Saddam's fatal mistake

It’s easy to forget there was a time back before Saddam Hussein didn’t have weapons of mass destruction when he did.

The most exciting pages of “The Twilight of the Bombs,” Richard Rhodes’ history of atomic-weapons diplomacy since the end of the Cold War, describe the cat-and-mouse game Iraq played with United Nations inspectors in the early ’90s, climaxing in a 1991 standoff in a parking lot that the inspectors probably survived because they hooked up with CNN on their satellite phone.

“I can’t give you access to this base,” an Iraqi colonel told David Kay, the chief inspector, during another standoff. “But you can put people up there,” he said, pointing to a water tower. Kay jumped at the chance, guessing he could get damning pictures from the tower, and he was right.

“He made a fatal mistake,” Kay told Rhodes later — “literally, because subsequently Saddam had him executed for it.”

Unable to hide his WMD, Saddam made his own fatal mistake by ordering them destroyed in such haste that no records were kept — “which made it impossible,” Rhodes writes, “to prove that the destruction had taken place.” As a result, Iraq was never able to “verify the unverifiable,” as one inspector put it, and prove the weapons were gone.

The Bush administration was so slam-dunk certain they existed that “even some very senior Iraqis” began to doubt their own knowledge: “If the CIA was convinced that Iraq indeed had WMD, then maybe there was some very secret reserve that only Saddam and the CIA knew about.”

There wasn’t, and Rhodes, writing coolly and evenhandedly, lays out clear proof that George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice all made public statements insisting on the incontrovertibility of the evidence that they knew to be lies.

Rhodes is the author of “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” and other books about the history of nuclear weapons. He owns this territory, and there’s a lot of it to cover. He examines the diplomacy that successfully resolved the problem of nuclear stockpiles in the former Soviet republics and that failed to prevent the development of bombs by India and Pakistan.

He chronicles the bomb program in apartheid-era South Africa, abolished in part because of “Afrikaner determination not to allow nuclear weapons to pass into the hands of the inevitably approaching South African black majority government.” He recounts the alliance between white South Africa and Israel that was instrumental in Israel’s developing the bomb.

And — of course — he writes about North Korea. Rhodes shows that, underneath its bellicose rhetoric, in the ’90s North Korea was very open to negotiating its nuclear policies.

What it really wanted was peacetime reactors to produce desperately needed power. “We must have a way to live,” the country’s leader, Kim Il Sung, told Jimmy Carter in 1994. “We need electricity.”

And he added, not sounding much like the Kim of news reports, “The central problem is that we lack trust, and creating trust is our most important task. The distrust comes from the lack of contacts between us.”

In fact, Rhodes says, as early as 1986 Kim had lost faith in the Soviet Union and begun to view the U.S. as a potential patron.

The country did not conduct a nuclear-weapons test until well after George W. Bush had linked it to Iraq and Iran in the “axis of evil” — and it saw what happened to Iraq.