INSIDE THE WMD DEBATE, II

Kevin Drum has an interesting post reacting to my analysis this morning of WaPo’s story on the WMD-intelligence nexis.

I agree that Saddam Hussein was unstable and dangerous, and I don’t mourn his loss. What’s more, I think even hardcore liberals accept the idea that in the wake of 9/11 we should be more aggressive in reacting to ambiguous intelligence information.

But it’s clear that the Bush administration, far from simply being a bit more vigilant in connecting the dots, deliberately misled the country. After all, the al-Qaeda connections don’t exist and the WMD isn’t there.

And yet conservatives blithely dismiss this. It’s a good thing that Saddam is gone, so it just doesn’t matter that our intelligence data was lousy and the administration concocted a story with only the flimsiest relationship to reality. It doesn’t matter because George Bush is a good guy and we trust him.

I agree that the al Qaeda tie-ins are loose, at best–especially compared with our “friends” the Saudis.

But the other argument is something of a non sequitur. Even if we presume no WMD will be found, this isn’t proof of deliberate deception. Kevin expands this rationale in the comments section:

Now, if that turns out to be the case, then obviously there wasn’t any credible evidence for it. How could there be for something that wasn’t there?

But it’s not at all unusual for the best available evidence to lead to woefully wrong conclusions. The most brilliant scientists on the planet long believed the sun revolved around Earth. Were pre-Copernican scientists deliberately misleading the public? Evidence points in the direction it points; sometimes, further evidence comes along that countermands the conclusion, sometimes not. There are undoubtedly innocents sitting on Death Row at this minute who were convicted based on solid evidence. The vast majority of the time this happens, there is no intentional malfeasance on the part of the police or the prosecutors. The person simply appeared guilty on the basis of motive, circumstantial evidence, past behavior, inexpert “eyewitness” testimony, or other data that were gathered.

Intel agencies get stuff wrong all the time. We missed Pearl Harbor, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, just to name a few. Intel is an imperfect art–trying to find out stuff that others are trying to hide from you and making the best guesses they can as to how the gaps connect. In this way, intel is just like science. How often do big medical studies come out, get a ton of publicity, garner public policy reactions, and then turn out to be bogus? All the time. International intelligence is far more complex than medicine.

I blogged early and often that I wished we’d continued the emphasis on regime change–the “original” reason for the war–rather than getting into the UN/Powell-WMD/international law justification.

But why was regime change such a big deal? It was a goal of the Clinton administration and remainined one for this administration. And, surely, it’s more than simply “he tried to kill my dad” or some nonesense about oil/Haliburton/GOP interest groups (not accusing Kevin of that one–but I do hear it a bunch). Clearly, there has been a longstanding, bipartisan belief that Saddam was a threat. Except Dean, all the significant Democrats running for president were pro-war. Much of the Democratic leadership in Congress. Now, part of that was simply electoral politics/ putting the finger to the wind. But part of it was a sober reflection on the intel available.

We’ll have to wait and see what time brings. I honestly thought we would have found the WMD stockpile by now. The longer we go without finding it, the more unlikely it seems. This will spark a lot of questions, not only about the judgment of the Bush team and our intelligence gathering/analysis apparatus, but about what happened to the stockpiles that existed in the 1990s. And, perhaps the greatest mystery of all, why Saddam would let his country be invaded rather than simply providing documentation as to what he did with the weapons on the UNSCOM list.

As Kevin notes, our disagreement is rather slight. Indeed, the above-linked post from June 2nd makes points very similar to Kevin’s. My views have evolved somewhat as the matter has unfolded, notably the whole “Bush lied” business. I agree that too much emphasis was placed on WMD to secure UN support, taking the focus off the primary motivations for the war andthat the fact we haven’t found WMD looks bad. But, as I noted here and in subsequent pieces, the case that was laid out for the war was complex, multifaceted, and widely supported.

FILED UNDER: Iraq War
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. John says:

    Your argument only makes sense if we conveniently ignore the fact that they apparently knew their intelligence was wildly overblown at the time they made their public case. Take away the imminent threat of WMDs and the complex, multifaceted case for war with Iraq collapses from its own weight.

  2. Kevin Drum says:

    I think the comparison to Copernicus might be going a bit too far….

    Seriously, though, it’s one thing for intelligence to “miss” something, it’s quite another to spin a story out of virtually nothing, which is what appears to have happened here. Rumsfeld more or less admitted this (“we weren’t acting on dramatic new intelligence.”)

    What’s more, this appears to be overtly political. It’s not just that the intel was wrong, it’s that it was wrong because the White House was pushing so hard to get the agencies to say what it wanted to hear.

    I think it’s quite possible to argue that the war was a good idea regardless of WMD — in fact, I’ve even made that argument myself. But Bush’s conduct more and more appears to be inexcusable, and it bothers me that his fans don’t seem to want to hold him to account just because they like the end result.

    The Kaiser was really, really sure that starting a war in 1914 was a good idea, so he made up a plausible reason for it. That didn’t turn out to be such a good idea. The next time George Bush does it, it might not be such a good idea either.

  3. Paul says:

    But it’s clear that the Bush administration, far from simply being a bit more vigilant in connecting the dots, deliberately misled the country.

    For someone that claims to be so worried about “misleading”,” Kevin sure does a bunch of it himself.

  4. Leroy says:

    I really, really would question the statement “The Kaiser was really, really sure that starting a war in 1914 was a good idea, so he made up a plausible reason for it.” That is more than a bit of swallowing whole leftover WWI era propaganda about the origin of the Great War. You can blame terrorists for that outburst of idiocy (the Black Hand assassinating the Archduke) or you can blame a lot of other causes, but to assign it all to Kaiser Wilhelm is a bit much.

  5. Former little leaguer says:

    Leroy you can give up all hopes of Kevin worring about truth or accuracy. He proves repeatedly neither are of import.

    What amazes me is that James quotes such an unrelieabe source so often. If seems unlike his normal habits.

  6. John says:

    Wow, amazing to see such defenders of truth defending obvious and now transparent lies by claiming that someone else is reliable. You guys rock!

  7. Paul says:

    John, I can only assume you mean “claiming that someone else is UNreliable.”

    You came come here and spout whatever propagada you would like. The facts however don’t support it.

    According to your Democrat party talking points of the day, when Bill Clinton (a democrat) said Saddam had weapons of mass destruction it was true. Yet when George Bush (a republican) said the same thing, somehow it became “obvious and now transparent lies.”

    How can ever expect to be taken seriously when you make arguments like that?

  8. John says:

    Hey, don’t be so quick to believe I’m a democrat. How can you expect to be taken seriously with argument like yours? Mostly Ad Hominem attacks full of sound and furry, signifying nothing. As to the obvious lies, I’m not talking about the previous administration. Rather I’m just referring to the things this administration said that has already proven to be crude forgeries, complete fabrications or incredible inflation of facts. Oh, and give up on Bill C. You might notice that he isn’t president anymore, nor is he likely to be in the future. Obsession doesn’t look good on any one.