INTEL HOAX?

William Safire bitterly resents the accusation that the Administration “lied to us” by “hyping” intelligence reports on Iraqi WMD. He notes that, absent foolproof information, assuming the worst case is the only logical course:

Quick — what was the biggest intelligence misjudgment of Gulf War II? It was the nearly unanimous opinion of the intelligence community, backed by the U.S. and British military, that the 50,000 elite soldiers of Saddam’s well-trained, well-equipped Special Republican Guard would put up a fierce battle for Baghdad. Our military plan was based on this cautious assessment. That presumption of a bloody, last-ditch defense was also the basis for objections to the war: in street fighting, opponents argued, coalition casualties would be horrific, and tens of thousands of civilians would be sacrificed.

Happily, our best assessment was mistaken. Saddam’s supposed diehards cut and ran. Though Baghdad’s power and water were cut off, civilians were spared and our losses were even fewer than in Gulf War I. What if our planners had believed Kurdish leaders who predicted that Saddam’s super-loyalists would quickly collapse? We would have sent fewer combat troops and more engineers, civilian administrators and military police. But the C.I.A. and the Pentagon had no way of being certain that the information about the Republican Guard’s poor morale and weak discipline provided by Kurds and Iraqi opposition leaders was accurate.

With thousands of lives at stake, optimism was not an option. Sensibly, we based our strategy on the greater likelihood of fierce resistance. That decision was as right when made as it was mistaken in retrospect.

Safire is right on this. However, given that we based virtually our entire case before the UN on Saddam’s threat as a WMD possessor, the fact that we haven’t found any is a collosal embarrasment that can’t be glossed over. Post hoc analysis such as this doesn’t cut it:

Never mind the mass graves now being unearthed of an estimated 300,000 victims, which together with the million deaths in his wars make Saddam the biggest mass murderer of Muslims in all history. Never mind his undisputed financing of suicide bombers and harboring of terrorists, from Al Qaeda’s Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi to the veteran killer Abu Nidal (the only “suicide” with three bullets in his head, dispatched in Baghdad probably because he knew too much.)

We didn’t base our case for war on these things. As much trouble as Bush and Blair had in rallying support for war on the basis of Saddam’s threat to the West, it would have been almost impossible to get it based on how viscious Saddam was to his own people. While I’m glad that we’ve toppled Saddam, I’m not sure I would have supported war on those flimsy grounds. There are quite a few regimes that need changing by those standards.

And I find this sort of argument insulting:

And never mind our discovery of two mobile laboratories designed to produce biological and chemical agents capable of causing mass hysteria and death in any city in the world. Future discoveries will be dismissed as “dual use” or planted by us.

No; the opponents of this genocidal maniac’s removal now accuse President Bush and Prime Minister Blair of a colossal hoax. Because Saddam didn’t use germs or gas on our troops, they say, that proves Iraq never had them. If we cannot find them right away, they don’t exist. They believe Saddam sacrificed tens of billions in oil revenues for no reason at all.

A strong majority of Americans believe he did have a dangerous program running, as he did before. Long before the C.I.A. dispatched agents to northern Iraq, Kurdish sources were quoted in this space about terrorist operations of Ansar al-Islam, whose 600 members included about 150 “Afghan Arabs” trained by Al Qaeda; after our belated bombing, some escaped to Iran.

Opinion polling on intelligence gathering is just plain stupid. Who cares what a majority of the people believe? Whether Iraq possesse(s/d) WMD is a matter of fact, not opinion.

If the Administration had wanted war on the basis that Saddam was brutal to his own people, they should have made that case. If their rationale was Saddam’s ties to terrorism, they should have made that case. While both were cited along the way, they clearly weren’t the principal rationale given for the war. We shouldn’t pretend otherwise.

Update (10:11): Paul Muller of Heretical Ideas has a different take.

Update (16:13): Sean Hackbarth offers his views, too.

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. KCat says:

    I stated my opinion on this a month ago. We didn’t go into Iraq to find WMDs, we went in to eliminate the threat of Saddam Hussein using WMDs. Whether the WMDs existed or not, that threat did exist. Now it doesn’t.

  2. Dean Esmay says:

    You forget the most important point:

    That the administration only needed to demonstrate the strong possibility that the weapons were there, and that the regime was hiding them and refusing to cooperate.

