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COLUMN

The WMD Debate Continues

Maywa Montenegro

In his column this week in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman encourages us to forgive and forget about the weapons of mass destruction whose supposed existence was the primary justification for the war (The Meaning of a Skull, April 27). But far from being, as G.W. might say, “irrelevant” now that Saddam is gone, these weapons (or lack thereof) should continue to command our attention. We should be concerned if such weapons stocks do indeed exist, hidden but vulnerable to seizure by any ill-intentioned party. We should be even more concerned if the vast arsenal of biological and chemical munitions so often cited before the war proves to be no more than Foxxy propaganda.

For over a month now, special U.S. military inspections teams have been scouring Iraqi territory, looking for evidence of WMD capabilities, and thus far, they have come up embarrassingly dry. Last Friday, TV news-watchers all across America tuned in to learn that the military had uncovered fourteen “suspicious” 55-gallon barrels just north of Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit--and the media were quick to announce that “preliminary tests conducted on one barrel indicate it could contain a mixture of sarin and mustard agents.” Tonight, the New York Times reports that further tests have indicated an apparent false positive. Oops. This waffling -- while partially testament to the sheer difficulty of the inspections task -- also reveals the hawks’ eagerness to find something to wave as the “smoking gun.” Friedman tries to offer an alternative way out with his “who cares?” approach, but the Pentagon rightly realizes that allaying an increasingly skeptical public will not be so easy, and so the search continues.

Given that Saddam had ample time to dismantle his artillery and squirrel them away, it is entirely possible that we will eventually unearth caches of weapons or weapons precursors. But the fact that we have been thus far unable to find anything substantive makes one wonder how the Bush Administration could have been so confident, months ago, that such weapons existed. Who can forget Bush’s State of the Union address in which he trumpeted the 500 tons of sarin, mustard agent and VX nerve gas, plus more than 30,000 munitions capable of delivery? The evidence for these stockpiles came mainly from UN reports compiled since the 1991 war, and presumably it was, at some point, accurate. But how this sketchy intelligence amounted to a credible casus belli is a mystery. As Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix said last week, “It is conspicuous that so far they have not stumbled upon anything.”

Contrary to what hawkish pundits like Friedman say, we have reason to be concerned about these missing guns, for if Bush and the neoconservatives had no qualms about distorting the facts the first time around, surely they will have no problem doing it again -- much to the imperilment of Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, just to name a few on the Pentagon short-list. And if we follow Friedman’s appeal to just forget about it, the situation in Iraq sets a dangerous precedent: first invent a reason to attack, and then if the reason proves hollow ... then, oh well, the attack was successful, wasn’t it?

In Friedman’s skewed perspective, the United States is good, noble, and most importantly always “right,” while the rest of the world is “tribal” and prone to “evil,” or else civilized but unfortunately French. Yes, Saddam was a brutal dictator who left thousands of Iraqi victims in his wake. There is little doubt that he ruled with an iron fist and a chokehold of terror. By no means do I mean to imply that the U.S. government comes close to this in its treatment of its own citizenry. But the history of our foreign intervention is bathed in an equally heinous wash of blood -- perhaps this is where Friedman gets his rosy vision. Whereas Saddam’s brutality was almost wholly domestic, the United States has scattered its sculls more globally -- in East Timor, Vietnam, Afghanistan, the Occupied Territories, the Congo, South Africa, Chile, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Honduras, Panama. Saddam victimized his own people. They lived under the oppression, heard about the tortures, witnessed the disappearances. We, on the other hand, are remote from the effects of our government’s actions.

And as for Saddam’s “insane” war with Iran, surely Friedman needn’t be reminded which superpower was shaking the hand of the dictator at the time?