February 11, 2003

Obstruction and other Skullduggery In

Obstruction and other Skullduggery

In today's Wall Street Journal, Khidir Hamza, erstwhile Iraqi nuclear scientist and co-author of the book Saddam's Bombmaker, reiterates two generally accepted (though often only vaguely described or illustrated) conclusions: (a) that weapons inspections alone can never hope to disarm an uncooperative Saddam, and (b) that Franco-German obstructionism (and the ill-concealed desire of those states that Saddam remain in power) might plausibly derive at least in part from the need to conceal their own violations of the arms embargo.

The first has been clear beyond question for some time, though Hamza's account and illustrative details have perhaps, in view of his background, a special resonance. Maybe I just haven't been paying attention, but this is the first time I've heard it mentioned that "separate storage for the [biological and chemical] poisons is a standard practice in Iraq" and that the "Special Security Organization that guards Saddam also controls the storage and inventory of these chemicals." If nothing else, it puts all those "empty warheads" in a rather different, more ominous, perspective than in the dismissive reports I've seen on the news.

"I can assure you," Hamza baldly states, "that Iraq's nuclear-weapons program has not even been touched." That's certainly the case. I've heard tell of ingenuous souls (along no doubt with a few disingenuous ones) who claim that this failure to stumble upon such a program is a convincing indication that it does not in fact exist. They have their reasons, I'm sure. Those of us who are not crackpots or Pollyannas, however, might be forgiven for suspecting that this does not exactly amount to "containment."

What about the other issue, the one about French and German complicity in Iraq's weapons programs? Clearly, France, Germany and Russia (which Hamza says were referred to as "friendly states" in Baghdad when he was there) had weapons-related dealings with Iraq before the sanctions were imposed; and it's equally apparent that this sort of activity continued afterwards. Most of the instances I've seen mentioned have to do with so-called "dual-use" technology, items that can be described as having either a peaceful or a weapons application depending on whether or not the speaker is winking. For example:

In 1998 Iraq ordered from a German company six lithotripsy devices, extremely expensive machines that treat kidney stones without surgery. Why did Iraq require lithotripsy when millions of its citizens lack basic antibiotics? Presumably because the lithotripter employs an incredibly high-speed switch modeled on the high-speed switches in atomic warheads. Justified as a medical purchase, Iraq obtained eight of the switches, one in each machine plus two spares. Initially Iraq ordered 120 spare switches, a figure totally unrelated to the normal operation of lithotripters, and one that should have made Saddam's real purpose unmistakably clear. The German company balked at the purchase order for 120 switches, but happily sold the eight.

Does it go beyond this? I can't say it would surprise me if it turned out to be the case. There has been some speculation that violations of the arms embargo are the explanation for French and German resistance to deposing Saddam Hussein. The theory, most clearly and extensively sketched out, as usual, by Den Beste over the course of several posts (though not necessarily endorsed), is that Franco-German activities in service of obstructing regime change are so desperate and crazy that there's no other explanation that makes sense: they're terrified that the victorious Anglo-American armies will uncover proof of their secret collaboration with Saddam and their active efforts to help him with his WMD programs and are doing everything they can to prevent the discovery. Lexington Green, one of those Chicago Boyz, spins this into a truly disturbing, if not entirely serious, self-described "Jacksonian conspiracy theory" wherein France's explicit goal was to create an Arab nuclear superpower to counter-balance the US.

It seems to me that this line of thinking only really works as an explanation for French behavior if you assume that France believes it can actually prevent the American plans from being launched. I don't think Chirac is that sort of fool. He knows he can harry, delay, distract, and nip at the heels of the massive, lumbering American machine; but at this point it's clear that, one way or another, the machine is going to roll in, if only under its own inertia. So why take such pains to alienate the great, simplistic beast? The only thing French obstruction achieves, in that regard, is to guarantee that the inevitable victors will have no incentive whatsoever to keep their secrets secret in the aftermath; indeed it provides every reason for the Americans to attempt to discredit their opponent-ally with everything they've got. That's not the way realpolitik is played. I'm sure there's skullduggery to be revealed, but it will probably be, barely, plausibly deniable skullduggery.

I think Chirac still believes there's time to switch back. He may be playing it up to the wire, and he has damaged his country's bona fides tremendously in the process, but he's probably right. When the shooting war begins, the French are going to be shooting along with everybody else. And they'll be promised some concessions, some deals, some face-saving token role in the reconstruction, publicly or secretly, in exchange for their "support." But in the long run, things don't look good for French ambitions and pretensions as the "leader" of Europe, nor as a "great power" to rival the US. This may well be the last war or US policy they'll be in a position to obstruct. If the war goes well, regardless of how the UN and NATO situations shake down, they'll have a hard time obstructing themselves out of a paper bag. And that's gotta hurt.

Posted by Dr. Frank at February 11, 2003 04:06 PM | TrackBack