We all know, by now, that the centerpiece of the Bush Administration’s case for invading Iraq — the claim that it was manufacturing and stockpiling chemical and biological weapons that supposedly put the U.S. at risk of attack, either directly or via al-Qaeda proxies — proved to be bogus, often aggressively manufactured fabrications in a rush to find any evidence that would back the worst-case assessments of the “Iraq threat.” But the fact that the WMDs cited by Secretary Powell at the U.N. Security Council turned out to be non-existent was only part of the problem.
Imagine, for a moment, that U.S. troops had found two warehouses full of VX and mustard gas shells or a refrigerator full of Botulinum toxin. That might have “proved” the case for war as accepted by Capitol Hill and the U.S. media, but would Iraq look any different today? And would the U.S. strategic position be any stronger than it is today? Probably not.
Even the war’s strongest diplomatic opponents, such as France and Germany, suspected that Saddam may, in fact, have still had a few piles of chemical munitions left over from the Iran-Iraq war. They did not, however, see these as justifying an invasion that would cause more problems than it would solve.
The issue that needed debating was not simply whether or not Iraq possessed particular weapons — a debate easily tilted, in the post 9/11 climate of rampant fear, to those advocating intervention as prudent in the face of the “unknown unknowns”. The more important question was whether going to war was a smart and sober response to the possibility that an enemy may have such weapons, and if so, what the end-game and exit strategy for such a war might be. On that front, Operation Iraqi Freedom was based on cheery fantasies about a quick war that would pay for itself and see U.S. forces greeted as they had been when they marched into Paris in 1944.
The very idea that there are certain categories of weapons that draw down a red mist over rational discussion of geopolitical options is an exceedingly dangerous one.