It's been nearly a year since United Nations disarmament inspectors could do their jobs in Iraq, and eight months since they were kicked out altogether. The Clinton administration professes little concern, saying it sees no sign that Saddam Hussein is rebuilding his nuclear or poison weapons.
Not so long ago, administration officials were ready to acknowledge that, without inspectors, it might be hard to tell what Saddam was up to. "There is only one way to learn the truth," Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said in early 1998. "[U.N.] inspectors must have free, unfettered and unconditional access to people, documents and facilities in Iraq."
The record lends more support to her earlier anxiety than to any complacency now. While they were allowed to do their jobs, from 1991 until last August, U.N. inspectors found and destroyed thousands of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons or components -- far more than any of the experts had suspected existed in Iraq's arsenal.
But when they left, after seven years of playing cat and mouse with Saddam Hussein, U.N. inspectors knew they had not found everything. They knew, for example, that Iraq had failed to account for 6,000 aerial bombs filled with chemical weapons, 550 artillery shells filled with mustard gas and large amounts of precursor chemicals useful for producing VX gas. They knew that Iraq had failed to account for seven indigenously produced missiles, capable of delivering such gas; more than 500 tons of missile propellant; 15 biological-weapon warheads, and at least 50 other warheads. They knew they had not found all the equipment useful for producing biological weapons.
The inspectors knew that Iraq still possessed the know-how to produce a nuclear weapon, if it could obtain a reasonably small amount of fissile material. They knew that, without inspectors and monitors in Iraq, no one could possibly keep tabs on its weapons programs. And they knew, as the inspectors themselves reported last fall, that Iraq had "an industrial capability and knowledge base, through which biological warfare agents could be produced quickly and in volume, if the government of Iraq decided to do so."
It's worth underlining: quickly and in volume.
As to whether Saddam Hussein would choose to develop such weapons, there can't be much question. For years, the United Nations offered him a simple deal: You let us destroy your weapons of mass destruction and we will remove our economic sanctions. Saddam Hussein dislikes those sanctions. But he never took the deal. The weapons are too important to him.
How disappointed President Clinton and his administration must be in the outcome of their Iraq policy! They started, as Clinton's then-national security adviser Tony Lake wrote in the spring of 1994, with "a number of advantages that previous administrations did not" enjoy: Iraq had been weakened by the Gulf War. The Persian Gulf allies no longer feared Saddam Hussein, major Middle East players such as Egypt and Turkey were on America's side, and the U.N. Security Council was united.
In addition, Lake wrote in Foreign Affairs, the Iraqi regime was cooperating with U.N. inspectors. The administration was supporting the pro-democracy exile Iraqi National Congress. And "frequent reports of coup attempts" suggested that Saddam's regime wouldn't last forever.
A half-decade later, the administration appears to have squandered all those advantages. Saddam Hussein is no longer cooperating with U.N. inspectors, and yet neither the Mideast region nor the Security Council is any longer united in support of U.S. policy. In the fall of 1997, the United States was ready to go to war for the principle that Saddam Hussein should not dictate the composition of U.N. inspection teams. A few days ago, Washington submitted meekly along with the rest of its allies when Baghdad told Kofi Annan who could and could not visit.
The anti-Saddam forces may be weaker now than when Lake wrote, since the United States allowed Saddam Hussein to overrun them in 1996. Perhaps the only thing that hasn't changed is the administration's willingess to circulate rumors of coup attempts.
Saddam Hussein will not give up his chemical and biological weapons, according to those who have dealt with his government, because he believes they represent an essential counter to Iran, with its population three times larger than Iraq's. Standing up to Iran, in turn, is essential to his grandiose view of himself as the ultimate leader of all Arabs.
But seeing Iran as his chief strategic enemy doesn't mean that he might not turn his poison weapons against other targets: U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, say, or the city of Tel Aviv. Eight days ago, in a speech commemorating the 31st anniversary of the coup that brought him to power, Saddam Hussein made clear where he stands on Israel: "We say, without intending to offend anyone, but only to do our duty toward God, ourselves, the nation, and humanity: Palestine is Arab, and Zionism must leave it."
Would he really use chemical weapons? He already has, against his own people as well as Iran. Could he be developing poisonous weapons now? According to those who know best, quickly and in volume.
The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.