It’s interesting to see what no longer makes headlines in America's Iraq campaign.
On 26 April, a huge explosion rocked the Waziriyah section of Baghdad, killing two American soldiers and leveling an entire building. The Arab Times said authorities thought the building might have contained ‘chemical munitions,’ and that the soldiers were part of an Army team going in to investigate. Some of the local residents, however, said the building had been a perfume factory. I spoke to a U.S. WMD detection team member several days ago about the incident. He thought it was suspicious, to say the least.
First, the building seems to have been booby-trapped with high explosives, enough to raze the whole thing in seconds. (Other theories, e.g., the sudden combustion of chemical fumes, are implausible.) But if it was an HE booby-trap, then clearly the intent was to do more than simply discourage intruders — it was to completely destroy the structure and its contents. Why? What was hidden? And why was obliteration preferable to discovery?
Second, there is the perfume. Perfume can be an excellent mask for chemical weapons. The detection equipment inspectors use can be confused by perfume, making it difficult (often impossible) to detect CW residue in, say, the rubble of a destroyed building.
Add these two together — a secret protected with HE, in a structure containing an effective CW screening agent — and you have a blue-ribbon candidate for a WMD discovery, even if it the destruction of the facility means the case can never be conclusively proven.
So, why has no one in the Administration brought up, even casually, the ‘perfume factory’ incident?
The answer to that question is important, and it speaks to the heart of where we stand in Iraq today.
Success and Control
The relative (and ‘relative’ is a crucial term here) unimportance of WMD became obvious shortly after the fall of Baghdad. If the American occupation had more effectively secured the country, thereby manifesting both the benevolence and irresistibility of U.S. power, lack of WMD would have mattered little. But it was also clear that if the occupation went bad and America was seen as unable to control Iraq, all the WMD discoveries imaginable wouldn’t salvage the disaster.
Unfortunately, it is the latter possibility that we are facing today, and the Administration realizes we are past the point where the suspect perfume factory is going to make any difference to anyone.
Success in Iraq is eluding us, and not because we haven’t found WMD. Success is slipping away because we lack control. Or more to the point, the people of the Middle East — friend and foe alike — perceive that we lack control.
Take the Abu Ghraib prison fiasco. It’s certainly a train wreck, no doubt about it, but not for the reasons commonly cited.
Everyone from President Bush to the editorial page of your hometown newspaper is insisting that the conduct of the guards at Abu Ghraib does not reflect the real America. This is true, but it gets the problem precisely backwards.
Of course those bestial guards don’t reflect American values, and that’s why the brutality is such a disaster for us. It shows, once again, that the U.S. government does not control the situation in Iraq, even when it involves the comportment of its own soldiers, soldiers engaged in a vital mission.
The chaotic milieu in Abu Ghraib joins the list of circumstances in Iraq that are evidently beyond the ability of U.S. officials to control.
When you cut through all the talk about finding WMD and building schools and liberating the oppressed — all important goals, no doubt — America’s fundamental interest in Iraq is to show the Iraqis, and the region as a whole, that we are the winning side. That we are competent. That we have the will and the ability to articulate and promote our interests in the Middle East, regardless of who may oppose us.
With competence and control and public safety as our foundation in Iraq, all else is doable — the public facilities, the self-government, the decent civil society. But without real control, none of the rest stands a chance.
In the Middle East, it is vitally important to be on the winning side. Middle Easterners will rally to winners, but only a suicidal fool will join forces with losers, because loss in the Arab world often means the loss of everything.
We must show the Iraqis that we are the winning side. One year ago — with adequate money, personnel, and planning — we had a good chance of doing just that. We can still do it today, but it is going to be much more difficult. We have a lot of ground to win back.
This is no time to panic, appease, or cut-and-run. It is time to exert power and authority on a scale we have thus far avoided.
But we mustn’t kid ourselves. The hour is late and the stakes are high. If Bush doesn’t turn things around now — today — it won’t much matter who wins in November, because by then the show will be over.
Mr. Carroll is a former officer in the Clandestine Service of the CIA, currently on the editorial board of the Middle East Intelligence Bulletin.