Not so long ago, another U.S. President was engaged in a protracted struggle against a far-reaching enemy. In the midst of the conflict, he came to believe one particular country threatened such immediate nuclear harm to the U.S. that he must prepare the citizenry for war to thwart it. A skittish world needed to be convinced of the danger. So he showed them a picture.
The President was John F. Kennedy. The country was Cuba, and the nuclear-capable missiles aimed at the U.S., captured on satellite photos, were plain to see. War in that instance was averted in large measure by the very nakedness of the threat. But it's just that sort of certainty--some incontrovertible evidence apparent to all--for which much of the world clamors while Washington considers a new assault on Iraq.
That, barring a surprise revelation, is not what the U.S. President is likely to produce this time. Stories will be told, like the one Administration officials are retailing about Iraq's efforts to acquire thousands of specialized aluminum tubes for possible use in centrifuges to enrich uranium. Pictures will be flourished, like the ones of sinister new structures at old nuclear-related sites in Iraq. But it's the inability to know what's under those roofs and what those aluminum tubes are really for that lies at the heart of the Bush Administration's case against Iraq: it's all about what we don't know.
A flurry of white papers will be brandished as evidence of what weapons Saddam has. But the Bush Administration's determination to topple him is based less on the weapons of mass destruction he has now than on what he might get later--and what he might one day do with them. Indeed, in the debate over how to manage Saddam, Bush is not operating from new intelligence but from a new doctrine of pre-emption. Though the hawks in the Administration argue that Saddam's weapons of mass destruction directly threaten his neighbors and even the U.S., to Bush the real issue is the risk that the dictator would hand them to the undeterrable enemies America awakened to on Sept. 11. Al-Qaeda, U.S. intelligence officials have been advising Bush, will never stop trying to get its hands on those weapons. And who, they ask, is most likely to supply them? Saddam, who has already used chemical weapons on his citizens and neighbors and who is cruel enough to share them. "What we know is that there is a network out there looking for this stuff, and Saddam's been spending all his time making it," says a senior White House official. "We'd be idiots not to think that at some point the two might connect."
SADDAM'S TOXIC RECORD
According to the terms of the 1991 U.N. cease-fire resolution that ended the Gulf War, Iraq was supposed to destroy all stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons, along with the machinery and precursors to make them, and dismantle its entire nuclear-development program. By the time the U.N. inspectors left Iraq for the last time in Dec. 1998, sizable chunks of Saddam's weapons program were gone: 39,000 chemical munitions, 690 tons of chemical agents, 3,000 tons of precursors, 426 pieces of production equipment. The U.N. had also dismantled or accounted for 817 Scud missiles, which might have lofted toxic warheads at Iraq's neighbors.