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Western Press Review: Was The Threat of Iraq's Weapons Overstated?

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 4 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The story dominating much of the Western media today is the continuing failure to locate weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the existence of which were cited as one of the main justifications for launching the U.S.-led war. At issue is whether U.S. and British officials deliberately overstated the threat posed by Iraq's alleged weapons programs or were themselves misled by faulty intelligence.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has promised full cooperation with a parliamentary inquiry into the intelligence on Iraqi weapons and Britain's foreign affairs committee will launch a separate investigation. Meanwhile, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency is conducting an internal review to determine whether an intelligence report miscalculated the extent of Iraq's weapons programs. The October report had concluded that Baghdad had chemical and biological weapons stocks and was seeking to resume its nuclear program.

We also take a look at developments in the Middle East, as U.S. President George W. Bush meets with Palestinian and Israeli leaders today in Aqaba, Jordan.


Amid the growing controversy and high-level investigations into whether U.S. and British sources overstated the threat posed by Iraq's weapons programs, Thomas Friedman of "The New York Times" says there were actually four reasons for the Iraq war -- "the real reason, the right reason, the moral reason, and the stated reason."

The "real" reason for the war, he says, was that, following the 11 September attacks, the United States needed to act against a growing "terrorism bubble." Friedman says the only way to "puncture" this bubble was for U.S. soldiers to go in and make clear they were "ready to kill, and to die." He says Iraq was chosen to be an example because it was feasible, because Saddam Hussein was a repressive leader who "deserved" to be ousted, and because Iraq sits in the center of the Middle East.

Friedman says the "right" reason for the war, in his opinion, was the need to work with Iraqis "to build a progressive Arab regime." "[Failed] or failing Arab states" produce "angry, humiliated" young people who are open to "ideas of mass destruction."

The "moral" reason for the war was that Saddam Hussein's regime was genocidal, responsible for thousands of deaths, "and needed to be stopped."

But the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush instead relied on the "stated" reason: that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and posed a direct threat to the United States. And it is this dubious assertion that is now the subject of high-level inquiries.


A "Washington Post" editorial says critics of the Iraq war have "rushed to the conclusion" that the threat of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction was exaggerated or that the evidence was deliberately overstated. But the "Post" says while some of the claims made by the U.S. administration in the run-up to the war are "unlikely" to be proven, the administration's "most serious presentation of its case -- delivered by Secretary of State Colin Powell to the Security Council on 5 February -- still looks pretty strong."

Hussein "openly defied the United Nations on a critical security matter," the "Post" writes. "By acting, the United States made clear that the proliferation of such weapons to rogue states will not be tolerated, removed the most dangerous regime in the Arab Middle East and ended the criminal repression of millions of Iraqis."

But the paper says this does not mean the Bush administration can ignore the question of Iraq's weapons. "It is crucial to the administration's ability to tackle the threat of WMD in other rogue states that it show the world proof of Saddam Hussein's arsenal. If U.S. intelligence was wrong, it is important to learn why. If administration officials misused intelligence, that also should be made clear."

The "Post" says "careful and patient investigation, open to audit by Congress and UN inspectors," is needed.


Today's "International Herald Tribune" publishes an item by Robin Cook, a former British foreign secretary and cabinet minister, who resigned over the decision to go to war in Iraq.

Cook says the prewar dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction was "curiously derivative." It restated what was known about Iraq's chemical and biological arsenal at the time of the 1991 Gulf War, then "leaped to the conclusion that Saddam [Hussein] must still possess all those weapons. There was no hard intelligence of a current weapons program that would represent a new and compelling threat," says Cook.

Nor did the dossier acknowledge "that biological and chemical agents have a finite shelf life," and any such weapons from 1991 would be inoperable.

Cook says: "We have been suckered." Britain "was conned into a war to disarm a phantom threat in which not even our major ally really believed. The truth is that the United States chose to attack Iraq not because it posed a threat but because they knew it was weak." He says the U.S. aim in Iraq was regime change, with the additional "prize" of subsequently having Iraq as an alternative to Saudi Arabia to host U.S. forces in the region.

Now, the hostile rhetoric of the U.S. administration has been turned on Iran, undermining its reformers and providing unintentional support for its anti-Western conservative clerics. Cook says this time, Britain "must make clear" to Washington that it will not again subordinate its interests "to a U.S. policy of confrontation. Iran must not become the next Iraq."


An editorial in Britain's "Daily Telegraph" says Prime Minister Tony Blair "had strong and respectable reasons -- he still has -- for believing that Saddam [Hussein] possessed [weapons of mass destruction]. His folly, springing from a fatal character weakness, was to overdramatize his evidence in the hope of showing himself in the most righteous possible light and presenting a general danger as an immediate threat.

"In so doing," the paper says, Blair "has succeeded not only in undermining the intelligence services, but also in sowing unnecessary doubts about the justice of a war in which he sent British soldiers to die."

And that, the "Daily Telegraph" says, "was unworthy of his office."


Commenting on current U.S. efforts to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Michael Stuermer of "Die Welt" says yesterday's meeting at the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh between Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, Jordan's King Abdullah, Bahrain's King Hamad, and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas was "the peace of the courageous."

The issue at stake is whether the U.S.-sponsored road map for peace is viable. Stuermer says: "The Iraq war has forced Arabs to face poignant realities, in particular to confront the reality of America's power. Now Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia want to prevent further crises in the region and potential revolutions. For that, they need America's help."

In return, says Stuermer, U.S. President George W. Bush is exerting pressure on Israel. He is making use of his prestige and clout to signal to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that "he has reached the end of his patience."

On the other hand, he has also made it amply clear to the Arab world that "this is not a choice between having a partial war with a partial peace, but between Pax Americana, which includes the recognition of Israel's existence, and mortal instability."

Stuermer says Bush is showing "vision and a tough stance" and that this is the only hope for peace.


"Los Angeles Times" staff writer Robin Wright says that at the summit on 2 June in Sharm El-Sheik, Egypt, the United States got a lot of what it wanted from Arab leaders, and "the Arabs got much of what they sought from the United States."

The Arab attendees -- from Egypt, Jordan, the Palestine Authority, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain, the current president of the rotating Arab League -- "wanted to be convinced that President [George W.] Bush will follow through with the road map. The long-standing Arab fear has been that the first obstacle that comes up [would] derail yet another blueprint for peace."

The United States, for its part, won support "on three broad principles." The key Arab states "formally embraced the road map " and "pledged to fight terrorism" in all its forms. Arab leaders often in the past had differentiated between "terrorism" and the Palestinians' battles with Israel. Moreover, the meeting's Arab leaders "now officially recognize" new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), thus marginalizing Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat.

But Wright says much of the success of the Sharm El-Sheik summit was based "on what key issues were avoided or dropped."

Bush is now in Aqaba, Jordan, to meet with Palestinian Prime Minister Abbas and Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, to "try to convert acceptance of the road map to action."


An item in Belgium's "Le Soir" says a new stage in the Mideast peace process is beginning today, as U.S. President George W. Bush meets with Palestinian and Israeli leaders in Aqaba, Jordan.

Bush began by meeting separately with Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The three will take part in collective negotiations later in the day.

The paper says Bush, on the heels of victory in Iraq, is for the first time making a personal commitment to the "tempestuous" Mideast peace process. He reaffirmed this week at Sharm El-Sheik, Egypt, his commitment to a solution that would allow the two states to co-exist peacefully.

"Le Soir" notes the past few days have seen Abbas's first two high-level summits since he became prime minister in late April. And Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, who the United States and Israel would like to see marginalized, "is, indeed, absent."

(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)