Don't get Scott Ritter started. He'll pull his wide shoulders back, rise to his full six-foot, four-inch height, and in no uncertain terms tell you that the Saddam Hussein he sees is based on facts, not some simplistic, black and white notion of good and evil. Those "facts" include his belief that the Iraqi dictator has been stripped of virtually all his tools to wage war outside his borders.
It is a view shaped by Ritter's certainty that either Hussein's weapons of mass destruction -- chemical, biological and nuclear -- have been destroyed or he is incapable of doing anything with whatever small quantities remain intact. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. He's a sharp critic of the Bush Administration's policy in the Middle East. "They are going to continue to push the fear buttons and continue to play on the ignorance of the American public in regards to Iraq," Ritter argues.
"The Bush Administration will refuse to engage in debate. In fact, in the war on terror, it's un-patriotic to debate. If you question any of the motives of the administration, you're unpatriotic, you're treasonous even." He also hates the inconsistencies in the war on terror policy. He cites President Bush's condemnation of all nations that support terrorists. But then Ritter points out that we continue to court the Saudi Arabians, even though at least some of al Qaeda's funding apparently comes from members of the Saudi royal family. Don't think he's just a Republican basher.
The Clinton Administration gets its fair share of Ritter's vitriol for manipulating the Iraqi arms inspection process and creating the impasse with Iraq that exists today. "They did something horrific. They used the inspection process to force a confrontation with Iraq," Ritter says. He believes the December 1998 bombing campaign used information developed by the inspectors to specifically target sites used by Hussein's presidential security, a group charged with protecting him. "No wonder the Iraqis aren't interested in reopening the inspection process," he adds.
There just aren't many good guys in Scott Ritter's worldview today. And, he's not afraid to say it. But that's a posture that he's been taking for years. He delivered an analysis of the Iraqi army prior to the Gulf War that went against the conventional wisdom that the army would put up a strong fight; he'd predicted the Iraqis would surrender and they did. He has testified before Congress more than once, saying that the U.S. government was at least in part responsible for the breakdown in the weapons inspection process in Iraq. And, he continues to question the motives of people who have turned Saddam Hussein and Iraq into a singular, overwhelming threat to world peace.
The Ritter opinions on the Middle East and Iraq aren't getting much of a hearing in Washington, at least not inside the White House. Nor are they views that many Americans share, nor would believe were coming from the mouth of a former U.S. Marine major. Ritter rejects any and all criticism that he shouldn't be such a vocal critic. "It is my duty, my patriotic duty, based on my seven years of first-hand knowledge about the truth of Iraq...to hold my government accountable for actions it is taking that are in deviation from the truth, from the record, from the facts. It's the most patriotic thing I can think of doing." And, he believes his role is to at least bring the United States to a point that whatever it eventually does in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, it be based on both international law and the laws of this country.
It's easy to find people who disagree with Ritter, including his former boss, Ambassador Richard Butler, who was the former chairman of UNSCOM, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
Butler, an Australian who headed the U.N. weapons inspection team in Iraq from 1997 until it left the country in 1998, is quite adamant that he was convinced that Hussein was effectively concealing his weapons of mass destruction. Today, he has been quoted as saying that either Ritter was lying to him in 1997, or he's lying today. In an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corp. late last year, Butler insisted it is legitimate to assume that the Iraqis still have some weapons of mass destruction capability. "...They threw us out in 1998 because we wanted to get all of [the weapons] and we didn't. They've been without inspections for three years ... and reports suggest that they're back in business," Butler said. Ambassador Butler declined to be interviewed for this story.
Defense Secretary Rumsfeld has been determined to paint Iraq as a rogue state and Hussein as a rogue leader, who deserves to be deposed to preserve the security of the United States. In a broadcast interview in February, Rumsfeld said, "There's no question but that Saddam Hussein and his regime have had an enormous appetite for nuclear, chemical and biological weapons over a sustained period of time. There's nothing new about this. They have been, in varying degrees, successful in developing those types of capabilities. The absence of inspectors makes their ability to continue that process, obviously, easier for them. ...You can begin with the correct assumption that he has a very strong desire to have all of those capabilities. That existed prior to the Gulf War. It existed during the Gulf War. And it existed after the Gulf War. Indeed, we know he's had the continued effort with respect to the development of ballistic missiles." It is also generally believed in Washington that the Department of Defense and the Pentagon are drawing up plans to invade Iraq, although no timetable has been set.
