October 13, 2004 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Saddam's Bluff

Would we have gone into Iraq had we known what he know today about the state of Saddam Hussein's programs for the production of weapons of mass destruction? The Bush White House has been unapologetic about its policy, and according to National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice, speaking on Fox News Channel on Sunday, the answer is "yes." But the point is of course that we didn't know. Saddam Hussein's truly moronic game of deception made it very hard to think otherwise than that he had all sorts of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).

Last week saw the publication of the report from the Iraq Survey Group on Saddam Hussein's WMDs, and the group's finding was that Saddam did not have a functional program for the production of WMDs, nor any known stockpiles of the same. In the context of a heated election campaign, the news was played as a devastating blow to President Bush's case for the war in Iraq.

But this represents a serious distortion.Thereis news in the report, to be sure, but it lies in the detailed disclosure and documentation of how France, Russia and China had benefited from the corrupt Oil for Food program. These, of course, were the three countries most supportive of Iraq on the U.N. Security Council. That's what the headlines should have been all about.

The group, headed by chief U.S. weapons inspector Charles A. Duelfer, only confirmed what weapons inspector David Kay had previously stated before Congress at the interim publication of the report -- that Saddam Hussein did not at the time of the invasion have a major program for the production of WMDs. If this is news, it is only because of the countdown towards the presidential election.

What has been played down in the news coverage -- but shouldn't be, as it is of crucial importance -- is that Saddam retained the capacity and the intent to restart his production of WMDs once the U.N. sanctions regime had finally crumbled. In this he was clearly in breach of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441.
The Iraqi Intelligence Service maintained a set of undeclared laboratories to research and test chemical and biological weapons -- including through human tests. Saddam had the capacity to produce within six months sulfur mustard and within two years nerve agents. The Iraq Survey Group also concluded that Saddam still had dreams of acquiring nuclear weapons and that he intended to resume his missile programs, potentially for the delivery of WMDs.

Amazingly, opponents of the war always seem to assume that had we not invaded Iraq, Saddam would have been content with the status quo -- sitting in his box, as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright liked to put it. That, however, would have been totally out of character. This is the Iraqi dictator who started wars against Iran and Kuwait, threatened Saudi Arabia and constantly tested U.S. and British fighter planes that were enforcing the no-fly zones over Iraq. Nor let us forget that he gassed his own Kurdish population. Saddam was as restless as he was ruthless.

Nor were the U.N. sanctions doing the job of denying him weapons. Throughout the 1990s, Saddam was able to amass an estimated $11 billion in revenue outside U.N.- approved methods. Furthermore, as has been amply documented in the work of Heritage analysts Nile Gardiner and James Phillips, the U.N. Oil for Food programs was fraudulent and horribly corrupt in itself.

As confirmed in the Duelfer report, Saddam bought support, particularly among French, Russian and Chinese officials to whom he would donate oil "vouchers" that could be resold for large profits. Recipients even included Benon Sevan, the head of the Oil for Food program, and other officials in charge of humanitarian relief. The scandal has gone all the way to the top, to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's son himself. Needless to say, the countries that benefited most from these vouchers were also the countries that were most adamantly opposed to the Iraq invasion.

Those who criticize the military action taken by President Bush and his team should say what they would have done in the face of the outrageous bluff attempted by Saddam Hussein. In the post-September 11 world, the stakes in the game Saddam was playing were simply too high.

Helle Dale is director of Foreign Policy and Defense Studies at the Heritage Foundation. E-mail: helle.dale@heritage.org.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in The Washington Times