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Case Not Proved


When President Bush planted Iraq on his "axis of evil," he issued a multi-count indictment: "Iraq continues to flaunt its hostility toward America and to support terror. The Iraqi regime has plotted to develop anthrax, and nerve gas, and nuclear weapons for over a decade.....This is a regime that agreed to international inspections -- then kicked out the inspectors. This is a regime that has something to hide from the civilized world."

Not a winning Nobel nomination, but not casus belli for a Gulf War encore either. Unpack the charges. If "hostility toward America" warrants a missile strike, then much of the world had best head for the bunkers. As for supporting terror, the record of Saddam's misdeeds runs long, but he has not been tied to either bin Laden or 9/11. Anthrax? Nerve gas? As the President rightly noted, the Iraqi dictator had these weapons during the Gulf War - and didn't use them. In fact, he hasn't turned chemical weapons against any but his own, and horrifying though that may be, it doesn't surpass the carnage of the Chinese regime President Bush is currently visiting.

The nuclear question remains. Any weapon is dangerous in the grasp of a desperate man, and how much more the world's most destructive arms? We know their deadly power firsthand because we know our own arsenal - and our Pakistani ally's and Israel's, which currently stocks some 200 warheads. Therein lies the problem.

Last week, the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung ran an interview with Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz in which he said his nation might accept "some form of inspection" to monitor its weapons of mass destruction program. But there's a catch. Iraq will admit inspectors -- if other countries in the region are subject to the same. And they're not talking about Oman.

Resolution 687, passed by the Security Council in 1991, contains an oft overlooked article setting forth a "goal of establishing in the Middle East a zone free from weapons of mass destruction." Now Iraq is calling our bluff.

Since the U.S. can't tie Saddam to terror or anthrax, we're left with neutralizing the nuclear threat -- logic that might hold up if our "weapons-free zone" didn't begin and end with Iraq's borders. But it does, for in classic have-their-cake style, the neo-cons want it both ways. By their blueprint, Israel should be able to stock its nuclear arsenal unfettered by the Non-Proliferation Treaty, maintain Dimona as a closed site, and freely transfer Lavi and AWACs technology to China. Yet Iraq risks the full weight of American fury for a nuclear program hawkish Ken Pollack describes as "mostly dormant" in the current issue of Foreign Affairs.

But erring in caution's favor, suppose worst-case. Saddam somehow acquires the fissile material he lacks and stands ready to join the nuclear club. At best, we have a case for airstrikes akin to the Israeli hit against the Osirak reactor in 1981, not full-scale invasion. For if nuclear capability alone qualifies a country for an American orchestrated "regime change," then we have a serious consistency problem, not to mention a clear violation of international law.

Let it be said, the threat posed by a nuclear-armed Saddam is fearsome indeed. But so too is the prospect of wanton war. As early as 1998, a commission headed by now Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld determined that Iranian missiles could cause "major destruction" to the U.S. "within five years." China has ICBMs targeted at American cities. Yet we've drawn no plans for replacing either of these regimes.

The U.S. cannot topple Iraq's dictator solely because we don't like him. If chemical and biological capabilities qualify as just cause, then we'd best draw up indictments against Libya and Syria. And if nuclear potential alone suffices, we'll be signing on to wars the world over that will only breed more of the same. Former Iraqi official Khidhir Hamza, who favors invasion, said as much in a FOX interview last week when asked about the nuclear program he worked on for Saddam. "We started in trying to give Iraq some kind of balance with Israel, some kind of parity, strategic parity with Israel, and we thought that eventually when peace talks start, we'll have a card to play in having better terms. That's all we thought about it," he said. "When it became a weapon to be used against the U.S. was during the Gulf War."

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