The drumbeat against Hussein hasn't been quieted by the Iraqi leader, or by revelations late last year of an Iraqi defector. Hussein, according to Rumsfeld, gives the families of suicide bombers in Israel a $25,000 payment. And, Hussein publicly voices strong support for the terror campaign against Israel. Another case late last year raised suspicions about Hussein's weapons programs. In an extensive interview with The New York Times' Judith Miller last December, a defector detailed Hussein's ongoing efforts to hide his weapons of mass destruction projects in nongovernment buildings, such as private villas and a hospital in Baghdad. Although subsequent suspicions were raised about the defector's reliability, the reports nonetheless triggered numerous allegations in support of the idea that Hussein had renewed efforts to build up his mass weapons programs.
Furthermore, the general consensus in Washington focuses on the presumption that since the departure of the UNSCOM inspectors in 1998, no outsider with weapons expertise has been able to verify or not verify Iraq's ongoing efforts to retain or rebuild its weapons programs. Knowledgeable sources also cite evidence that reconstruction activities have been observed at sites known to have housed weapons programs. Although no one in the U.S. government is willing to directly dispute Ritter's claims, many privately discount his assertions about Hussein's diminished capabilities.
There is very little in Ritter's background that bolsters his role as a one-man crusader against another war in Iraq. Ritter was a military brat, moving around the world as he grew up with his family. He attended Franklin & Marshall University, graduating in 1984 and immediately taking an officer's commission in the U.S. Marine Corps, a result of having attended a platoon leaders course during his college years. He trained in intelligence gathering and counterintelligence, rising to the rank of major, and eventually served on Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf's staff during the Persian Gulf War in 1991. He also served as an arms inspector in the former Soviet Union. After the Gulf War, he left active duty and sought a job in the private sector, but within a few months, a former superior officer called with the offer to join the United Nations weapons inspection team being formed to go into Iraq. He decided it was an opportunity he couldn't pass up; he expected the job to last a couple of months, but it turned into a seven-year commitment.
In the years since he resigned in 1998 from the U.N. Special Commissions team, in protest over the Clinton Administration's policy that subverted the weapons inspection process, Ritter has been on a mission of self-vindication. He wrote a book called Endgame: Solving the Iraqi Problem Once and for All, which many people interpreted as a direct indictment of Saddam Hussein. He explains, whenever anyone will listen, that he has never flip-flopped his position on Iraq; he says Endgame was misinterpreted, and that while it does describe Iraq's attempt to conceal its weapons capabilities, it also builds the case that the UNSCOM team effectively disarmed Hussein and his army. He explains that the misinterpretation stems from his assertion that Iraq was not in compliance with the U.N. resolution that requires 100 percent disarmament, when he actually believes that the Iraqis are only "qualitatively" disarmed, which he defines as more than 95 percent of their weapons dismantled.
Today, Ritter, who is 40 years old, is still struggling to get his story heard. He lives near Albany, New York, in a small suburban community, doing interviews and flying off to speaking engagements whenever he can. He is trying to find an outlet for a video that he produced that includes recent footage from inside Iraq. He claims that he has been the subject of two FBI probes of his activities, including allegations that he was a paid agent of Saddam Hussein, and his wife continues to be under suspicion of being a KGB agent; she is a native of Georgia, in the former Soviet Union. He also claims that the investigations have been dropped. He dismisses them as not even worthy of being called harassment, and adds that the agents are just doing their jobs.
What sets Ritter apart from many of the ideologues and politicians trying to build a case against Iraq is that the former Marine believes he understands the Iraqi mindset. It's a knowledge base that he developed during his seven years there, and it is the culmination of studying the history of the region and the history of the man in power.
