The Lost Opportunity in Iraq

Iraq U.S.
Op-Ed Washington Post
An international commitment to keep weapons of mass destruction out of Saddam Hussein’s hands could have worked and led to a WMD enforcement mechanism for use not only in Iraq, but also in North Korea, Libya, Syria, Iran, and elsewhere.
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Now that U.S. troops have left Iraq, Americans are taking stock of the staggering price of this nine-year war of choice, in blood (nearly 4,500 Americans dead, 33,000 wounded), in fractured relations worldwide and in monetary terms (nearly $1 trillion in direct spending; several times that when counting the fivefold increase in oil prices, the long-term cost of caring for veterans and wounded, and the replacement of weapons and equipment — a total that may top the cost of World War II).

An additional casualty is the loss of a mechanism for enforcing nonproliferation agreements, though how this might have changed the course of subsequent events — in Iran, for example — cannot be known.

The public may also never know exactly why or when the Bush administration made its tragically misguided decision to go to war. Former Treasury secretary Paul O’Neill has said that unseating Saddam Hussein dominated a meeting with President George W. Bush 10 days after Bush’s inauguration — eight months before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Among the many reasons posited — avenging an Iraqi attack on Bush’s father, getting the United States’ hands on Mideast oil, extending democracy across the region — only the charge that Hussein was building weapons of mass destruction came close to selling the American people on war.

It’s now clear that national intelligence services were hideously wrong and that administration officials, including the president, employed a degree of exaggeration and misuse of raw intelligence that amounted to duplicity in trying to make a convincing case. What’s less well-known, however, is that at the same time, United Nations inspectors were getting the story right. Their assessments of Iraq’s nuclear, chemical, biological and missile programs in the months leading up to the war were remarkably close to what was later found. Yet by insisting on invading before these inspections had time to succeed, the United States aborted what could have been a striking international success.

From 1991 to 1998, a force known as UNSCOM and the International Atomic Energy Agency discovered and eliminated most, and possibly all, of Iraq’s WMD-related facilities, including a massive program to enrich uranium for weapons. Through painstaking detective work, UNSCOM uncovered Iraq’s most secret program, which dealt with biological weapons, and oversaw destruction of most of its chemical and biological weapons agents. UNSCOM uncovered covert transactions between Iraq and more than 500 companies from 40 countries and implemented a mechanism to track and block banned exports and imports. The annual cost for all this? About $30 million.

The next round of inspections lasted less than four months. By the time Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were calling the process a “sham” and “exhausted,” just before the U.S. invasion forced the operation to shut down, inspectors had visited only half of the more than 700 sites identified by UNSCOM and had barely begun to examine new sites.

After the first weeks of war, the United States launched its own year-long WMD hunt, at a cost of $900 million, only to discover little that was new.

Given all this, the international community should consider: What might have happened had the United States sought WMD disarmament and not regime change?

Inspections do not consist of running from place to place, hoping to find something hidden. Conducting lengthy interviews, establishing relationships with key individuals, building a story from person to person, launching procurement investigations, performing technical analysis and sifting through paper all contribute. Together with physical inspections, they can produce solid answers. The process would have taken roughly a year in Iraq. After destroying what was found, open-ended monitoring would have been put in place. Based on that success, a permanent inspections capability — under discussion after UNSCOM — might have been established in New York or Geneva.

Such an outcome would have made clear that it was not just the United States or a handful of major powers that cares about stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Rather, this widely supported international effort, carried through to final disarmament, would have reflected that the nearly 200 nations that have signed WMD treaties view illegal weapons programs as an intolerable threat to international peace.

The threat of force was necessary for this first use of inspections in Iraq.  Would a standing inspections capability have gradually acquired the authority for intervention without such a threat? We cannot know — but the record is clear that when U.N. action carried unimpeachable legitimacy, broad support and unity of purpose in the Security Council, even Saddam Hussein backed down before it. In international diplomacy, success breeds strength, just as failure to enforce agreements leads to fecklessness.

A painful conclusion is inescapable: Had the Bush administration pursued an international commitment to keep weapons of mass destruction out of Hussein’s hands, such an agreement could have worked.

From it, a WMD enforcement mechanism could have been built for use not only in Iraq but also in North Korea, Libya, Syria, Iran and elsewhere. The deep split between nuclear haves and have-nots, inflamed by the war, would have been greatly eased. The long-term cooperation needed to keep WMDs out of terrorists’ hands would have been strengthened, rather than undermined. The horrible precedent of a unilateral right to attack in “preventive self-defense” would not have been asserted, and multilateral intervention to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons would not be widely opposed, as it is today, as a disguised intent on the part of a few to force regime change. That is the short list.

This article originally appeared in the Washington Post.

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Comments (1)

  • paul61
    And how many times have you been to Iraq? And how many inspections-either UNSCOM or UNMOVIC? Just doing a fact check. Paul
    Reply to this post

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In Fact



of the Chinese general public

believe their country should share a global leadership role.


of Indian parliamentarians

have criminal cases pending against them.


charter schools in the United States

are linked to Turkey’s Gülen movement.


thousand tons of chemical weapons

are in North Korea’s possession.


of import tariffs

among Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru have been eliminated.


trillion a year

is unaccounted for in official Chinese income statistics.


of GDP in oil-exporting Arab countries

comes from the mining sector.


of Europeans and Turks

are opposed to intervention in Syria.


of Russian exports to China

are hydrocarbons; machinery accounts for less than 1%.


of undiscovered oil

is in the Arctic.


U.S. government shutdowns

occurred between 1976 and 1996.


of Ukrainians

want an “international economic union” with the EU.


million electric bicycles

are used in Chinese cities.


of the world’s energy supply

is consumed by cities.


of today’s oils

require unconventional extraction techniques.


of the world's population

will reside in cities by 2050.


of Syria’s population

is expected to be displaced by the end of 2013.


of the U.S. economy

is consumed by healthcare.


of Brazilian protesters

learned about a massive rally via Facebook or Twitter.


million cases pending

in India’s judicial system.

1 in 3


now needs urgent assistance.


political parties

contested India’s last national elections.


of Egypt's labor force

works in the private sector.


of oil consumed in the United States

is for the transportation sector.


of Chechnya’s pre-1994 population

has fled to different parts of the world.


of oil consumed in China

was from foreign sources in 2012.


billion in goods and services

traded between the United States and China in 2012.


billion in foreign investment and oil revenue

have been lost by Iran because of its nuclear program.


increase in China’s GDP per capita

between 1972 and today.


billion have been spent

to complete the Bushehr nuclear reactor in Iran.


of Iran’s electricity needs

is all the Bushehr nuclear reactor provides.



were imprisoned in Turkey as of August 2012 according to the OSCE.

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