Peter Feaver, author of several widely aclaimed books in the security studies arena, has an interesting op-ed in today’s WaPo entitled, “The Fog of WMD.” He makes several points myself and others around the blogosphere have made about the Kay revelations, but also some that I haven’t seen:

• The alternatives confronting the Security Council in March 2003 were not viable. If eight months of largely unfettered investigations could not provide a smoking gun to prove the existence or nonexistence of a stockpile, certainly Hans Blix would fail as well. The alternatives some advocated — I thought six more weeks of Blix inspections would have been a good compromise in March 2003 — would have left us just as uncertain. Even giving Blix another year would have left us groping in the dark. Remember that the new conventional wisdom is built on the absence of discovery (something that Blix could have provided easily) and on the corroborating testimony of people who no longer have reason to fear Saddam Hussein (something that Blix could never have provided).

• Intelligence failure was inevitable given the nature of the Iraqi regime. The new conventional wisdom is that Hussein wanted us to think he had a more advanced WMD program than he thought he had, and that Hussein himself thought he had a more advanced WMD program than he really had. If Hussein could be deceived in a country where he had absolute power, where he regularly punished betrayers by slipping them through human shredders or having their wives raped in front of them, then any external intelligence service was going to be deceived as well. The intelligence community accurately reported that Hussein was hiding things, that he was pursuing WMD programs, that senior members of the Iraqi military-industrial complex were convinced Iraq was pursuing WMD. Given Iraq’s record, it would have been heroic to connect those dots into the picture we now think we see, namely, that it was mostly Iraqi actors deceiving each other and everyone else.

̢ۢ Intelligence failures beget intelligence failures. The intelligence community has a sorry record of assessing just how advanced an incipient WMD program really is. In fact, there is a striking pattern. In each of these cases, new evidence turned out to rebut the established consensus of the intelligence community: the Soviet Union in 1949, China in 1964, India in 1974, Iraq in 1991, North Korea in 1994, Iraq in 1995, India in 1998, Pakistan in 1998, North Korea in 2002, Iran in 2003 and Libya in 2003. In each of these cases, the WMD program turned out to be more advanced than the intelligence community thought. Iraq in 2003 may be the only exception (though there is reason to believe that North Korea is, like Iraq, exaggerating its nuclear progress).

• Intelligence cannot substitute for political judgment. Coercive diplomacy, the alternative to war, requires political judgment under conditions of uncertainty, a fact lost in the increasingly rancorous partisan debate. The critics who are bashing President Bush for pushing a hard line on Iraq are also bashing President Bush for not pushing a hard enough line on North Korea. Ironically, the president is doing everything in North Korea that he was accused of not doing in Iraq: building an international coalition to support pressure on North Korea; not taking North Korean claims at face value; weighing carefully the costs of military action; and so on. The bottom line is that the hard cases — North Korea, Iran and, yes, Iraq — are hard cases precisely because the easy options have been tried and proved wanting.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.