To fully understand Iraq, Ritter says, you have to go back to the 1970s. Even though the country was practically a Soviet satellite, it developed strong Western leanings, maintaining close links with the British and the French, who consulted with Iraq on its nuclear power projects. During that period, Iraq remained relatively anti-American. At the time, Hussein had an army of around 200,000 men, and few military aspirations. By late 1979, however, he invaded Iran and began a military buildup that would continue throughout the 10-year war, until he had 1.2 million men in uniform. "At that point, Iraq became a regional superpower," Ritter says. "They became a modern army with modern equipment and a military that integrated chemical weapons and long-range ballistic missiles into its arsenal." Ritter claims the Iraqis also started their biological weapons program during that period, "which they viewed as a strategic deterrent to Israel's nuclear capability, and they were actively working on a nuclear weapons program."
During the entire Iran-Iraq war, the United States treated Hussein more like an ally than an enemy. Given U.S. hostility toward Iran in the wake of the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, and the subsequent holding of U.S. hostages, Hussein was seen by the United States as a bulwark against the spread of Islamic fundamentalism.
"Iraq became a good friend of the United States," Ritter says. And, according to Ritter, the United States, along with Western European nations, turned a blind eye to Hussein's acquisition of the sophisticated technology needed to develop chemical and biological weapons. "We knew this was happening. Everybody knew it was happening," Ritter says. "But we did nothing to stop it because a strategic decision was made that Iraq with a population of 20 million was fighting Iran with a population of 45 million, and Iraq needed those weapons to even out the equation. We could not allow Iraq to get into a meat grinder war in Iran, because they would lose."
After the Iran-Iraq war ended in 1988, the U.S.-Iraq relationship stayed friendly. "In the spring of 1990, a delegation from the U.S. Senate led by Robert Dole traveled to Iraq where they met with Saddam Hussein and embraced him as a true friend of the U.S.," says Ritter. "So, we have a very complex history with Iraq and Hussein."
Hussein, however, was not content. For his own domestic political reasons, he continued to build up his military, eventually putting 1.7 million men under arms. "That's expensive," says Ritter. "He continued economic development, legitimate economic development, and that's expensive. And, he continued illegitimate economic development, the weapons of mass destruction, and that's expensive," says Ritter. As a result, Iraq ended up with a national debt of between $100 billion and $200 billion. To pay it off, Ritter contends, the Iraqis needed oil to remain at $14 a barrel or higher on the world market. "But Kuwait and other nations were dumping oil on the market, and the price collapsed to $11 a barrel," says Ritter. "And, the Iraqis blamed Kuwait and called it economic warfare."
Ritter also believes the United States failed to send consistent signals to Hussein in advance of his invasion of Kuwait. "He met with Ambassador April Glaspie. He tried to pin her down on what America's policy was towards the border with Kuwait. She said, 'America does not have an opinion on this.' Well, that's a green light," Ritter says. "Hussein didn't trust this coming from a female, so he checked with the State Department, not once, but three times, and they came back and said, 'We don't have a position.' So he took that as a green light and he sent in his troops."
With Iraq occupying Kuwait, and threatening the eastern oil fields of Saudi Arabia, suddenly, Ritter says, the world woke up to discover that an unreliable, warmongering, brutal dictator was on the verge of controlling a huge share of the world's oil reserves. "That couldn't stand. And that's one of the main reasons the United States worked with the United Nations to respond as aggressively as they did," Ritter says.
The Gulf War outcome, according to Ritter, was never in doubt. He told top Marine commanders that while a large fighting force, the Iraqis were not a competent modern fighting force, and would surrender almost immediately. His immediate superiors chastised him for that analysis, but in fact, that's what happened. Within days of the coalition attack on Iraq, its army had collapsed and the war was over. But for Ritter it was just the beginning. By the fall of 1991, he was back in Iraq as a weapons inspector, trying to search for any evidence of programs to develop weapons of mass destruction. He insists that the war is a critical element in assessing the inspection process, and Iraq's current military capabilities, because of what the U.S.-led attacks did to the country.
