It has long since become U.S., Western, and international myth, or “urban legend”, that the George W. Bush Administration–Bush 43 for short–lied about the existence of weapons-of-mass destruction stocks and programs in Iraq in order to justify going to war against the Ba’athi regime of Saddam Hussein.
It’s not so, but the myth is engrained in the catechism of the American Left: to voice doubt about it is a form of secular heresy. It is also casually assumed everywhere in Europe, the Middle East and beyond wherever garden-variety anti-Americanism holds sway. No amount of actual evidence to the contrary matters, proving once again that partisanship makes you stupid and ideology makes you crazy. When reality and ideology clash, so much the worse for reality most of the time.
In these post-modern American times on the Right now as well as the Left, where subjective feeling trumps (pardon the expression) actual evidence, what actually happened with regard to the Iraqi WMD portfolio, and can be proved empirically, becomes a mere “version” of truth no more valid inherently than any other. It therefore doesn’t matter that not a single senior official in the U.S. or British government at the time, no matter their views then and since on the war itself, agrees to this urban legend. They were there; they lived it; they know it’s false. Alas, the “Big Lie” about the November 2020 election is not the only variety out there. It had many, many precursors.
The Post-Modern Moment
Things have gotten go weird in America’s post-modern moment that the plain meaning of the word “lie” is no longer plain. For any practical purpose, a “lie” is now whatever a partisan speaker says it is and can manage to persuade credulous others to believe, or at least claim they believe. The distinctions among a lie, a falsehood not deliberately intended but based on inadvertent error, and an untruth of ambiguous character have all collapsed upon one another.
Motives vary both for telling untruths and for believing them. Some just want to be part of a group, and so will believe anything to join or remain within the group. Believing the improbable in group settings actually helps a group cohere, as anyone who has ever really thought about the social psychology of cults understands. The current QAnon phenomenon owes much to that motive.
Some are demagogues by nature, believing that transactional uses of language protect “higher” truths even as they trash real ones. Such people are also called scoundrels.
Some believe all governments and politicians lie as a matter of course, so of course Bush lied about Iraqi WMD. George Orwell said it best, albeit with a heavy pinch of British hyperbole: “Political language–and with variations this is true of all political parties from Conservatives to Anarchists–is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”.
It is true that political language knows many ways to tell a truth or to avoid telling one, and sometimes nuance and evasion are justified, or at least understandable, even in the context of democratic politics. It is also true that Americans have always tended to distrust state authority, the more central/Federal the more they have distrusted it. As skepticism morphs into cynicism, however, the bias against assuming truthfulness in government has become near absolute for the less well educated, affecting everything lately from trust in the media to the Electoral College.
But the bias that the U.S. Government, at least, lies as a matter of course to its own citizens as well as to foreign authorities is just that: a bias reinforced by mass-entertainment memes, not an accurate statement of fact. It is not a lie, because people who claim it typically really believe it, just as little American Christian children really believe in Santa Clause. But, the excruciating parenthesis of the Trump interregnum excepted, it’s still mostly wrong.
Understanding the Context
So what, then, did happen? As noted in Part III, “it does not follow logically. . . that the existence of a few outlandish claims, and one or two over-the-top speeches by Vice-President Cheney, proved that Administration principals were lying all along as though members of some nefarious cabal about the WMD-related intelligence.” What happened summed to a combination of error and some rhetorical exaggeration, not willful lying.
There were some outlandish claims made between September 11, 2001 and the onset of the Iraq War in March 2003, like the one about Iraqi attempts to purchase yellowcake “raw” uranium from Niger. And there were the claims, also described in Part III, advanced by Laurie Mylroie and her followers, that Iraqi intelligence had been responsible for all manner of terrorist atrocities in earlier years, from the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Centre to the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building, and so must have been behind 911, too.
But all of this, during 2002 and early 2003, was or became part of a campaign mounted inside the Administration to persuade President Bush to go to war, and to do so before the 2004 election campaign season geared up. As the pro-war party saw it, this was never to be taken for granted, since other voices in the Administration–not least Secretary of State Powell’s–expressed skepticism over the wisdom, or at least the premature timing, of such a policy whilst the war in Afghanistan had yet to be won politically. Before the summer of 2002 Bush seemed indecisive, pulled toward the view of his most recent interlocutor.
