January 27, 2004 | Wall Street Journal

Weapons of Mass Distraction

We've reached an intriguing moment in the saga of evil regimes and weapons of mass destruction–their presence or absence, and the uncertainty zone between.

In Iraq, the U.S. and the United Nations had reason to believe that Saddam Hussein–having invaded his neighbors, harbored terrorists, tortured and murdered hundreds of thousands of his fellow Iraqis, gassed the Kurds, plundered his country, and set a standard in the Middle East of fascist brutality to rival Hitler–was still pursuing weapons of mass destruction. A U.S.-led coalition toppled Saddam's regime. Now the recent U.S. point man for the weapons search in Iraq, David Kay, is saying it looks as if maybe Saddam didn't have any WMDs. At least not significant stocks, at least not that we've found. Mr. Kay's best guess is that Saddam only thought he had a WMD program.

This is now taken in some quarters to mean we should have left Saddam alone, because even if maybe he thought he was pursuing WMDs, he wasn't, except maybe in his own imagination, at least not at the moment we deposed him.

Meanwhile in North Korea, officials of Kim Jong Il's regime earlier this month ushered an unofficial U.S. delegation into their nuclear reactor complex at Yongbyon, and invited a former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, Sigfried Hecker, to examine what was apparently a sample of plutonium–that's nuclear bomb fuel–contained in a jelly jar.

This is taken, usually by the same crowd critical of the U.S. war to remove Saddam, as supporting evidence in the argument that we cannot remove Kim because, among other things, he does have weapons of mass destruction.

One might be tempted to conclude, then, that our only window for intervening in the quest of a threatening, terrorist-linked regime dabbling in WMDs is in that precise time window when there is irrefutable evidence that the rulers are developing WMD capability, but before the wares are ready to be handed out to terrorists or brandished in jelly jars as a “deterrent” to extort concessions from the free world. Except that this seems to be precisely the turf occupied at the moment by Iran, with its nuclear program, and while the clerics there are obviously rushing to get their bombs into production, no one genuinely seems to be preparing to stop that, either.

Meanwhile, to round out a little more of this picture, in Libya, our new pal Moammar Gadhafi, who has now renounced weapons of mass destruction, just treated visiting Rep. Curt Weldon to a tour of a Libyan nuclear reactor. In response, Mr. Weldon, a Pennsylvania Republican, effused that if Libya continues to cooperate, diplomatic normalization may be just ahead, and then–he was addressing the Libyan dictator who for the past 35 years has ruled Libya as a virtual prison camp, and still does–“there is no limit to what we can accomplish together.”

I am left with the odd thought that of all the many evil things done by this roster of truly brutal, murderous, internationally aggressive regimes, the only one to actually use weapons of mass destruction was the now-designated-as-WMD-less Saddam.

Meanwhile, not so long ago, it was Afghanistan, a place lacking in almost every amenity, including weapons of mass destruction, that served as the launching base for the world's worst terrorist attack. The real WMDs, one might say, were the Al Qaeda planners, and their Taliban hosts.

Which brings me back to the current U.S. debate, in which the agreed trigger for action seems somehow restricted to weapons of mass destruction–and the sure knowledge and certain existence thereof. This is peculiar in itself. While WMDs certainly matter, they are by no means the sum total of an evil regime's capacity to do damage. In the case of the Soviet Union, which possessed thousands of nuclear warheads and conducted hundreds of detectable nuclear tests, none of those bombs ever actually went off in a war. Yet the harm done by that corrosive empire was vast beyond imagining, and in very tangible ways–including such legacies as Kim's North Korea–still haunts us today.

According to “The Black Book of Communism,” the death toll from communism was some 100 million people. That same system supplied to a host of nations worldwide, including in the Middle East, blueprints for the one thing that Soviet communism developed with greater efficiency than any other system ever devised–techniques for the repression of human beings. And it is political repression, not weapons of mass destruction per se, that has turned the Middle East into the danger it now constitutes for the democratic world.

But somehow, in the hurly-burly of election-year politics, the focus is all on those elusive weapons. By all means, beef up our intelligence and double-check information–and wish everyone good luck in penetrating with perfect clarity the secrecy and layers of lies that are precisely the specialty of the world's most dangerous states. But let's not pretend that this is the chief standard by which we will ensure the safety of our children's children.

We seem to be heading for the surreal conclusion that it is all right to be a murderous tyrant who only thinks he is pursuing weapons of mass destruction–even if he apparently believes it himself strongly enough to take the risk of kicking out U.N. arms inspectors for four years. Somehow, I am not comforted by the vision of a Saddam presiding over a country where he is allocating resources for WMD, terrorists are traipsing through, and whatever is really going on is anyone's guess, including Saddam's.

What needs to start sinking in, somehow, is that while arsenals matter, what matters even more is the set of rules and values that a regime defends and its leaders live by. This, more than anything signed on paper or offered as totalitarian propaganda, tells us where the worst dangers lie. We have heard by now too many discussions in which mass graves, mass starvation, conventional mass murder and terrorist trafficking are all somehow hived off from the high and nuanced talk of geostrategy, of bomb estimates and inspections, so scientific but imprecise.

It is necessary in this war to ask where we can best spend our scarce resources. But in judging the priorities, it would be a good idea to be less focused right now on a near-religious calling to base policy on WMD bean counters, and more concerned with creating incentives for dictators to be running so scared that they will not only foreswear weapons of mass murder, but take on the burden themselves of proving to us that they have no such programs or intentions. We are far from that point, and whatever delights the current squabble over Saddam's WMDs may afford, it does nothing to serve the real security needs of the democratic world.

Ms. Rosett is a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and the Hudson Institute. Her column appears here and in The Wall Street Journal Europe on alternate Wednesdays.