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Baghdad and the Bomb: How Real? : Bush needs to put the facts on the table

What scares Americans more than anything else about Iraq? Opinion polls say it’s the chance that Saddam Hussein might soon get his hands on nuclear weapons. That possibility, more than anything else, mobilizes public support behind the prospect that U.S. military power might be used to drive Iraq out of Kuwait. Not by coincidence, certainly, the Bush Administration is now doing its utmost to play on these fears and so muster backing for the military threat it is directing against Iraq. Is it making a credible case?

The short answer is that it’s not making any kind of case at all, only assertions. President Bush contends that Iraq is further along in its nuclear development program than had earlier been suspected. Marlin Fitzwater, his spokesman, says that, based on intelligence briefings, Bush now thinks Iraq may be only months away from acquiring a nuclear capability. A nuclear capability is not a nuclear weapon, let alone the means to put one on target. What’s described as a “worst case scenario” by the intelligence agencies has Iraq at some point able to fabricate a crude nuclear device that, as Defense Secretary Dick Cheney concedes, “wouldn’t be anything you could deliver from an airplane. It wouldn’t be anything that would be weaponized.” What it would be--and again, this is the worst plausible contingency--is something that if set off, says one expert, would produce fallout of the kind associated with a reactor accident. But since, as Cheney says, Iraq has no way to deliver such a device, even that can probably be ruled out.

The International Atomic Energy Agency has just completed an inspection of Iraq’s only known supply of enriched uranium, about 28 pounds of U-235 that was salvaged from the Osirik reactor that Israel bombed in 1981. The IAEA says the material hasn’t been diverted to weapons use. Fitzwater scoffs that Iraq fooled the inspectors. Maybe. Has it also deluded so hard-nosed a figure as retired Adm. William Crowe? On Wednesday the respected former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff flatly told Congress, at the very useful hearings on the Administration’s Iraq policy that are now under way, that “recent reports of near-term (Iraqi nuclear development) are not right. They are exaggerated.”

Does the Administration have hard facts about Iraq’s nuclear program that would refute the opinions of experts in and out of government? If so, it should share those facts now. If not, it ought to drop this suspect effort to whip up a needless nuclear phobia. As Thursday’s U.N. Security Council vote made clear, there is now a strong international readiness to condone force as a last resort if Iraq’s aggression can’t otherwise be undone. There is also a strong consensus, at the United Nations and in Congress, to give the economic and political sanctions directed against Iraq more time to work. Maintaining credibility during that time is vital to the success of the Administration’s policy. Playing on apparently exaggerated nuclear fears isn’t the way to do it. The Iraqi nuclear bogyman ought to be put back into the closet.

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