Francis Fukuyama believes that focusing on the “Bush lied” explanation for the fact we haven’t yet found WMD in Iraq is throwing us off the scent of the real problem.

Why then did Unscom and the U.S. intelligence community believe so firmly that the weapons programs continued big time long after 1991? It was because there was plenty of evidence indicating that the Iraqis were lying, in the form of documents, communications intercepts, defector reports, and other types of suspicious behavior. But this evidence may have been the product of a deeper deceit, and its importance overestimated by everybody.
We know for sure that the Iraqis had very ambitious chemical, biological, and nuclear programs in the ’80s. They used chemical weapons against the Kurds and Iranians, and evidently had more potent stocks of VX and sarin ready for use. The U.S. was surprised with the extent of these programs, including their progress on nuclear weapons, when they were revealed by Unscom after the first Gulf War. Unscom, backed by the implicit threat of U.S. power, was able to destroy many of these weapons and evidently motivated the Iraqis to get rid of others it didn’t find. After that point, with Iraq under U.N. sanctions, Saddam Hussein likely ordered that the programs be reconstituted, and some desultory efforts were made along these lines. But the extent of this reconstitution was vastly exaggerated by the Iraqis themselves.

Economists have a simple maxim to explain human behavior: People respond to incentives. And if one looks at the incentives facing both the Iraqi scientists, Unscom, and U.S. intelligence, one sees the likely roots of the problem. Iraq was a totalitarian system in which everyone was forced to cater to Saddam’s whims. We know that his son Uday, as head of the Iraqi Olympic committee, tortured losing athletes. We also know that during this war, Saddam was being fed false information about the success of his forces by commanders fearful of telling the truth. Iraqi scientists had every incentive to exaggerate the extent of their activities in internal communications with the regime. This appears to have been the case with the hapless Iraqi charged with developing the toxin ricin. He told his U.S. interrogators that he was never able to produce quantities of sufficient purity and toxicity for weapons use, but nonetheless reported to Baghdad that he was managing a large, successful program. It is also possible that Saddam understood that his own people were lying or exaggerating Iraq’s capabilities, but wanted word to quietly slip out as a deterrent to the U.S.–even as Iraq officially denied their existence.

Unscom and U.S. intelligence faced skewed incentives of their own when interpreting these communications. Both investment bankers and intelligence analysts earn a living by making predictions about the future. The bankers face relatively balanced incentives: If they are overly optimistic, they may lose a lot of money. But if they are overly pessimistic, they will also lose by failing to get in on the next big thing. The intelligence community, by contrast, faces incentives strongly biased toward pessimism in periods following a failure to predict serious threats. The worst thing that can befall someone charged with responsibility for national security is to be the next Husband Kimmel, who was in command of U.S. Pacific Forces on Dec. 7, 1941. Before Pearl Harbor Kimmel had access to some intelligence data, in the form of Japanese “winds” codes, that in retrospect might have provided warning of the attack. He was subsequently cashiered and went down in history as the man who was asleep at the switch at this critical historical juncture. (Kimmel was eventually exonerated by the Navy, more than 50 years after the event.)

Both Unscom and U.S. intelligence were unpleasantly surprised by the extent of the Iraqi WMD programs uncovered in 1991. Thereafter, both had strong incentives not to be made fools of again. Unscom developed estimates of the extent of covert Iraqi research and stockpiles not accounted for, but whose existence could not be verified. The Clinton administration used the Unscom tallies as a baseline, and supplemented them with worst-case estimates based on intelligence it gathered. The Bush administration simply continued this process. Overestimation was passed down the line until it was taken as gospel by everyone (myself included) and used to justify the U.S. decision to go to war.

To paraphrase Don Rumsfeld, though, problems without a solution aren’t problems but rather facts. The incentive for those in the business of safeguarding national security–whether the intelligence community or the armed forces–to presume the worst case is such a fact. As I’ve noted many times in the past, the consequences of a Type II error are much worse than those of a Type I error. That’s the nature of the security dilemma and forever shall be.

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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.