Not able to forgive George W. Bush and Tony Blair for being right, the naysayers are now emphasizing what looks to be their strongest argument: the failure so far to find weapons of mass destruction. The European press is in a frenzy about the "lies" that led to war. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman is already suggesting this may be "the worst scandal in American political history."
Those who make this argument must think that the U.S. and British governments are not only deeply venal but also stupid. Their theory, essentially, is this: The president and prime minister deliberately lied about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction to justify an invasion that they knew would show that no such weapons existed.
It is indeed puzzling that U.S. forces haven't found more evidence of WMD, but this hardly shows that Bush and Blair lied. It does show how imperfect our intelligence about Iraq was, which actually makes the case for preventive war that much stronger.
Critics of preventive wars (those undertaken to head off a future danger) suggest that we should wait to hit back until just before we're going to be attacked (preemption) or just after (retaliation). But how are we going to find out about an attack just before it happens, or even how are we going to assign blame afterward?
The CIA's long history of failures in Iraq--the agency was surprised by the extent of Hussein's nuclear program in 1991 and again in the mid-1990s--suggests that we can have very little hope of figuring out exactly what closed societies are up to.
The safer course when dealing with rogue states that have demonstrated a capacity to manufacture and use WMD is to stop them before it's too late. Iraq, despite the paucity of "smoking guns" (aside from two possible mobile bioweapons trailers), fits this category. No one--except a discredited former CIA analyst--doubts that Hussein used chemical weapons against the Iranians and Kurds. Neither can there be any serious doubt that he kept WMD long after he was obliged to give them up by United Nations resolutions.
It wasn't just the U.S. government (under presidents Bush and Clinton) that accused him of stockpiling WMD; so did other governments, including France. A senior French official recently told some American visitors that his government continued to believe that Hussein had WMD. Which makes sense. Why else would the French push so hard for inspections unless they thought there was something to inspect?
Nothing since the war discredits the casus belli, which was Hussein's failure to fully cooperate with weapons inspectors--a failure that continued until the end, even though it cost the regime billions of dollars in lost oil revenue.
Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix's last report, released this week, found "the long list of proscribed items unaccounted for, and as such resulting in unresolved disarmament issues, was neither shortened by the inspections nor by Iraqi declarations and documents." Was Blix too part of Bush's pro-war conspiracy?
The mystery, in light of the postwar failure to find any WMD stockpiles, of course is why Hussein was so uncooperative. The simplest answer is that he did have something to hide--and we'll still find it. The more unlikely but possible explanation is that he destroyed his stockpile (or smuggled some of it out of the country) but didn't want to definitively declare his lack of WMD because this would dispel his aura of power.
Hussein may well have been playing a canny game by destroying his stockpiles but keeping the capacity to manufacture more as soon as the world's interest faded. In 1998, after all, he stopped cooperating with U.N. weapons inspectors and suffered no serious consequences. He provided limited cooperation this time only because of the presence of hundreds of thousands of U.S. and British troops on his borders--a deployment he knew could not be maintained indefinitely. He probably hoped to outlast the international community again.
That strategy failed, of course, because of the determination of Bush and Blair to hold him to account. They decided that, even if Hussein was not about to strike now, it made sense, based on his long record of violating international law, to remove him from power rather than wait for him to augment his WMD capacity in the future, possibly even by acquiring nuclear weapons. It is reasonable for critics to find this rationale for war unconvincing. It is not reasonable for them to accuse Bush and Blair of lying.
Whatever the details of his WMD program, the fact that Hussein was a dangerous monster is no lie.
Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power."