Two oddly similar searches are underway in Iraq these days, one for Saddam Hussein and another for his weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Neither has yet been found.
No one argues that because Saddam has not been located, he never existed. But that is what some are saying about the coalition forces not finding actual WMD. Probably those weapons were well hidden; maybe some were latterly destroyed. What if they are never found - does that undercut the rationale for going to war?
Hardly; WMD was never the basic reason for the war. Nor was it the horrid repression in Iraq. Or the danger Saddam posed to his neighbors. Rather, the basic reason was Saddam's having signed a contract with the United States, then breaking his promise.
Let's replay this video:
Iraqi and coalition military leaders met in Safwan, in southern Iraq, on March 3, 1991, to sign a cease-fire agreement. This was right after the U.S.-led coalition forces ejected Iraqi troops from Kuwait.
The agreement they drew up had many provisions – specifying the cease-fire line, prohibiting certain activities by Iraqi troops, ending support for terrorism. Foremost among them was the demand that Baghdad dismantle all its WMD. To give this teeth, Baghdad had to accept outside inspectors who would locate and destroy the offending weapons.
Saddam Hussein's regime had been routed. So his generals accepted these terms, immediately and without argument. They had no choice.
Exactly a month later, on April 3, the United Nations Security Council endorsed these terms in Resolution 687. The resolution required that Iraq "unconditionally accept the destruction, removal, or rendering harmless, under international supervision, of:
"(a) All chemical and biological weapons and all stocks of agents and all related subsystems and components and all research, development, support and manufacturing facilities;
"(b) All ballistic missiles with a range greater than 150 kilometers and related major parts, and repair and production facilities."
The U.N. resolution also included provisions for a "Special Commission, which shall carry out immediate on-site inspection of Iraq's biological, chemical and missile capabilities." This work of locating and destroying was supposed to be completed in 120 days.
No way. Instead, for 7½ years Saddam Hussein and his minions played a cat-and-mouse game. They hid weapons and documents, threatened the Special Commission personnel - and on the sly developed new WMD. Overall, were more WMD destroyed or built in that period? It's hard to say.
Feeling ever more confident with what he could get away with, Saddam finally closed down the inspections in August 1998. His government blithely announced it had completely fulfilled the terms of Resolution 687 and ejected the Special Commission from Iraq. Saddam Hussein now had a free hand to build WMD without those bothersome inspectors.
With this step, however, he broke the Safwan contract. The correct U.S. response to this outrage should have been: "Let the inspectors back in and cough up your WMD-related activities . . . or else."
But 1998 was the era of "end of history" dot-com fog, and President Bill Clinton was diverted by the Lewinsky scandal. As a result, Saddam got away with his defiance. Four long years followed, without anyone keeping tabs on what WMD he might be developing.
Then came 9/11, and a new American sense that the world is a dangerous place. The old casualness toward broken promises was no longer acceptable. Beginning in early 2002, President Bush began exerting pressure on Iraq to fulfill its agreement, or pay the consequences.
The result? The same old cat-and-mouse game, with Baghdad and the United Nations both hoping this would satisfy the U.S. government.
It did not.
The Bush administration rejected the pretense of U.N. inspections and insisted on real disarmament or a change in regime. When the former did not occur, the latter did.
The moral of this story: Uncle Sam enforces his contracts - even if a few years late. Keep your promises or you are gone. It's a powerful precedent that U.S. leaders should make the most of.
The campaign in Iraq is ultimately not about weapons. It's not about the United Nations. And it's not about Iraqi freedom.
It is about keeping promises to the United States - or paying the consequences.