"When Iraq went into Kuwait, they had a viable economy ... that was running on all cylinders. They had a large military and a political apparatus that was firmly in power. Today, 10 years later in 2002, they have an economy that was destroyed by war, and by the subsequent sanctions. We didn't just go to war against the military, we went to war against Iraq. We attacked Iraq economically. We destroyed command-and-control centers, power plants, water purification plants. We destroyed the stuff that makes a society function."
"Iraq today is crumbling and there is no wherewithal to rebuild it," says Ritter. The destruction was so complete, according to the former Marine major, that it has effectively thwarted any efforts to keep any of the country's weapons of mass destruction intact. "Iraq cannot invade Kuwait today. Iraq cannot invade Iran. Iraq can launch defensive operations, and that's about it." He also insists that the weapons inspection process was in the end effective. "We did not just find the weapons, we destroyed them. They're gone. We know everything about Iraq's weapons capability."
Ritter doesn't dispute the fact that Hussein tried to keep his weapons of mass destruction after the Gulf War ended. Iran was massing troops on his eastern border, and the Iraqi dictator did not believe the coalition forces would stop an Iranian invasion. Therefore, Ritter argues, Hussein kept ballistic missiles and at least chemical, if not biological, weapons to counter the Iranian threat. "They lied at the time. They held on to their strategic capability. Iraq failed to declare biological weapons, they failed to declare nuclear weapons, and they under-declared their ballistic missiles and chemicals. But we know why they did that."
The scenario gets a little complicated in 1995. Ritter believes that once Hussein became a hero in the eyes of the rest of the Arab world for standing up to the West, he no longer needed his unconventional strategic capabilities. And then, a son-in-law, Hussein Kamal, a minister of military industry, defected in 1995 with statements that Iraq had concealed weapons. Ritter says that while he relied on Kamal's claims to explore new suspicious weapons sites inside Iraq, the debriefing transcripts reveal Kamal's insistence that all the weapons of mass destruction and Iraqi missiles had ultimately been destroyed.
However, the Iraqis never publicly acknowledged that they had concealed those weapons and Ritter doesn't believe they will ever take responsibility for it. He uses VX gas, a potent chemical compound, as an example. "Once they admit they had a VX capability, their concern is we'll never believe what they tell us. We'll never accept it's gone, and we'll hold it against them forever. So they lie about it. But it's destroyed, gone," says Ritter, adding that the UNSCOM team conclusively proved that the Iraqis had VX at one time.
"Oh, we know they concealed, but I believe they were concealing matters about the security of Saddam Hussein, not weapons of mass destruction. In the wake of the alleged destruction of those weapons, from a period that ran from 1994 until the inspections ended in 1998, Ritter says, "Never once during any of those inspections did we detect evidence that Iraq had retained prohibitive capability." Is he 100 percent sure of that? "No," he says. "No one can be 100 percent sure until you are actually responsible for the programs. But I would put my professional reputation on the fact that what we detected pertains to the security of the president, not weapons of mass destruction.
"You can't make weapons of mass destruction in a basement. You don't brew them up in a backyard," says Ritter. "We have hundreds of thousands of pages of documents. We've destroyed the factories that made them. We destroyed the production core. So Iraq today has no capability to produce meaningful quantities of weapons of mass destruction."
Whatever contentions Ritter makes about Iraq, they do nothing to quiet the chorus of people in the United States who argue that the mere threat of Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction is enough to warrant an attack on the country. They cite the absence of inspectors from Iraq for more than three and a half years and signs that Iraq is reconstituting its weapons programs. Any action against Iraq is seen as either a preemptive strike or just the completion of what Desert Storm started 10 years ago. The argument is the same: get rid of Saddam. That has become a cornerstone of U.S. policy toward Iraq.