Outsiders, as well as insiders often enough, tend to exaggerate the monolithic quality of any adversary. They are keenly aware of internal divisions within their own camp, but usually discount evidence of divisions in an enemy’s camp. So to leftwing Bush haters an explanation of the few but telegenic outlandish claims of that time never turns on what was actually a campaign to win the President’s mind: Those claims had instead to stem from a well-organized conspiracy to lie.
Many also demonstrate the law holding that while knowledge distinguishes, ignorance conflates. So if some arguments about WMD in Iraq were outlandishly false, it means that all arguments about WMD in Iraq were false. One Israeli writer who thinks more of his analytical capacities than he should recently claimed to me in private correspondence, long after the fact as if to boast, that as soon as he heard about the Niger yellowcake business, he knew the whole WMD argument was a fraud. What he meant as a boast is actually an embarrassment, but he is too oblivious to real rules of evidence to see it that way.
This sort of reasoning is illogical if still far too common, but it is what it is. If true it would mean that the shenanigans of certain people in Vice-President Cheney’s entourage were equivalent to the honest professional efforts over many years after 1991 of people like Swedish diplomats and UNSCOM heads Rolf Ekéus and Hans Blix, and of their post-911 successor David Kay. This is absurd, of course, it being particularly poignant in that it was Blix and Kay, and then Kay’s sauccessor Charles Duelfer, who reported the absence of WMD stockpiles when the evidence of prior error became clear.
Moreover, if you hate others the law of conflation mandates that you must demean their motives as well. So if Bush 43 principals all knowingly lied about WMD in Iraq as a pretext to go to war, then what were their supposedly real reasons for going to war? The fanciful answers here break down into two main categories.
In one, believed by many Americans who should know better, the purpose was simple: militarily dominate the Middle East, as any true imperial power would do had it the means. The problem with this argument is that none of the documents pertaining to U.S. policy at the time testify to it. The fact that, to repeat from Part III, no agency of the U.S. government, military or civilian, budgeted for the conquest and occupation of Iraq should give pause to anyone making this claim.
But of course it doesn’t because they don’t know this fact and don’t want to know it. That would involve research and knowledge into how the government actually works, something to be avoided if the comforting simplicities of ideological thinking are not to be disturbed by the messiness of reality. If, against the considered evidence, a person mistakes U.S. postwar grand strategy for a classical territorial/imperial strategy, that is a person who cannot be helped any more than someone who insists that lies and errors are ethically equivalent behaviours can be helped.
The second “real” motive for the Iraq War is even more embarrassing to anyone conversant with reality. It is encapsulated in the Marxoid protest slogan “No blood for oil”. So the Iraq War was all about the oil, was it?
Anyone who makes this claim has no idea now the international oil industry and market work. The price of oil is fixed internationally and denominated in U.S. dollars amid a vertically integrated industry in which exploration, mining, extracting, refining, transporting and marketed are all linked. The idea that any one country, even the United States, could just “take” a country’s oil for itself is bizarre. What could that even mean? That the U.S. Government would lease tankers to extract and load all the oil on them and sail it back to the United States to store in newly constructed massive oil tanks? If the U.S. Government did such a thing, which in Iraq’s case would take years considering the extent of Iraq’s proven reserves, it would constitute the most expensive oil ever offered to American consumers.
Note that at one point President Trump mumbled about “taking” Syria’s oil. The fact that Trump would say such a thing, along with his comment that America’s senior military officers like war because they are collusive with U.S. arms manufacturing corporations, just illustrates his ecumenical approach to amassing pure nonsense from the repository of urban legends–in the latter case going back to the post-World War I Nye Commission Report. It also illustrates Trump’s transactional approach to everything, including the Iraq War, which he was against before he was for it before he was against it again.
Anatomy of an Intelligence Screw-up
So what did happen? What was the origin of the WMD intelligence error? What does nearly everyone who worked in the U.S. and many allied governments at the time understand about what actually took place?
