The Magazine

The Wrong Culprit

From the February 16, 2004 issue: In stopping proliferation, the problem has been political will, not faulty intel.

Feb 16, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 22 • By HENRY SOKOLSKI
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In the case of Iraq--a nation with a clear intent and history of acquiring and using strategic weapons capabilities and a persistent and annoying habit of openly defying U.N. inspections and dismantlement resolutions--policymakers and intelligence analysts leaned forward, emphasizing specifics that turned out to be wrong. Many of Saddam's strategic weapons capabilities, it now appears, were either dismantled in the early 1990s or bombed during Clinton's second term.

This gaffe is hardly good news, but it's not nearly as bad as Washington pundits are making it out to be. As they see it, the lesson to be learned (and, if we are not careful, to be driven home by the newly announced investigations) is that the United States must be more cautious in acting against proliferation, lest it repeat the Iraqi error. And what error was this? Attacking Saddam on the basis of insufficient proliferation intelligence.

Yet, surely, this was not our key mistake. Instead, it was waiting as long as we did to act against Saddam's strategic weapons ambitions and his hostility to us, the U.N., and his own population. We had abundant strategic intelligence on this, and had it for two decades or more, but we chose to ignore it. Instead, we actually supported Saddam financially and militarily and sent him the dual-use goods he needed to pursue his strategic weapons programs.

Had we taken a different course when the first intelligence reports emerged about his nuclear ambitions 25 years ago (and his subsequent military buildup), we might have been able to avoid not just one, but both wars we waged against him. The problem wasn't a lack of intelligence on Saddam's strategic weapons programs. It was a lack of will to use the sound strategic warnings we had.

Certainly, before investigations get underway and recommendations start flying to centralize our intelligence agencies further and spend ever more money on more layers of management and new sources of intelligence, we would do well to focus on our uneven use of accurate early warnings. In the end, knowledge of proliferation specifics is the least of our problems.

Henry Sokolski is the executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center and editor with Patrick Clawson of "Checking Iran's Nuclear Ambitions" (Army War College, 2004).