January 14, 2005

VARIOUS LEFTY EMAILERS, mostly in rather nasty tones, have asked me to write about the shutdown of the Iraq Survey Group's search for WMD stockpiles. It didn't seem like big news to me, since I was actually under the impression that they had already given up. Still, I won't invoke Tim Worstall's remarks, because I suppose the issue still has some importance even if I have addressed it before.

But I think that the whole "the war was all about weapons of mass destruction" meme is a bit dishonest. First, it's worth remembering (here's a list of resolutions on Iraq) that the burden was on Saddam to prove that he didn't have the weapons, and nobody thought he'd done that. Second, and more important from my standpoint, was that the war was about remaking the Middle East, helping to establish a democracy in a vital spot, neutralizing a longtime, and still-dangerous foe with ties to terrorists, and putting the U.S. in a position to threaten Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, not simply about getting rid of WMD stockpiles. (This was no secret. Even John Kerry said that he would have gone to war even knowing that there were no WMD stockpiles.)

The biggest criticism of the Bush Administration here is that (1) it made the mistake of listening to George "slam dunk" Tenet and the CIA on this issue; and -- bigger mistake -- (2) it made the mistake of trying to go through the United Nations, which required it to make more of the WMD business than was otherwise necessary. The former mistake is more forgivable, since it wasn't just the CIA, but pretty much everyone, who thought Saddam had the stockpiles. The second mistake is less so, since it was pretty obvious that the U.N. route was a mistake. The result: Saddam was in violation, but after all the U.N. speechifying the absence of big weapons stockpiles is a major PR failure.

The Bush Administration does seem determined to fix the CIA, which is clearly called for. Whether it has learned its lesson regarding the U.N. is less clear.

That so many of Bush's critics want to focus on the WMD issue, instead of on making Iraq work for Iraqis, and on freeing the rest of the mideast, is, sadly, typical. But the Bush Administration's excessive solicitude toward the U.N. (which is still manifest in its soft-pedaling of the oil-for-food scandals) was a dreadful mistake, for which both the Bush Administration and, ironically, the U.N. are both paying a price.

UPDATE: Reader Michael Grant emails:

I suppose this could be included under your claim (with which I agree) that it was a mistake to go to the U.N., or perhaps the mistake in listening to George "Slam Dunk" Tenet.

But perhaps the most interesting thing I read in Bill Sammon's book Misunderestimated was that we were originally intending to give three different presentations to the U.N. supporting our intention to go to war: WMD, human rights violations, and ties to terrorism. But for some reason the Bush administration decided somewhat late in the game to focus only on WMDs, and in hindsight that left us with nothing but Colin Powell's discredited presentation.

I'm not sure why that decision was made, but in hindsight, it would have been good to emphasize more these other two aspects of our warmaking decisions to the U.N, and to the public at large. I know the administration always said it was about more than WMDs, but apparently they decided that the WMD argument was their most compelling one and gave it the vast majority of airtime.

Yes, that was a mistake. I imagine that diplomats thought that human-rights arguments wouldn't have much sway at the U.N., which is probably true, but as subsequent events have demonstrated, the U.N. wasn't the real audience anyway.

ANOTHER UPDATE: More thoughts here:

The persons who are all jumping up and down in glee because no WMD were found in Iraq (thereby, in their opinions, vindicating their position) conveniently omit one inconvenient bit of information. Those same people argued that Iraq should not be invaded and Saddam should not be removed even if Iraq possessed WMD. Thus, the full argument is that the U.S should not have invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam regardless of whether it had WMD.

Want to test this? Ask any anti-war type or Bush-hater whether he or she would support the war or Bush if WMD were found in Iraq tomorrow.

Indeed, one of the arguments we heard against invading was that it would provoke Saddam into unleashing chemical and biological weapons.

MORE: Reader Terrye Hugentober emails:

Was it the UN weapons inspectors or the US military that ascertained no weapons were in Iraq? It seems to me that many of the Bush administration's detractors are not only ignoring the fact that most people believed the weapons were there but that most people would still believe it if we had not invaded.

We discovered the true state of our intelligence failures because of this. And it seems obvious as well that if the weapons are not there now then they might not have been there in 1998 when Clinton launched Operation Desert Fox and bombed Iraq.

So, does that make him a war criminal? I do not pretend to know where the weapon stock piles ended up. They could be destroyed or buried in Syria for all I know, but I do know that if Clinton had answered these questions and dealt with these issues effectively a decade ago we would not be having this discussion now.

After all if Bush were really as dishonest as some of the Bush haters say he is he could have planted the damn things, now couldn't he?

And if he'd found the real thing, a lot of his critics would have said they were plants. Meanwhile, Merv Benson emails:

The debate on this issue should have been framed on the issue of Saddam's failure to account for all his WMD, much of which he had earlier declared. If the war was about the US unwillingness to take a chance on his failure to account for weapons that would be incredibly dangerous in the hands of terrorist, then the US inablility to account for those same weapons after the war would only suggest that the dangerous weapons are still unaccounted for. The US would be in the same position as an auditor brought in to find missing money in a bank account. If it is still missing it does not mean that it was a mistake to audit the account.

Interesting analogy.

STILL MORE: Reader Joe Berkel looks on the bright side:

Someone likely has made this observation before, but it flows from Mr. Benson's comment.

One rarely gets a chance to field test a major intelligence issue; Iraq gave us the opportunity to do so on WMD. Like the past (missile gaps, Soviet economic strength, and others), the CIA and other intelligence agencies have come up woefully short. One hopes the Administration is truly serious about overhauling the intelligence community (afterwards, they can do the same with domestic law enforcement, starting with the FBI - just as dysfunctional).

Good point. And Barry Dauphin emails:

Another reason the UN route may have been a mistake is that the whole process gave Saddam and the Baathists more time to stash weapons, money and to plan for the counteroffensive that has been taking place. The UN process itself helped create the current conditions. And leaving Saddam in place after his clear abuses, bribes and lack of following resolutions would have itself weakened the UN as well as the WoT. The UN resolutions would still be sitting there in a further state of violation or they would have been lifted. In the event of the latter, Saddam would have bio and/or chemical WMD even as we speak. We wouldn't be arguing about the democratization of Iraq, we'd be wondering how the hell we can protect ourselves from biological attack. That much is
clear from the Duelfer report.

The most telling criticism of the Bush Administration on Iraq, I think, is the one that Bill Quick is always making -- that the "rush to war" was in fact too slow, robbing us of surprise and momentum.

YET MORE: James Hudnall calls this a "decent post," but says I'm leaving out some important stuff.