Stretching the Evidence

Michael E. O’Hanlon

American David Kay, head of the Iraq Survey Group in Baghdad, has reported that despite the US$300 million in expenditure and the efforts of many hundreds of individuals working for him, no weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq. The good news is that this fact makes it less likely that al-Qaeda has managed to sneak into the country and obtain some chemical or biological material. But the bad news is that a war that was already so controversial in much of the world seems to have lost its main rationale.

There are, however, several points to make. First, while it is increasingly clear that there was no imminent threat from Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein did not do what was demanded of him by the unanimous UN Security Council vote on Resolution 1441 in November. His subsequent December declaration made no effort to explain where all the materials of potential use in chemical or biological programmes—and with precious little plausible use for anything else—had gone. We know he imported such materials, primarily in the 1980s, so he did fail to comply, even in the event that he had no weapons at that point.

Second, Mr Kay and his team have uncovered several prohibited activities and materials inside Iraq. They range from vials of biological pathogens and active plans for importing banned missiles, to undeclared, unmanned aerial vehicles or drones that Mr Hussein was under clear international orders to account for.

Third, Mr Hussein still had an interest in a nuclear weapons programme. And if he or his sons someday obtained the ultimate weapon, they might have felt emboldened to again invade Kuwait or another neighbour.

All that said, we should call a spade a spade—Mr Kay’s report hurts the Bush administration and the United States. The demonstrable lack of an imminent threat means that, at a minimum, President George W. Bush did not have to be in such a hurry to wage war almost unilaterally. The opinion of the international community deserved to be heard—and it was not. As a result, international law has suffered, the legitimacy of the war has been degraded, and the postwar effort is requiring far more troops and money from the US than it might have otherwise. Most of all, the image of the US as a fair-minded country that leads in security policy without ignoring the wishes of its friends, allies and neutral countries has suffered greatly.

In fairness, everyone thought Mr Hussein had chemical and biological arms. The Clinton administration did; most independent analysts like myself did; the UN did; France and other foreign nations sceptical of the need for war also did. It now looks like we were all wrong.

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But the Bush administration made three main mistakes, at least some of them deliberate, which went beyond these commonly shared errors. First, it suggested a more imminent chemical and biological threat than the evidence warranted. Second, it exaggerated the state of Iraq’s nuclear programme. It took questionable evidence about Iraq pursuing—and probably failing to obtain—materials that would be needed even to begin to set up a nuclear programme.

And third, it continued to exaggerate evidence about possible links between Mr Hussein and al-Qaeda—even insinuating that Mr Hussein may have had a hand in September 11. If that was the case, even small stockpiles of chemical or biological arms in Iraqi hands would take on far greater and more immediate strategic significance.

On these three points, the Bush administration was wrong and misleading—if not necessarily deceitful. The evidence to contradict its arguments was available in unclassified form, and a number of us who tried to refute the worst of the misleading allegations made use of it. By contrast, there was what increasingly appears to have been a broad analytical failure in the US and abroad about the state of Mr Hussein’s chemical and biological weapons programmes.

Why, then, did Mr Hussein not bother to correct us? Why did he not come clean, owning up to where he had destroyed such arms so that soil samples, documents and testimony from his scientists could verify the claims?

Several theories have been advanced about this, most recently by former chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix who posits that perhaps Mr Hussein wanted the deterrence associated with the world’s fear of his weapons of mass destruction. That may be right. I tend to think, however, that he had spent so long defying the international community that his own pique clouded his judgment, and he simply made a strategic miscalculation. Wishing to continue to defy the US, he assumed that the opposition to war of France, Germany, Russia and others would save his hide.

But this is all speculation. What is not speculation are the two central points. One, Mr Bush’s critics should remember that most of them shared in the assessment about Mr Hussein’s chemical and biological arms, meaning we were all wrong. A combination of his history in using such arms, his history of hiding such arms, various reports from defectors and his inventories of materials which could be used only to make such arms all seemed to point in the same direction. Yet in retrospect, that may have been the wrong direction to take analytically. So on this point, Mr Bush deserves a break.

The Bush team does not deserve a break for its consistent and almost certainly intentional efforts to stretch other evidence. The hyping of Iraq’s progress towards nuclear arms and its possible ties to al-Qaeda contributed to the sense of urgency Mr Bush used to justify a war and postwar operation that, had they been delayed only another month, could probably have been waged with far more international legitimacy and assistance.