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Bring on humility

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Once, a presidential candidate named George W. Bush spoke of the importance of humility in international policy. Humility these days is hard to find on any side in the debate on U.S. foreign policy and the still premature post mortems on the Iraq war.

If the Administration seems on the defensive in the press over Iraq, the problem is partly, but certainly not entirely of its own making. In the aftermath of the invasion and destruction of Saddam Hussein's regime, U.S. forces have been transformed from an invincible invading army to an occupying government, a sitting duck that now must police and protect as well as fight. America has landed squarely in the thick of the most conflicted part of the world.

We are learning how surprisingly ill prepared the U.S. has been to take over the task of running Iraq and, even more important, in recruiting Iraqis to restore their institutions. In spite of the highly publicized hit-and-run attacks on American soldiers, the end-game in this war may well be won at the level of garbage collection, clean drinking water and electricity. The U.S. undoubtedly knows how to provide utilities. Apparently it has been hamstrung in restoring Iraqi self-government by, among other factors, bureaucratic conflicts in Washington over which personalities to support. And Iraqis themselves appear intimidated by the continuing sabotage and violence, over which hangs the restless spirit of Saddam Hussein.

The immediate problem is to fight the criminal disruption of public order, which increasingly looks like a campaign organized by remnants of the Ba'ath Party, possibly answering to Saddam himself. Two things are at work. One is the lawlessness, looting and brazen thievery that followed the collapse of the regime, and the Bush Administration can properly be blamed for not anticipating it. Someone in Washington must have read Lord Macauley on the French Revolution and remembered his dictum that the more oppressive the regime, the more chaotic and violent will be the aftermath of its overthrow.

The other factor, however, is the continuing fight with the Ba'athist thugs and their foreign imports. The strong point of the Ba'ath Party through its history was street crime and assassination, not military success. (Saddam was the only Middle Eastern tyrant of his generation not to come out of the armed forces; his background was party conspiracy and terrorism.) Critics who call this struggle a quagmire rush to judgment, although their concerns are duly noted as this historical chapter is still being written. Just months after the end of the war, U.S. forces are still rounding up faces from that famous deck of cards. Three aces are still out there, Saddam and his sons, and they are hardly the types to inspire a popular insurgency even though their former dominion still haunts the country.

To be sure, Administration figures have given away some ammunition by a number of exaggerations and mis-statements. Bush himself has now retracted a State of the Union sentence about alleged Iraqi attempts to buy uranium in Niger, which was apparently based on bogus documents. Criticism of this and other false statements made by the Bush administration is vitally important to sustain veracity in the public discourse and to keep in check those who would mislead the country to accomplish unstated, or understated, strategic foreign policy goals. But those who would overplay these issues also run the risk of blinding themselves to a mass of other evidence that Saddam Hussein would very much have liked to own nuclear weapons. The dynamic in the press reminds us very much of TIME Magazine and The Wall Street Journal coverage of Indian casinos. Someone seizes on a detail, like a disagreement between professional staff and the BIA head over the standard of evidence in a tribal recognition application, and blows it up to proof that financial backers of tribes are corrupting the recognition process. This charge is totally unsupported by fact, but it is repeated so often in subsequent stories that the press receives it as truth and goes even further to say that most casino tribes are fictitious.

We can see how this works in one case where the Administration still misspeaks. In a recent National Public Radio interview, National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice made the blunder of attributing our knowledge of Iraq's biological weapons program to the 1995 defection of Saddam's son-in-law, Hussein Kamel. The "revisionists," as Bush would call them, have made some headway by pointing to the transcripts of Hussein Kamel's debriefing by UN inspectors (which are readily available at the UNMOVIC web site.) Kamel denied that Iraq had a biological program. But the UN disarmament inspectors, at the time known at UNSCOM, already had substantial and convincing evidence of this program. It was given to them by the Iraqi government itself, in an apparent attempt to pre-empt the impact of Kamel's defection. The UNSCOM public reports, also available at the UNMOVIC site, tell the dramatic story of how Iraqi officials came to a team preparing to leave for the airport and took it to a chicken house on Kamel's farm, where it found a cache of documents and videotapes on Iraq's biowarfare tests. Bush opponents point to Kamel's transcript and say, look, the Administration is lying. Yes, Bush and his top people are getting it wrong, but that's not where the evidence came from.

The Administration could still spare itself confusion if it followed advice we offered back at the beginning of the war. Instead of arrogantly going it alone in the search for bio-, chemical and nuclear weapons in Iraq, it should draw on the expertise of the UN inspectors. UNSCOM and UNMOVIC have been in Iraq for the better part of a decade, often working with great courage. Their reports, which people should actually read before jumping to politically motivated conclusions, have been strangely ignored in the current press flurry. These reports show beyond question that Iraq did have weapons of mass destruction and badly wanted to keep them. Hans Blix might have been bland and compromising in his Security Council presentations, but the reports of his staff make chilling reading. One major document, on "clusters of questions," released on the literal eve of the war raised the prospect that Iraq was using acknowledged research on camel pox as a surrogate for a small pox weapon.

But the Administration has been strangely unwilling to draw on this pool of experts, and its critics on this point cannot be dismissed as disappointed anti-war activists. Richard Spertzel, an American senior inspector for UNSCOM, recently reported that he had given U. S. officials a list of seasoned former UN inspectors who were more than eager to return to the search for Iraq's banned weapons, but the U.S. had called on none. Spertzel added that he was not surprised the U.S. search up till now had not yielded impressive results. The problem wasn't in the lack of things to be found, it lay in the floundering investigation.

The Administration would certainly gain in credibility if it swallowed its pride and brought back the UN veterans. Likewise, anti-war critics also need to focus on the larger picture. Saddam Hussein is a vile killer who used chemical weapons on the Kurds and who destroyed the lives of many tribal peoples within Iraq. It should not be forgotten that these weapons, particularly the potentially infectious biological agents like small pox, pose a serious threat to humanity, and we should unite in getting to the truth about them.