Finding Chemical Weapons Won’t Dispel Opposition to the War

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As the 3rd Infantry Division seized one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces in downtown Baghdad yesterday, the Bush administration got additional good news—the discovery of suspected Iraqi chemical weapons sites. Will this news help quell anger abroad at the United States for invading Iraq? Probably not as much as many in the White House might hope.

First things first. U.S. forces apparently discovered chemical weapons at two different sites. At a pesticide factory near Karbala they dug up 14 drums of chemicals. An Iraqi colonel reportedly tipped off U.S. officials to the buried chemicals. Preliminary tests suggested that the drums contained sarin or tabun nerve gas and a form of mustard gas.

Meanwhile, soldiers with the 101st Airborne reportedly discovered 20 warheads containing what may be sarin and mustard gas in a warehouse southwest of Baghdad. The warheads were matched with unguided rockets that have a range of about 15 miles.

The discovery of these truck-mounted rockets highlights the possible danger that U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians still face in the waning days of the war. With the defense of Baghdad apparently collapsing, any reason Saddam Hussein (if he is alive) or his sons might have to refrain from using chemical weapons would seem to be evaporating.

The Pentagon downplayed the reported chemical weapons finds. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld warned that “almost all first reports” of chemical weapons are wrong. His caution is understandable. Should the initial test results prove wrong, he doesn’t want to be accused of having mislead the press.

If the reports do turn out to be true, however, it would vindicate what the administration has been saying for months—Iraq violated its solemn obligation to rid itself of weapons of mass destruction.

The discovery of a smoking gun would not, however, necessarily lead the rest of the world to embrace the war effort.

True, evidence of chemical weapons would spare the Bush administration accusations that its stated reason for unseating Saddam Hussein was a sham.

But opposition to the war in most countries never turned solely or even largely on the belief that Baghdad told the truth last December when it said in its final declaration to the U.N. that it had discharged its international obligations to disarm.

In Europe, objections to the war reflected deep doubt about its necessity as well as fears about its long-term impact on Middle East stability. Many Europeans also were as concerned with how the Bush administration went to war as with why it did. Proof of Saddam’s duplicity would not absolve President Bush in their view for going to war without U.N. authorization. Indeed, if the administration follows through on its plans to minimize the U.N.’s role in Iraq’s reconstruction, it could actually harden European resentment of U.S. policy.

In the Arab and Islamic worlds, there are additional objections to the war. Most in the Middle East have no illusions about Hussein’s tyranny and will not be sorry to see him go. They are, however, deeply suspicious of U.S. motives. They are convinced that the Bush administration, despite its protests to the contrary, is waging a war on Islam and looking to control Iraqi oil.

The Arab world is not likely to jettison these deeply held views even if reports of chemical weapons finds in Iraq are substantiated. It is more likely they would simply shift their justification for criticizing the United States to other alleged shortcomings of U.S. policy—anger at the deaths of Iraqi civilians, skepticism that the war will leave Iraq better off, and the ever present bitterness over U.S. support for Israel.

Is it entirely fair to the Bush administration that the discovery of Iraqi chemical weapons would not do more to change attitudes overseas? Perhaps not, but fairness is seldom the operative concept in the court of public opinion.

For President Bush to make a sizable dent in resentment overseas of U.S. policy, he needs to take actions that acknowledge what people resent. In Europe that means tempering his unilateralist instincts. In the Arab world, it means delivering on his outsize claim to bring democratic government to the Iraqi people. The big question is whether President Bush is in the mood to do the first and capable of doing the second.