"I would simply ask the Bush Administration, Are you a nation that believes in international law? Is the United States a member of the global community or are we this unilateral nation, that we'll go in whenever we feel like it?" Ritter says. War shouldn't be waged based on mere speculation, he contends. If something were to happen to prove to the world community that Iraq has smallpox or that it had retained some element of its chemical and nuclear weapons program, then, Ritter says, "[Saddam] is a pariah leader of a pariah nation that is indeed a threat to international peace and security, and we must get rid of him. I'm with that.
"But I can't accept those assertions at face value," Ritter says. "If the United States has a case, make it to the international community. Make it to the Security Council. The truth is that the United States does not have a case.
"We have to deal with the facts. And the facts say that Iraq's weapons programs have been dismantled and the bulk of their capability has been destroyed and accounted for, and if you get the weapons inspectors back in, you can put the cap on the genie and it's not going to come out again. We can prevent Iraq from reconstituting. So this isn't a national security issue. It's a national security issue only if he has those weapons. And, we know he doesn't have them.
"Now, if the United States says, 'Look, this guy's a bad guy and we're going to get rid of him, we don't care about weapons of mass destruction.' At that point, you'll see Scott Ritter backing off. I'm not here to defend Saddam Hussein. But then it's a problem for the international community, and they, through the Security Council, will have to point out that the U.S. is a signatory of the U.N. Charter, and if you go against it, you are in violation of international law."
Ritter has a fairly straightforward plan for a solution in Iraq, which he admits doesn't involve the removal of Saddam Hussein. "The cornerstone of any policy has to take into account international law and international consensus," he says. The framework for a solution already exists, Ritter argues, in two U.N. resolutions that allow ongoing monitoring and verification process regarding weapons and an import-export stipulation that prohibits Iraq from obtaining certain materials. "My solution isn't reinventing the wheel, the world has already done it." He adds that the quid pro quo for the enforcement of those resolutions is the end of the economic embargo against Iraq. But he fervently believes that in the long term the rebuilding of Iraq will provide stability in the entire region, and stability in our supply of oil, thus bolstering U.S. interests. The rebuilding of Iraq is essential, Ritter says, because it is the only way to restore a semblance of dignity and peace. "It's going to take a long time. Maybe 10 or 15 years to dig out of this hole," says Ritter.
The alternative, a U.S.-imposed government, in the wake of a U.S.-led invasion, will almost surely lead to anarchy, and perhaps a radical Islamic state. "Iraq will collapse if we move in and invade. No American-designated government has a chance of success," Ritter adds.
The Bush Administration's approach troubles Ritter, even though he is a die-hard Republican. "I voted for George Bush. I'm not some left-wing liberal out to bash George Bush. I just vehemently disagree with what he's doing in regards to Iraq. One of the things they've done since September 11th is to achieve what they call moral clarity in the war on terrorism. Moral clarity is really high-handed, high-falutin language for simplistic approach. They've defined the world in terms of black and white, good and evil, and Saddam Hussein lends himself to the demonization process. He is evil personified. And the American people have bought into this.
"If we ever left our borders, we'd see that nobody around the world supports this action. Even Kuwait has embraced Hussein and says they can live with him. All his neighbors say they can peacefully coexist with him. Nobody in the world shares the fear factor that we've promoted about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, and its links with terror. Why? Because the rest of the world is saying, Where are the facts?
"The Republican Party, especially the neoconservatives who have seized control of our national security policy, are pursuing ideologically driven, personal/political agendas. [Deputy Secretary of Defense] Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld are unilateralists from the old Cold War school. They have invested serious political capital behind the removal of Saddam. It would be political suicide for them to accept any other solution.
"The sad thing is that the American people will only wake up once we invade Iraq. Once the international community explodes in a wave of anti-American sentiment, once American bodies start coming home, once we realize our position in Iraq is untenable, once we realize that by invading Iraq we've actually lost the war on terror because we no longer have the moral high ground. We'll win the war on terror as long as the world agrees that America was attacked, that America was wronged, but when America becomes the arrogant international bully, we will lose the world on this. We will no longer have consensus to pursue Osama bin Laden or anybody else. We'll be the bad guys.
"That's when America will wake up. But it will be too late at that point."
Not if Scott Ritter has anything to say about it.