Plenty of theories are floating around about why Saddam didn't deploy them during the conflict and why they're still AWOL. One is that the U.S. propaganda blitz warning Iraqi commanders not to use these weapons worked. Another is that precision munitions took out the launchers. A third is that coalition forces moved so fast the Iraqis didn't have time to fire them without endangering themselves. I'm not persuaded that any of these explanations tells the real story.
GRAND MISCALCULATION? Here's my theory: In another of the grand miscalculations that were the dictator's hallmark, Saddam feared U.N. weapons inspectors more than he did President George W. Bush. He believed that France, Russia, and, more broadly, world opinion would either prevent any hostilities in the first place or halt any operation before it reached Baghdad. That turned out to be as bad a misjudgment as his decisions to start a war with Iran and invade Kuwait.
The inspectors had been duped once before, and despite their politesse, they weren't going to be fooled again. Every U.N. report concluded that Saddam was not fully disclosing his program. What's more, the inspectors had better technology and access than had been available in the past. Their numbers and knowledge were sure to build, and they had world opinion on their side.
The smart course for Saddam? Bury whatever he had in some obscure corner of the country, where inspectors would never find it. But doing so meant that the weapons would be inaccessible if they were needed in a war.
CONSISTENT LOGIC. Think about it. That would be a reasonable gamble for someone who thought his regime would never be in real danger, thanks to global outrage at an unprovoked attack. This theory is consistent not only with how things played out (nobody has found these weapons yet) but also with intelligence reports that Saddam would use these arms only as a last resort to defend his regime. Those reports may not have realized that an inspection regime would prompt Saddam to hide his weapons so well they would be unavailable when he needed them.
Is it possible that the weapons don't exist and that Saddam never represented the threat that Bush and his Administration made him out to be? I doubt it. For starters, the records of Iraqi torture that have been found recently -- and the weapons records found after defectors alerted inspectors to arms programs in the mid-1990s -- suggest that Saddam's henchmen were almost Teutonic in their passion for documentation. It's inconsistent with the Iraqi culture to have no data showing that weapons caches were destroyed.
More important, Saddam's behavior during a decade of sanctions makes no sense unless he had something to hide. The lying is clearly documented. U.N. inspectors were about to give Baghdad a clean bill of health until defectors revealed massive programs that had not been detected. There's no evidence that they were ever destroyed.
SOMETHING TO HIDE. Why would Saddam have blocked inspections if nothing could be found? Why would he have endured sanctions and no-fly zones for 10 years? He could have opened up his palaces and other sites and ended inspections years ago if he had nothing. As much money as he made and stole, the booty could have been more princely if sanctions hadn't crimped Iraq's trade. In sum, he had every incentive to be open if he had no banned weapons. And he was anything but open.
It's understandable that the Bush Administration doesn't feel all that charitable toward the U.N. right now, after the snub it got in ridding Iraq of Saddam. Few can doubt that the U.N. debate was a diplomatic debacle for Washington. But I have a hunch that ultimately, the U.N. debate and the inspection regime it spawned may have saved hundreds or thousands of American and Iraqi lives by forcing Saddam to bury Iraq's weapons of mass destruction deep in a hole somewhere in the desert.
I could be wrong, and it could take a long time to find them. But I have no doubt those weapons exist. Crock covers national security and foreign affairs for BusinessWeek from Washington. Follow his views in Affairs of State twice a month, only on BusinessWeek Online