All Writings
April 21, 2003

What If WMDs Are Not Found?

As the hunt for weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq continues, both critics and supporters of the Bush administration are asking: What if none are found and how will that impact our standing in the international community, especially in the Arab world? Whatever the outcome, the administration would be wise to allow the UN inspection team to resume its search, along with our investigators. Indeed, we need to demonstrate that not only we have nothing to hide but that the search for and destruction of WMD remains under the domain and responsibility of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).

Meanwhile, concerned that no WMD will be found, administration officials, including the president, are now suggesting it's no longer important whether or not we find them. What matters, they argue, is that the Iraqi people are liberated and Saddam Hussein's regime no longer exists. However plausible this argument may appear to many members of the administration, it simply " forgets" the preemption doctrine Mr. Bush so ardently embraced. To be sure, the argument that the Iraqi regime in possession of WMD represented an imminent danger to the United States and its allies provided the rationale for our attacking Iraq. To now dismiss as virtually unimportant the existence of these weapons raises serious questions about the administration's credibility, while sending an ominous message to friends and foes alike concerning our elastic use of morality and the extent to which we are prepared to go forward unilaterally as long as our own interests are served. The administration's present stance also raises pointed questions about the reliability of our intelligence gathering apparatus and its misuse to validate our case against Saddam. I believe that if no WMD are found, and the administration fails to offer a plausible explanation for this, it will seriously impair our credibility and moral standing in the international community.

The first adverse reaction will come from the Arab streets which are already inflamed by the fall of Iraq and deeply skeptical about U.S. intentions. Very few Arabs believe that the first Bush administration fought the first Gulf War to liberate Kuwait, and an even smaller number would agree the present administration went into Iraq to destroy Mr. Hussein's WMD. Rather, they assert the U.S. waged war solely to ensure a secure flow of oil at a reasonable price. Regardless of the accuracy of the prevailing view, if no WMD are found, this will only deepen their suspicions, creating even greater animosity and hatred toward us no matter what face we choose to put on our motives.

The reaction of the international community will be just as unkind. The French, the Germans, and the Russians as well as other countries that opposed the invasion will feel vindicated by their stand against the premature use of force. All along they've more or less attributed the administration's refusal to extend the inspections for an additional period of time to its knowing WMD might not be found. According to this interpretation, extending the inspection process would have simply weakened the administration's position and possibly prevented it from its main objective– removing Mr. Hussein from power. Recent statements by Chief Inspector Hans Blix, accusing the United States of undermining his team's work and of providing him with shady intelligence, appear to fit into the perception of the president as having a preconceived plan for getting rid of Saddam Hussein. This view is supported by the administration's refusal to deviate from a certain timetable–before the weather made invasion more risky, if not impossible–regardless of the opposition of other members of the SC. Here too some serious explaining by Washington may soon become necessary.

Of greater concern to the administration should be the reaction of those member states, the so called "coalition of the willing," that joined or supported the invasion, largely on faith. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in particular, who invested much of his political capital in this venture and desperately sought the blessing of the UN to wage war in order to destroy Iraq's WMD, will be put in a bad position domestically. The members of the coalition, having looked at the United States with awe and reverence, will feel misled and disappointed, seeing us as having failed them.

Another possible fallout is that we have probably given other nations a pretext to act preemptively against their adversaries. By what authority, for example, can we now thwart India from invading the Pakistani-held part of Kashmir "to prevent Muslim terrorists from attacking Indian targets" or from attempting to takeover the entire region under the pretext of imminent danger? Attacking Iraq preemptively has created a precedent that may come to haunt us. In whatever esteem the Bush administration hold the UNSC, the Security Council must continue to assume the ultimate responsibility for none-proliferation of WMD; a responsibility that cannot be left to the prerogative of any single nation. Indeed, by lowering the bar for what constitutes imminent danger and then initiating military action, we have provided a license for other nations to act to protect their national interests as they deem necessary, a prospect laden with far-reaching repercussions to the international system.

Our inability to find WMD in Iraq also raises concerns over how to deal effectively with other rogue states that are known to have or are capable of developing WMD such as, North Korea, Iran, and Syria. Dealing with these nations will be more complicated than it was with Iraq because, unlike Mr. Hussein, their leaders have not used such weapons against their own people or threatened other countries with them. Had we discovered WMD in Iraq, we could then have a moral justification for our invasion and as well demand compliance from other rogue nations. But our failure to find WMD (so far) in Iraq puts us on the defensive, automatically weakening our case in regard to these countries a fact that may inhibit us from taking coercive actions against any of them in response to a real threat.

Finally, our failure to find WMD in Iraq will adversely undermine our moral authority to lead in the future, especially in combating terrorism, where the support and cooperation of other nations remains essential. With superpowerdom comes moral responsibility. The very fact that the United States is the only superpower means we have to adhere to a much higher moral standard than any other nation if want to maintain our position of global leadership.

The events of 9/11 were a terrible tragedy. We neither deserved what happened nor can we become complacent about international terrorism if we wish to prevent its reoccurrence. But how we go about this is precisely how we will be judged now and in the future. Will we be truly focused in dealing with international terrorism as a scourge that must be eradicated wherever it may fester or politicize or use it as a pretext for achieving other strategic aims? The latter is the perception we have given the world by attacking Iraq. If WMD continue not to be found, this view of us will only deepen, discrediting our moral leadership unless we change our course.