a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

False premises

Posted by Thomas Nephew on October 28th, 2004

In the immediate aftermath of the war in Iraq last year, a poll by the University of Maryland’s Program in International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) showed that Americans overwhelmingly advanced two reasons they believed the war had been waged: Iraqi WMDs and Iraq’s possible links with Al Qaeda.*

It’s worth repeating before the election: both of these reasons were dead wrong. First, WMD — my own primary reason. From the Key Findings of the Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on Iraq’s WMD (the Duelfer report):

Iraq Survey Group (ISG) discovered further evidence of the maturity and significance of the pre-1991 Iraqi Nuclear Program but found that Iraq’s ability to reconstitute a nuclear weapons program progressively decayed after that date.

• Saddam Husayn ended the nuclear program in 1991 following the Gulf war. ISG found no evidence to suggest concerted efforts to restart the program.

• Although Saddam clearly assigned a high value to the nuclear progress and talent that had been developed up to the 1991 war, the program ended and the intellectual capital decayed in the succeeding years. [...]

While a small number of old, abandoned chemical munitions have been discovered, ISG judges that Iraq unilaterally destroyed its undeclared chemical weapons stockpile in 1991. There are no credible indications that Baghdad resumed production of chemical munitions thereafter, a policy ISG attributes to Baghdad’s desire to see sanctions lifted, or rendered ineffectual, or its fear of force against it should WMD be discovered.

In practical terms, with the destruction of the Al Hakam facility, Iraq abandoned its ambition to obtain advanced BW weapons quickly. ISG found no direct evidence that Iraq, after 1996, had plans for a new BW program or was conducting BW-specific work for military purposes. Indeed, from the mid-1990s, despite evidence of continuing interest in nuclear and chemical weapons, there appears to be a complete absence of discussion or even interest in BW at the Presidential level.

(first emphasis in original)

Thus, neither WMD (including chemical or biological ones, which I considered sufficient) nor WMD programs (a fallback I insisted on) were present to any significant degree. The Duelfer report found plenty of intent to reconstitute WMD programs, but little-to-no ability to do so. True, containment was being undermined, but apparently not in ways serious enough to give Saddam what he wanted.

On to the purported Iraq/Al Qaeda links. If the 9/11 Commission’s conclusion — “no credible evidence” — seemed too partisan and biased for you, no less an authority than Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld has permanently discredited the idea. According to a Defense Department press release,

Rumsfeld said he has not seen any strong evidence that direct ties existed, he stressed that he does not work in the intelligence field and that then-CIA Director George Tenet had presented solid evidence of ties between Iraq and al Qaeda.**

As Rumsfeld observes, Iraqi officials were clearly not “Little Sisters of the Poor.” But mere contacts do not rise to the level of a casus belli when we should have been keeping our powder dry for stopping more serious threats — like North Korea, A.Q. Khan, or — remember them? — Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

It wasn’t just Bush
I was no better at reading the tea leaves. I was swayed from a conservative to a liberal evaluation of the available evidence — not in the partisan meanings of those words, but in their fundamental meanings: how to evaluate risk.

Sure, I wasn’t alone in my belief that there were WMD and/or WMD programs in Iraq. I thought the German BND intelligence agency, for example, was a reliable second opinion about Iraqi nuclear weapons development. But the BND, too, was probably just another victim of Chalabi “curveballs.” And there was never any clinching, definitive evidence — after all, how could there be? Others noticed; see most notably “RonK”‘s summary “Operation Desert Snipe.”

I let my fears influence me towards a “better safe than sorry” view of Iraqi WMD. I still feel a recurring, low-level variety of those fears here in D.C. — I think you’re either crazy or lying if you claim you don’t think about the next 9/11-squared around here. (It was noticeable to me how it went away while I was in Germany, and returned by about the time I was wending my way through customs at Dulles Airport.)

But I did myself no favor on that score by supporting getting into the war as much as I did. Given the smug dunces in charge who apparently aren’t even aware there’s a problem, with huge weapons caches missing, with terror groups gaining recruits and experience, with the U.S. military tied down in a war that could have waited, and with even more serious threats gathering elsewhere, I’m worse off than I was before.

* 60% said WMD were the main justification for the war, and 19% said Al Qaeda links were; the two reasons also combined for 66% of respondents’ next most important choices. The poll was taken May 14-18 among 1265 respondents, the margin of error was +/- 3% for questions posed to the entire sample.
** Rumsfeld subsequently tried to backpedal, saying that “linkages” were observed, but the notion that these were operational allies instead of “let’s do lunch sometime” contacts was clearly never one that Rumsfeld or his administration colleagues shared.

5 Responses to “False premises”

  1. » Blog Archive » On "Apologists among us" Says:

    [...] less and less “dodgy” in the wake of the Iraq war: a war waged in large part on false premises going in, a war waged in large part on morally problematic premises (“flypaper”) now, [...]

  2. » Blog Archive » Worth reading Says:

    [...] a reckoning with my own last-minute support (With regrets — for war on Saddam, 2/13/03) , see False premises , A screwed up war (both 10/28/04) and a post about the 9/24/05 demonstration in Washington, D.C.. [...]

  3. » Blog Archive » Thoughts on "Bush’s War"; on the road Says:

    [...] of us (like me) who let ourselves be swayed into ever supporting it. I feel like I’ve said my mea culpas — and probably ought to extend them sometime. But so what, it’s still “mea [...]

  4. » Blog Archive » Five years Says:

    [...] 2004:A screwed up war; False premises — pre-election reckonings with Bush and [...]

  5. » Blog Archive » With regrets, indeed: confessions of a one-time Iraq war supporter Says:

    [...] …yet again… and what I know now.  I’ve done so a few times before — here, here, and here to name a few. But the occasion, and honesty, and sorrow at the debacle I too was a part [...]

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