Irresponsible politics


THIS MAY GO down in history as the year when an attempt to win an election, at all costs, led to longer-run disasters that make any election pale into insignificance. The biggest and loudest political rhetoric of this year is that President Bush "lied" about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

What are the known facts about Saddam Hussein's chemical, biological and nuclear weapons?

We know that at one time or other, he was either developing or producing or using such weapons. Back in 1981, the Israelis bombed an Iraqi nuclear facility, to the loud condemnation of many nations. But without that pre-emptive strike, the outcome of both gulf wars could have been tragically different.

Mr. Hussein not only had but used chemical and biological weapons against his enemies, foreign and domestic. With the help of the French, he was rebuilding nuclear facilities, ostensibly for civilian energy purposes, but oil-rich countries do not need nuclear power plants to generate electricity.

More than a decade of playing cat-and-mouse with international weapons inspectors raised more and more suspicions about Iraq's weapons programs, and various nations' intelligence services reported that in fact he was back to his old tricks and developing WMD that could pose a major threat.

Who said so? The Russians said so. The British said so. Bill Clinton said so. Leaders of both parties said so. George W. Bush was one of the last to say so. Yet he alone is accused of lying.

Were all these people wrong? While that is possible, it is also possible that Mr. Hussein used the long months between the time when the threat of invasion was debated at the United Nations and the time when it actually occurred to dismantle his weapons facilities and disperse them, perhaps to some neighboring country.

There is already photographic evidence of a massive dismantling of a facility of some sort before last year's invasion. These photos were published on the front page of The New York Times. Whether or not that particular building was producing weapons of mass destruction, it shows that Mr. Hussein saw the need to get rid of some things before they got captured.

Nations do not wait for ironclad proof when there are lethal threats. The massive Manhattan Project that produced the first atomic bomb was begun when the United States was at peace because of reports that Hitler's scientists were working on such a weapon. We had no proof - and, after Germany surrendered, it turned out that Hitler's atomic bomb project was nowhere near the stage that we feared. But we couldn't take that chance.

People who talk glibly about "intelligence failure" act as if intelligence agencies that are doing their job right would know everything. But intelligence-gathering has always been a chancy business. In a nuclear age, the only thing that makes sense is to fail safe - and strike pre-emptively, if necessary. If that offends people who think and talk in abstract terms about international law, then it is better that they be offended than that we wake up some morning and find New York or Chicago in radioactive ruins.

It was Mr. Hussein who chose to play cat-and-mouse with the weapons inspectors whom he had agreed to let monitor Iraqi facilities as part of the peace treaty ending the first gulf war. It was his intelligence failure to think that he could keep on doing that indefinitely.

Iran and North Korea - the other nations identified as part of the "axis of evil" - are now playing the same cat-and-mouse game, and North Korea is openly threatening to produce nuclear bombs. Either or both of these countries are potential suppliers of such weapons to international terrorists.

Libya backed out of the nuclear weapons game after Col. Muammar el Kadafi saw what happened to Mr. Hussein. What would have emboldened Iran and North Korea? Only a disunited America, full of loud, irresponsible election-year talk about "lies" about WMD, making it unlikely that the United States can muster the political will to strike Iran or North Korea.

An election-year frenzy has let the longer-run fate of this country fade away into the background.

Thomas Sowell, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, is a syndicated columnist.

Columnist Thomas L. Friedman is away writing a book.

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