October 1, 2003 | Scripps Howard News Service

The WMD Mystery

The question is not whether Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The mystery is: What did he do with them?

We should have some insights soon: David Kay and his Iraq Survey Group – 1,400 US and British scientists and military intelligence experts  — are due to release a preliminary report on WMD in Iraq in the coming days and a final report is scheduled for release before the end of the month. So it would be prudent to sit tight and wait — but let's not. Instead, let's consider the possibilities and take a stab at what, based on the information available, we think is the true story of Saddam and the WMD.

First, as noted, rule out the possibility – often misleadingly implied by the anti-war/pro-appeasement crowd – that Saddam never had WMD.

He not only had chemical weapons – he used them to slaughter thousands of Kurdish men, women and children. Saddam's son-in-law dropped a dime on him for brewing biological weapons. (Said son-in-law was later executed.) As for nukes, Saddam would have had them in the 1980s had Israel not bombed his reactor; he would have had them in the 1990s if not for the Gulf War, Part One. And remember: After Saddam's 1991 defeat, we learned that his nuclear weapons development program was much further along than our best intelligence analysts had believed.

Now, what's the chance that, after 1991, Saddam said to himself: “That's it. I'm not playing around with these dangerous toys any more. All I want now is to create the best darn health care system in the Middle East. And I certainly wouldn't want to get those prickly Americans angry at me again.”

No, had Saddam seen the world in that light he would not have spent the next few years slaughtering Kurds and Shias, ethnically cleansing Marsh Arabs, attempting to assassinate former President George W. Bush, enduring economic sanctions that cost him billions of dollars and playing hide-and-seek with the UN weapons inspectors.

What's more, every reputable intelligence service in the world – including the French –believed Saddam's WMD programs were on-going in this period. So what did happen over the last dozen years?

One possibility is that sometime before the Gulf War, Part Two, he transferred his stockpiles – to Syria, Lebanon or elsewhere. A number of knowledgeable analysts believe this frightening scenario. Let's hope it isn't.

Time magazine has explored a scenario right out of a John LeCarre novel: According to some Iraqis interviewed by Time, Saddam believed he had a vast arsenal of WMD, but his scientists and technicians deceived him, diverting billions of dollars to other uses. If so, that would be an example of corruption. Or, it could be an example of idealism — maybe Saddam's scientists didn't want to help create a war machine for a despot. Or maybe it was a little of both.

Finally, there is this storyline: UN weapons inspector Richard Spertzel has said his team was “developing pretty good evidence of a continuing program in '97 and'98.” Then, in 1998, the inspectors were forced out, causing many analysts to conclude that Saddam would then be accelerating his programs. Perhaps Saddam decided to do just the opposite. Perhaps some time after that Saddam decided to destroy his stockpiles of WMD, while retaining the plans and expertise to re-start the programs up again after a strategic pause during which he hoped to (1) rid himself of the feckless but pesky weapons inspectors and (2) give his bon ami, Jacque Chirac, time to get the sanctions lifted from his shoulders.

But if that's the case, why would Saddam not have done so transparently and convincingly — as he was obligated to do under the various accords and UN Security Council resolutions to which he agreed in exchange for the 1991 ceasefire?

Possible answer: Because to do that would have made him look weak in the eyes of the Arab and Muslim masses. It was a point of honor, image and public relations for Saddam to be seen as defying the Great Satan, as not backing down, not even temporarily.

In other words, Saddam may have metaphorically wrapped his gun in a baggie and buried it in his back yard – and then walked out into the street waving a toy pistol at the world.

No matter. Such a gesture is still threatening. The use of lethal force was still a justified response. And whether Saddam had WMD last April or had divested himself of those weapons in what he thought was a clever strategic retreat, the fact remains that he was still a threat to America and to the Middle East – as well as a genocidal monster.

He should have been toppled in 1991, after his rape of Kuwait. But the “international community” couldn't stomach such decisiveness. The consequence was that the US was saddled with a policy of containment, which meant sanctions on the Iraqi people and US troops indefinitely stationed on Saudi soil.  It was those measures, you'll remember, that Osama bin Laden called unpardonable insults to Islam, and used as his primary justifications to the Muslim world for the attacks of 9/11. As usual, the US enforced the will of the international community – and paid a heavy price for it.

Perhaps weapons inspector David Kay will find another plot in the miles of documents he is now reading. But I'd be willing to wager at least a beer or two that this last story line is not far from what will turn out to be the truth.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.