"? The U.S. has numerous conventional weapons that will kill far more people and do much greater damage than all sorts of weaponized chemicals can. The debate about WMDs has now implicitly though fully embraced the proposition that any chemical or biological weapon -- no matter its destructive properties -- is intrinsically a "weapon of mass destruction," such that the mere existence of any one of those items in Saddam's arsenal would vindicate the entire panoply of pre-war claims that fall under the heading "Saddam had WMDs."

But that notion is simply absurd. Nobody favored a war against Saddam because of a concern that he had a few run-of-the-mill chemicals. The truly motivating concern was, first and foremost, the prospect of his acquiring a nuclear capability, hence the frightening warnings from the Administration about not having the "smoking gun be in the form of a mushroom cloud." The existence of a few chemicals, even if it had been something other than an illusion, would hardly have been sufficient to warrant an invasion, nor would it likely have been sufficient to persuade the public to support the war. It was the prospect of nuclear weapons, and secondarily truly destructive biological and chemical agents, which caused people to see Saddam as enough of a threat to the U.S. to justify a war against him.

Not all "WMDs" are created equal, and not all "chemical and biological weapons" are accurately characterized as "WMDs." The post-invasion debate over WMDs has been conducted like some sort of silly reality game show: all you have to do is find one chemical in Saddam's arsenal buried somewhere in Iraq (or, and here's a twist, moved to Syria) and -- presto! -- the pro-war team wins because it will turn out that the pre-war WMD claims were right all along.

The New York Sun can find all the pro-war "sources" it wants to try to prove that there really were "WMDs" in Iraq. None of that will vindicate the claims made by the Administration which actually motivated Americans to support the war.


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