What happened is no secret. It has been laid out in public sources for years, perhaps best by someone who wrote a book before March 2003, entitled The Threatening Storm, advocating war with Iraq: Clinton Administration intelligence analyst Kenneth Pollack. In an Atlantic essay entitled “Spies, Lies, and Weapons: What Went Wrong?” from the January/February 2004 issue, Pollack laid out the sources of error. Read it for yourself, but a summary consists of three points.
First, understand that when U.S. inspectors got into Iraqi private parts after the 1991 Gulf War, intelligence officials were surprised by how much surreptitious progress Iraq had made on the nuclear side. This surprise dovetailed with the CIA’s past failures to predict Soviet technical advances and to predict, for example, the Indian “peaceful nuclear explosion” (PNE) surprise of 1974. The record had been one of consistent underestimation, and so since intelligence agencies dislike being caught making the wrong call the same way twice or three or four times, the CIA instead made a wrong call in the opposite direction. This is human bureaucratic nature.
Second, however, the CIA and kindred intelligence organizations were induced to do so by the behaviour of the Iraqi elite. Saddam Hussein wanted the benefits of being seen to possess WMD capabilities because it helped deter regional competitors, particularly Iran, against whom chemical weapons had been used during the Iran-Iraq War, and because it cowed his own population and any potential domestic opposition to his regime. Remember the post-Gulf War Anfal campaign against Iraq’s rebellious Kurdish population, notably what happened in Halabja. That is why biological and chemical warfare stocks, more than nuclear, most interested U.S. inspectors because the assumption was that these were the tools Saddam wished to keep in part to intimidate his own people.
It was all an elaborate bluff, and the irony is that the bluff, because we believed it, is what in the end doomed Saddam to being discovered in his hole in the ground and delivered to the end of a rope. Saddam, in turn, thought we were bluffing; alas for him, we weren’t.
It eventually became clear that Iraq’s WMD programs had long existed and still existed during the period when UN Security Council sanctions and inspections posed a threat to the Iraqi regime, but the stockpiles had been either dumped or transferred to Syria with Russian help to eliminate the chances of UNSCOM inspectors finding them and so prolonging the sanctions regime. All along, the Soviets and later the Russians served as Saddam’s lawyer, frustrating on-demand inspections and warning Iraqi authorities when inspections were about to be launched. The whole cat-and-mouse game conducted over many years helped convince most rational people that Saddam had something to hide; why else would he go to such lengths to frustrate the inspectors?
Certainly too, the programs still existed even after the stockpiles did not. “Dr. Germ”–Professor Rihab Taha–was real; the programs were simply put in escrow against the day when sanctions would be removed. These programs were meticulously documented in a September 2004 report written by David Kay’s successor, U.S. intelligence official Charles Duelfer. Unfortunately, Duelfer buried his lede in a long, eight-section report. Thus the Arms Control Association headline, over a report by written by Paul Kerr, “Duelfer Disproves U.S. WMD Claims.” Actually, the report disproved the existence of WMD stockpiles and active programs but equally persuasively proved the existence of the WMD programs in escrow.
Third, remember that the Clinton Administration’s December 1998 Operation Desert Fox–which entailed many days of bombing ostensibly to get the inspectors better access to Iraqi facilities, as ordered by the UN Security Council–ended with the inspectors ousted and unable to return to their jobs. In the aftermath of Desert Fox U.S. intelligence was blinded to what was actually happening, or not happening, inside Iraq. The overall result was to encourage guessing on the side of maximum danger, given the record of prior errors in the opposite direction.
The February 2003 Security Council Speech
So let us get down to the nub: When Secretary Powell, who passed away on October 18, famously addressed the UN Security Council on February 5, 2003, did he knowingly lie? The urban legend claims entirely without evidence that yes, he did; the truth is that no, he did not.
Again, it is no mystery how that speech got written, although a few tidbit details can be added now to the existing narrative. There was, as already described, a battle going on within the higher echelons of the Administration for the President’s mind. Powell knew of the efforts of Vice-President Cheney’s office to use him as Administration spokesman, since he, unlike most of the others, had credibility to spare; Cheney even said as much publicly. Powell agreed to do it as part of his earlier understanding with the President that he would not resign if Bush let him try to internationalise the war coalition as far as possible. The alternative was for Powell to resign, leaving open the likelihood that his successor would apply no brakes at all to what he saw as an imprudent policy.
