Friday 06 June 2003
LONDON "Chutzpah" is the word applied to people who radiate belief in themselves without any visible reason to justify it. In the chutzpah stakes, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is way off the scale.
Before the Iraq war, he told us that Saddam Hussein had "large stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and an active program to develop nuclear weapons.'' After the war, he explained away the failure to find any of these stockpiles or nuclear installations by saying Hussein's people probably "decided they would destroy them prior to a conflict.''
You have to admire Rumsfeld's effrontery. But not his logic.
The least plausible explanation is that Hussein destroyed his means of defense on the eve of an invasion. The more plausible explanation is that he did not have any large stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.
When the Cabinet of British Prime Minister Tony Blair's government discussed the dossier on Hussein's WMD, I argued that I found the document curiously derivative. It set out what we knew about Hussein's chemical and biological arsenal at the time of the 1991 Gulf War. It then leaped to the conclusion that Hussein must still possess all those weapons.
There was no hard intelligence of a current weapons program that would represent a new and compelling threat to our interests. Nor did the dossier at any stage admit the basic scientific fact that biological and chemical agents have a finite shelf life a principle understood by every pharmacist. Go to your medicine chest and check out the existence of an expiration date on nearly everything you possess. Nerve agents of good quality have a shelf life of about five years and anthrax in liquid solution of about three years. Hussein's stocks were not of good quality. The Pentagon itself concluded that Iraqi chemical munitions were of such poor standard that they were usable for only a few weeks.
Even if Hussein had destroyed none of his arsenal from 1991, it would long ago have become useless.
So why did Rumsfeld build a case for war on a false claim of Hussein's capability? Enter stage right (far right) his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, a man of such ferociously reactionary opinion that he has at least the advantage to his department of making Rumsfeld appear reasonable. Wolfowitz has now disclosed: "For bureaucratic reasons, we settled on weapons of mass destruction because it was the one issue everyone could agree on.''
Decoded, what his remarks mean is that the Pentagon went along with allegations of weapons of mass destruction as the price of getting U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and the British government on board for war. But the Pentagon probably did not believe in the case then, and it certainly cannot prove it now.
Wolfowitz also let the cat out of the bag over the "huge prize'' for the Pentagon from the invasion of Iraq: an alternative to Saudi Arabia as a base for U.S. influence in the region.
As Rumsfeld might express it, we Britons have been suckered. Britain was conned into a war to disarm a phantom threat in which not even our major ally really believed.
This leaves the British government in an uncomfortable position. This week, Blair was pleading for everyone to show patience and to wait for weapons to be found.
There is a historical problem with this plea. The war took place only because the coalition powers lost patience with chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix and refused his plea for a few more months to complete his disarmament tasks.
There is also a growing problem of transatlantic politics. The more time passes, the greater the gulf will widen between the obliging candor on the U.S. side that there never was a weapons threat and the desperate obfuscation on the British side that we might still find one.
There is always a bigger problem in denying reality than in admitting the truth. The time has come for the British government to concede that we did not go to war because Hussein was a threat to our national interests. We went to war for reasons of U.S. foreign policy and Republican domestic politics.
One advantage of such clarity is that it would help prevent us from being suckered a second time. Which brings us to Rumsfeld's latest saber rattling against Iran.
It is consistent with the one-dimensional character of the Rumsfeld worldview that he talks of Iran as if it were a single, unified entity. In fact, Iran is deeply divided.
On the one side are President Mohammad Khatami and the majority of the parliament, who are reformers, reflecting the political reality that most Iranians consistently vote to join the modern world. On the other hand are the conservative forces of the old Islamic revolutionaries led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who still has control over the security apparatus.
The blanket hostility toward Iran by the Bush administration has undermined the reformers and provided a welcome shot in the arm to the ayatollahs.
British policy on Iran makes sense in seeking to secure the advance of the reformers, which is in the interests of ourselves and of the Iranian people. This time we must make clear to the White House that we are not going to subordinate Britain's interests to a U.S. policy of confrontation.
Iran must not become the next Iraq.
Robin Cook is a former foreign minister of Britain and was a Cabinet member before resigning over the decision to go to war with Iraq.
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