    Thus the “collosal embarassment” you claim is, in fact, the exact sort of post hoc analysis you criticize. He didn’t need to have them. He needed to be acting like he had them, and refusing to cooperate.

    Now, if you don’t count the Al Samoud II missiles, the chemical shells, the mustard gas dumped into the Tigris, the mobile weapons labs, and the scientists who’ve come forward to admit they were working on these programs, then I suppose you could say “nothing” has been found.

    But otherwise, this is nonsense, James. We were confident he had them. He did have them, although perhaps in smaller quantities than thought. So what?

    As for the moral justifications for taking him out: taking out a brutal dictator isn’t alone sufficient reason for doing something like this. However, it absolutely obliterates any of the moral objections by the anti-war crowd–indeed, it was immoral to oppose the war on human rights grounds.

    On the grounds that it wasn’t in our strategic interests? The case was made in myriad ways beyond WMDs by members of the administration and by the punditry, as well as the common sense of everyday people.

    Post-hoc cries that there aren’t enough WMDs ring very hollow to my ears.

  3. James Joyner says:

    Dean,

    I think the fact that it is embarrasing that we haven’t found large caches of WMD is undeniable. Administration officials are backpeddling and otherwise acting embarrased. And, of course this is a post hoc assessment: how else are we going to judge whether the case was made? I criticize a post hoc casus beli–that’s different, since one presumably should base one’s assessment of the outcome on the criteria set forth a priori.

    I disagree that “That the administration only needed to demonstrate the strong possibility that the weapons were there, and that the regime was hiding them and refusing to cooperate.” That’s a phemonenally low bar for war. And even most of us who supported the war aren’t very impressed by ” Al Samoud II missiles, the chemical shells, the mustard gas dumped into the Tigris, the mobile weapons labs, and the scientists who’ve come forward to admit they were working on these programs.” Lots of states have chemical and biological weapons. The case for going to war against Saddam’s WMD wasn’t that maybe he used to might have kind of had some small quantity but rather that he possessed them in such quantity to constitute a threat. It may well be that we’ll prove that he did and either 1) destroyed them to make us look bad or 2) hid them so well that we haven’t found them yet. That doesn’t make the awkward period we’re going through now less awkward.

    I’ve also pointed out in other posts that the Saddam-terrorist ties are much stronger than most of the war critics believed. I merely wish our case had been built on that, a far greater rationale.

  4. Dean Esmay says:

    By the way, please don’t miss these devastating quotes rounded up by Bill Hobbs.

    The word “hoax” is mighty strong, and you’d better be prepared to explain why this “hoax” has been regularly perpetrated for over a decade, by Democratic and Republican administrations, by Hans Blix, and everyone else involved in it.

  5. Dean Esmay says:

    By the way, no, that’s not a phenomenally low bar for war.

    An enemy surrendered and accepted disarmament as one of his surrender conditions.

    The enemy failed to live up to those surrender conditions–which absolutely no one disputes.

    It is therefore a phenomenally HIGH bar to suggest that we must prove beyond a shadow of a doubt not only that he’s not complying with his surrender conditions–which to this day no one disputes–but that the failure to comply involved massive quantities rather than merely dangerous quantities.

    I also re-iterate: the WMD case was made primarily for the UN. I am not the UN and neither are you, and both the administration and many others made cases for action beyond the WMD issue.

    It’s a rather astounding bit of historical rewriting, to me, to suggest otherwise.

  6. James Joyner says:

    Dean,

    Intel Hoax was the title of Safire’s article, an intimation he rejects and with which I disagree.

    I blame the Administration for over-hyping WMD in order to appease the UN–a venture that proved futile, anyway–rather than making the case for war on the more powerful issues. I don’t claim that they made it all up, just that they overemphasized WMD and went out on a limb.

  7. James Joyner says:

    The enemy failed to live up to those surrender conditions–which absolutely no one disputes.
    This is also true. But it’s not worth tens of billions of dollars, the death of 100+ American soldiers, and a number of Iraqi civilians to undertake war to enforce a piece of paper. You don’t do that unless the violation constitutes an actual threat to your security.

    I also re-iterate: the WMD case was made primarily for the UN. I am not the UN and neither are you, and both the administration and many others made cases for action beyond the WMD issue. I don’t dispute this. However, by making WMD the crux of the UN case, Bush elevated this as Issue Number One in the eyes of the world. And, given the extent to which the public pays attention to these things, to the American people as well.