Powell lived just a few blocks from CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, so it was no imposition for him to spend long hours at the Agency interrogating various drafts of the speech text urged on him mainly by Vice-President Cheney’s staff. At the same time, he also had access to the State Department’s own, more cautious, assessments from INR (Intelligence and Research).
Meanwhile, the speechwriter, Lynne Davidson, had spent earlier years writing for CIA Director George Tenet. She knew the place well, and had access to useful personnel wherewith to help judge the factual elements to be contained in the speech. With Davidson’s assistance, Powell threw out anything from the draft prepared by Cheney’s office that the professionals at the CIA and INR could not or would not vouch for–and that was most of it. After three days and nights of painstakingly constructing the speech, Powell was reasonably confident that no unfounded claims would mar the presentation.
As his speechwriter for the better part of two years after this event, I can testify from personal experience that, unlike some of his predecessors and successors, Powell scoured every sentence in a proposed speech text. He would not just read anything his staff handed him. Ms. Davidson confirmed to me that in February 2003 he cross-examined every sentence.
During those three days Powell and Davidson worked to discard all the hyperbole and every baseless claims they could find, but two or three such claims nevertheless adhered to the speech–one about the meaning of an intercepted message between Iraqi officers, and one about a mobile bio lab. But these were residual errors, not lies.
That is what actually happened, and all the relevant documents–some public, some not so yet–testify to it. There is not a single scintilla of actual evidence that any deliberate untruths made their way into Powell’s speech.
The Nature of Political Language
It doesn’t matter. As already suggested, no one can extract the “WMD lie” from the urban legend repository anymore than one can extract a headless nail driven deep into a plank of hardwood.
Just to show how deeply emotions and egos are bound up in this issue, I know someone who disparaged Secretary Powell in the run-up to the war for daring to doubt its urgent necessity. “Reluctant warrior” was mild language compared to how this person, an old friend, spoke then of Powell’s skeptical reluctance. Now fast forward a few years: This same person, who occupied a high State Department position during Condoleezza’s Rice’s tenure as Secretary after I left her service in May 2005, became a contrite expositor of the view that the Iraq War had been a counterproductive disaster. He then criticized Powell for not doing more to stop a war that he at the time vigorously advocated. It is hard to argue against such “logic”.
Powell knew that political life isn’t strictly fair. He knew that people who think that life should be kind to them just because they are good people has as much a right to expect kindness as to expect that a bull will not charge someone just because he or she is a vegetarian. So while he remained regretful about what happened until the day he died, he was not in the habit of beating himself up over it.
Petulant irrationality is, alas, second nature to political disputation. Reason occasionally makes an appearance, but there are times, like the times we are living through now, when reason seems to have taken a Viennese lunch break. Why is this? Orwell said it best, in a 1946 essay entitled “In Front of Your Nose”:
To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle. . . . In private life most people are fairly realistic. When one is making out one’s weekly budget, two and two invariably make four. Politics, on the other hand, is a sort of sub-atomic or non-Euclidean world where it is quite easy for the parts to be greater than the whole or for two subjects to be in the same place simultaneously. Hence the contradictions and absurdities . . . ., all finally traceable to a secret belief that one’s political opinions, unlike the weekly budget, will not have to be tested against solid reality.
That’s just it exactly: Few ideologically besotted critics will ever have their political and policy-relevant beliefs tested against reality. A critic can posture and virtue-signal all he likes and never pay any price for being a sanctimonious ignoramus. The late sci-fi author Jerome Dick wrote: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away”. True enough: The reality of 2003 is still there, but it can be readily ignored when company assembles for the purpose. And the further back in time that reality abides, the easier it is to for some people to avoid it.
Mending the Historical Record of the Iraq War:
Part I: “Donald Rumsfeld (July 9, 1923-June 29, 2021)”, published July 8, 2021
Part II: “War Rationales”, published July 21, 2021
Part III: “Jumping the Track”, published September 21, 2021
Part IV: “Intelligence Failures, Not Lies”, published [??]
Part V: “Abu Ghraib”, to come