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Backpedaling on Iraqi Weapons

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The campaign of deception continues, but the handwriting is on the wall.

President Bush himself now says that so-called weapons of mass destruction may never be found in Iraq. But hes not yet willing to concede that perhaps Saddam Hussein was telling the truth when he said he had none. Rather, the president suggests that Hussein destroyed or removed the weapons before or during the war. But the source for that information is an unnamed Iraqi scientist who is being kept from the press.

That is suspicious. So is White House spokesman Ari Fleischers statement that locating weapons will require cooperation from those who were involved in their production, not on finding something by bumping into it. That choice of words was clearly intended to give the impression that American forces are blindly stumbling around Iraq looking for needles in a haystack the size of California.

Nothing could be further from the truth. As the Associated Press explained, Troops on the ground have searched more than 80 sites that prewar U.S. intelligence judged the likeliest hiding places for chemical and biological weapons as well as evidence of an Iraqi nuclear program. After a recent strategy shift, teams are now setting aside the search list and deciding where to go more on the basis of new information from Iraqis.

In other words, U.S. forces are looking for weapons using the latest information gathered by the most sophisticated intelligence apparatus ever assembled. And all they have come up with are pesticides, food-testing trucks, and lots of American cash.

Backpedaling is also seen from Presidents Bushs chief ally, Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain. His government was quoted the other day claiming that it was never said that Hussein had unconventional weapons in a ready-to-use state, only that he had the means of making such weapons. That is a bald-faced lie. When Blair spoke to Parliament many months ago to unveil his supposed smoking gun dossier on Husseins misbehavior, he asserted that the terrible weapons could be ready to use on 45 minutes notice.

Do Bush and Blair really think no one will remember what they said only a short time ago? Fortunately, the memory hole of Orwells Nineteen Eighty-four hasnt come to the United States yet.

No one can predict what will be found in Iraq tomorrow, so speculation is pointless. But we do know some things. We know that Husseins forces did not use chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons in the recent war, just as they did not use them in the 1991 war. We also know that, to date, no such weapons or weapons factories have been found. The idea that during the American buildup to the war, Hussein had the weapons destroyed or moved to Syria strains credulity. Does the administration expect us to believe that this could go on without the knowledge of the vaunted American intelligence community? If so, the American taxpayers, who have sunk trillions of dollars into that complex of organizations, have been taken for a ride.

It is an understatement to say that much of the world is on the edge of its seat waiting for the United States to come up with something. Even former American military brass say finding nothing will be a major embarrassment for the Bush administration. It will certainly make the put-downs of Hans Blix and his UN inspectors look silly. Imagine if the U.S. forces do no better than the people often portrayed as bumbling Inspector Clouseaus.

Bush and his team, however, seem to know how to hedge a bet. At some point during the war, they artfully changed the focus from finding unconventional weapons to liberating the Iraqis. I say artfully because they could never have built popular support in America for the war had the only rationale been ending Husseins brutal regime. But once having won the support, the administration subtly shifted the rationale to that mission.

Americans, of course, feel good in the role of liberator, even if the government has no constitutional authority to play it. So if no weapons are found, they may not notice. Theyll be too busy watching Bush campaign commercials showing that falling statue of Saddam Hussein.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.