The Magazine

Why We Went to War

From the October 20, 2003 issue: The case for the war in Iraq, with testimony from Bill Clinton.

Oct 20, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 06 • By ROBERT KAGAN and WILLIAM KRISTOL
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"When I left office, there was a substantial amount of biological and chemical material unaccounted for. That is, at the end of the first Gulf War, we knew what he had. We knew what was destroyed in all the inspection processes and that was a lot. And then we bombed with the British for four days in 1998. We might have gotten it all; we might have gotten half of it; we might have gotten none of it. But we didn't know. So I thought it was prudent for the president to go to the U.N. and for the U.N. to say you got to let these inspectors in, and this time if you don't cooperate the penalty could be regime change, not just continued sanctions."

--Bill Clinton, July 22, 2003

FORMER PRESIDENT CLINTON is right about what he and the whole world knew about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction programs. And most of what everyone knew about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction had nothing to do with this or any other government's intelligence collection and analysis. Had there never been a Central Intelligence Agency--an idea we admit sounds more attractive all the time--the case for war against Iraq would have been rock solid. Almost everything we knew about Saddam's weapons programs and stockpiles, we knew because the Iraqis themselves admitted it.

Here's a little history that seems to have been completely forgotten in the frenzy of the past few months. Shortly after the first Gulf War in 1991, U.N. inspectors discovered the existence of a surprisingly advanced Iraqi nuclear weapons program. In addition, by Iraq's own admission and U.N. inspection efforts, Saddam's regime possessed thousands of chemical weapons and tons of chemical weapon agents. Were it not for the 1995 defection of senior Iraqi officials, the U.N. would never have made the further discovery that Iraq had manufactured and equipped weapons with the deadly chemical nerve agent VX and had an extensive biological warfare program.

Here is what was known by 1998 based on Iraq's own admissions:

* That in the years immediately prior to the first Gulf War, Iraq produced at least 3.9 tons of VX, a deadly nerve gas, and acquired 805 tons of precursor ingredients for the production of more VX.

* That Iraq had produced or imported some 4,000 tons of ingredients to produce other types of poison gas.

* That Iraq had produced 8,500 liters of anthrax.

* That Iraq had produced 500 bombs fitted with parachutes for the purpose of delivering poison gas or germ payloads.

* That Iraq had produced 550 artillery shells filled with mustard gas.

* That Iraq had produced or imported 107,500 casings for chemical weapons.

* That Iraq had produced at least 157 aerial bombs filled with germ agents.

* That Iraq had produced 25 missile warheads containing germ agents (anthrax, aflatoxin, and botulinum).

Again, this list of weapons of mass destruction is not what the Iraqi government was suspected of producing. (That would be a longer list, including an Iraqi nuclear program that the German intelligence service had concluded in 2001 might produce a bomb within three years.) It was what the Iraqis admitted producing. And it is this list of weapons--not any CIA analysis under either the Clinton or Bush administrations--that has been at the heart of the Iraq crisis.

For in all the years after those admissions, the Iraqi government never explained, or even tried to explain, to anyone's satisfaction, including most recently, that of Hans Blix, what had become of the huge quantities of deadly weapons it had produced. The Iraqi government repeatedly insisted that most of the weapons had been "secretly" destroyed. When asked to produce credible evidence of the destruction--the location of destruction sites, fragments of destroyed weapons, some documentation of the destruction, anything at all--the Iraqis refused. After 1995, the U.N. weapons inspection process became a lengthy cat-and-mouse game, as inspectors tried to cajole Iraqis to divulge information about the fate of these admitted stockpiles of weapons. The inspectors fanned out across the country looking for weapons caches, stashes of documents, and people willing to talk. And sometimes, the inspectors uncovered evidence. Both American and French testers found traces of nerve gas on remnants of warheads, for instance. The Iraqis claimed the evidence had been planted.

After 1996, and partly as a consequence of the documents they had discovered and of Iraqi admissions, weapons inspectors must have started getting closer to uncovering what the Iraqis were hiding. For at about that time, inspectors' demands to visit certain facilities began to be systematically blocked by Saddam. There was the famous confrontation over the so-called "presidential palaces," actually vast complexes of buildings and warehouses, that Saddam simply declared off-limits to inspectors.