IN HIS INITIAL COMMENTS on Saddam Hussein's capture, President Bush didn't mention the main reason we went after the brutal dictator in the first place. Not that Bush needed to go into the principal justification for invading Iraq. But the matter is worth bringing up--especially since Howard Dean, whose candidacy has been fueled by his opposition to the president's decision to go to war, is the odds-on favorite to capture the Democratic presidential nomination.
Bill Kristol and Bob Kagan have succinctly captured, the main reason for the war--"the strategic threat posed by Saddam Hussein because of his proven record of aggression and barbarity, his admitted possession of weapons of mass destruction, and the certain knowledge of his programs to build more." Hussein was a threat to the Middle East but also to our allies and to us.
Now, Hussein didn't only recently become such a threat. Indeed, his possession of chemical and biological weapons had been an intense concern since 1991, when, as a condition for ending the Persian Gulf war, Hussein had agreed to reveal and destroy all such weapons. Years of diplomacy ensued in which the United Nations Security Council passed all manner of resolutions and hundreds of weapons inspectors went to Iraq to oversee the disarmament. To no avail.
By 1998, on the basis of Iraq's own admissions, the world knew that Iraq had VX, a deadly nerve gas; anthrax; bombs fitted with parachutes designed to deliver poison gas or germ payloads; artillery shells filled with mustard gas; aerial bombs filled with germ agents; and missile warheads containing such germ agents as anthrax and botulinum.
Yet Hussein's regime had failed adequately to account for those weapons. Most, it said, had been "secretly" destroyed. But no evidence was offered to support that claim. And when Iraq limited the movement of U.N weapons inspectors, refusing a request for full access to the "palaces," the only fair inference was that the regime had something to hide.
President Bill Clinton was prepared to use force. "It is obvious," he said in February 1998, "that there is an attempt here . . . to protect whatever remains of [Hussein's] capacity to produce weapons of mass destruction, the missiles to deliver them, and the feed stocks necessary to produce them. . . . What if he fails to comply and we fail to act, or we take some ambiguous third route, which gives him yet more opportunities to develop . . . weapons of mass destruction?"
Raising the possibility that Saddam Hussein might provide weapons to terrorist groups, Clinton said the Iraqi dictator was a threat to "the safety of his people, the stability of his region and the security of all the rest of us." He warned, "Some day, some way, I guarantee you, he'll use the arsenal."
President Clinton eventually ordered a missile and bombing attack on suspected facilities and stockpiles--after which Hussein closed the door to further inspections. What he did with his weapons programs wasn't and indeed, with the inspectors shut out, couldn't be known.
Four years later, Bush essentially perceived Iraq as the same strategic threat Clinton had. Yet because of September 11, he was determined not to let Saddam Hussein off the hook. Bush worked the United Nations, whose Security Council passed Resolution 1441. The resolution found Iraq in material breach of its obligations and vowed serious consequences if it failed to fully and immediately disarm. But the Security Council, as we know, was unwilling to act.
Nine months later, Hussein's regime overthrown, his two sons dead, and Hussein himself in custody--we still haven't found actual stockpiles of the deadly weapons. Of all people, Hussein should know what happened to his weapons.
Yet whatever weapons eventually are found, there can be no doubt that the world is hugely better off now that Saddam Hussein is in our hands. And that fact makes less credible Dean's anti-war position. For if Dean were president, Hussein wouldn't have become the haggard man we saw pulled from a darkened spider hole over the weekend. He still would be the ruthless dictator of Iraq, and yet we would have no reason to think about him other than the way Clinton did--as a threat to his own people, the Middle East and America. What the capture of Saddam Hussein proves is that the president we have indeed had the will to act.
Terry Eastland is publisher of The Weekly Standard. This column originally appeared in the Dallas Morning News.