Governments Lose Stuff

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The
UN weapons inspectors' discovery of 12 chemical-weapons "warheads"
(a term typically reserved for ICBM's, not non-weaponized
rockets
with a range of 14–15 km) in a military depot
south of Baghdad does not bode well for those seeking a peaceful
resolution to the U.S.'s current conflict with the Iraqi government.
Even if, as the Iraqis have claimed, the warheads were listed in
a prior declaration and were simply overlooked this time around,
the Bush regime appears to be hell-bent for war and set to use non-compliance
with this mandate as grounds for blasting Saddam and co.
out of existence.

But
maybe the question we should really ask ourselves is, "Should
we really be surprised that the weapons inspectors have found something
the Iraqi government either couldn't or didn't account for?"
Here in the United States, yet another scandal has hit Los Alamos
National Laboratory, where computer and other equipment worth $2.7
million has come up unaccounted for. "We are not a bunch of
crooks — the problem is, I can't prove it," new interim director
Pete Nanos said, unable to account for the whereabouts of the equipment.
The Pentagon is famous for misplacing stuff. And the Bureau of Indian
Affairs has lost the net national worth of several small countries
combined during its existence.

What
is surprising is that this is even news at all.

The
fact is, bureaucracies are famous for profligate waste and unaccountability.
Losing vast sums of loot and merchandise is what governments do.
This is because governments spend untold billions of dollars on
stuff and have no way of keeping track of it all. Even assuming
moral perfection on the part of government employees (which is of
course extraordinarily difficult to do), stuff would fall through
the cracks. Most of us even have trouble remembering what we have
buried in the back of the closet or the garage. Just think of the
trouble we'd have if we were responsible for billions of dollars
of stuff we didn't own and had very little incentive to treat responsibly.
It would be a miracle if all kinds of things didn't get lost or
go unaccounted for.

The
same kind of miracle would have to happen for the UN weapons inspectors
to find nothing not listed in Iraq's declaration of weapons. The
country has been embroiled in wars with two of its neighbors over
the past fifteen years. The region is notoriously unstable. Saddam's
grip on power is directly related to the power of his military.
For these reasons, there's likely to be all kinds of military hardware
lying about. Should we really be going to war because Iraq is just
as inefficient at keeping tracks of its toys as the rest of the
world's governments are?

Another
question we need to ask ourselves is "Just what kind of threat
is Saddam Hussein?" If in nearly two months of searching
the weapons inspectors have only been able to find 12 undeclared
non-weaponized chemical weapon "warheads" (euphemistically
described as "weapons of mass destruction," but actually
only useful for battlefield engagements), what do we have to fear
of the man? He obviously doesn't have the capability to do anything
to the United States at this time. Even his neighbors, excluding
Israel, say they don't feel he is a threat.

The
real threat, for all of us, is what might happen to the region once
Saddam is out of power. Who fills the vacuum then? And at what cost
in lives and livelihood? These are the great unknowns of the U.S.'s
latest oversea military venture.

What
isn't unknown is that governments lose stuff. If this is a sound
basis for going to war, then we're all in big trouble.

January
21, 2003

Bill
Stearns [send him mail] writes
from Portland, Oregon.


     

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