Chilcot Report Puts Too Much Focus on WMD

I spent two hours this morning reading the Executive Summary of The Iraq Inquiry (Chilcot Report) that was just released in the United Kingdom. There are countless documents and individual sections yet to read, but I’ve already formed some initial impressions. One is that the enormous dance that Tony Blair’s government did to try to steer the Bush administration toward a U.N.-sanctioned disarmament policy was a giant illusion from the start. It appears that the Brits were sincere in their efforts, but I keep going back to what Paul Wolfowitz said in June 2003 when it started to become obvious that Iraq had maintained no weapons of mass destruction programs or stockpiles.

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz cited bureaucratic reasons for focusing on Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, and said a “huge” result of the war was to enable Washington to withdraw its troops from Saudi Arabia.

“The truth is that for reasons that have a lot to do with the U.S. government bureaucracy, we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on which was weapons of mass destruction as the core reason,” Wolfowitz was quoted as saying in a Pentagon transcript of an interview with Vanity Fair.

The magazine’s reporter did not tape the telephone interview and provided a slightly different version of the quote in the article: “For bureaucratic reasons we settled on one issue, weapons of mass destruction, because it was the one reason everyone could agree on.”

The Chilcot Report spends a lot of time talking about the fusion of two separate concerns in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The longstanding worry about WMD and missile technology proliferation became married with a panic about the mass casualty murderous ambitions of anti-western Islamic radicals. This was understandable to a degree, but never to the degree that Dick Cheney took it with his one percent doctrine (“Even if there’s just a one percent chance of the unimaginable coming due, act as if it is a certainty.”)

Even if understandable, though, the Chilcot Report makes clear that British intelligence assessed that North Korea, Iran and Libya were much more likely to form some kind of alliance with terrorists than Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

503. Iraq’s chemical, biological and ballistic missile programmes were seen as a threat to international peace and security in the Middle East region, but Iraq was viewed as a less serious proliferation threat than other key countries of concern – Iran, Libya and North Korea – which had current nuclear programmes. Iraq’s nuclear facilities had been dismantled by the weapons inspectors. The JIC [Joint Intelligence Committee] judged that Iraq would be unable to obtain a nuclear weapon while sanctions remained effective.

504. The JIC continued to judge that co‐operation between Iraq and Al Qaida was “unlikely”, and that there was no “credible evidence of Iraqi transfers of WMD‐related technology and expertise to terrorist groups”.

505. In mid‐February 2002, in preparation for Mr Blair’s planned meeting with President Bush in early April 2002, No.10 commissioned the preparation of a paper to inform the public about the dangers of nuclear proliferation and WMD more generally in four key countries of concern, North Korea, Iran, Libya and Iraq.

506. When the preparation of this document became public knowledge, it was perceived to be intended to underpin a decision on military action against Iraq. The content and timing became a sensitive issue…

509. When he saw the draft paper on WMD countries of concern on 8 March, [Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Jack] Straw commented:
“Good, but should not Iraq be first and also have more text? The paper has to show why there is an exceptional threat from Iraq. It does not quite do this yet.”

510. On 18 March, Mr Straw decided that a paper on Iraq should be issued before one addressing other countries of concern.

511. On 22 March, Mr Straw was advised that the evidence would not convince public opinion that there was an imminent threat from Iraq. Publication was postponed.

This is all interesting, but it was, as Wolfowitz freely admitted, all in the service of settling on a bureaucratic casus belli that everyone could agree on. The actual reasons for toppling Saddam Hussein had very little to do with this heat-fevered dream of a fusion of Baathism and Wahhabi-inspired nihilism. There was no intelligence supporting such an alliance, and the threat of WMD proliferation was seen as much more substantial in other countries. Removing Hussein solved the problem (seemingly, anyway) of the increasing lack of compliance with the sanctions on Iraq. It theoretically could allow us to reestablish normal global trade with Iraq (including their oil) and put an end to a humanitarian disaster that we were taking much blame for perpetuating. And, as Wolfowitz said, it gave us a face-saving way to accede to bin-Laden’s demands that we remove our military bases from Saudi Arabia because we wouldn’t need such a heavy presence in the Gulf if we didn’t have to enforce the No-Fly Zones.

These were all reasonable rationales for wanting regime change in Iraq and for not being satisfied with the status quo containment policy, but they were hopelessly optimistic about the problems an invasion would solve and our ability to anticipate and cope with the problems that we’d be creating. The key, though, is that WMD really didn’t factor into this except in one usually unstated way. Had we ever actually given Hussein a clean bill of health and lifted the sanctions and allowed the resumption of normal global trade with Iraq, then Hussein may have used the freedom and the money to reconstitute WMD programs that could threaten his neighbors and our troops in the region. Our country was locked in to never letting that happen, with some justification, and that meant there could never be any end to our containment policy until Saddam either died or was deposed. It was either No-Fly Zones and sanctions forever, or it was regime change, and the sanctions were eroding and 9/11 proved that there was blowback for the No-Fly Zones and the heavy military footprint in the peninsula needed to sustain them.

Yet, the Chilcot Report focuses on this effort by Blair to steer everything into a disarmament policy that would have solved none of these problems as our foreign policy leaders saw them. If anything, the endgame of a successful U.N.-disarmament program would have been even less support for sanctions and even more support for letting Saddam resume ruling Iraq with a free hand. It’s tempting to say this was just the neoconservatives’ view, but that’s overstating the case. It was largely a bipartisan view, with the main difference being that the neoconservatives were just crazy enough to throw every caution to the wind and go for regime change without really explaining the actual reasons why it was being done.

Tony Blair seems to have understood the American position less well than I thought possible. What he focused on was the impossibility of his government joining a preemptive war in Iraq based on nothing but an impatience and dissatisfaction with a deteriorating status quo. So, he forced the administration to adopt the “bureaucratic” rationale for the war, and that worked for the Bush administration up to a point because they, too, needed to use the fear of an improbable fusion between Hussein and al-Qaeda to gain domestic support for their recklessness.

You may remember how Dick Cheney and the neoconservatives who supported him worked the Iraq/al-Qaeda angle from the get-go, starting mere days after the 9/11 attacks. There was the Mohammed Atta visiting an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague story that Cheney and Bill Safire kept pushing long after it had been thoroughly debunked, for example, so the faux-nexus was there from the beginning. But, at least initially, this seemed like an effort to pin 9/11 on Saddam rather than to make some kind of case that he’d hand out mustard gas to bin-Laden’s underlings.

My last point, for now, is that the Chilcot Report reiterates that the intelligence community never seriously considered the possibility that Saddam had unilaterally disarmed and was only giving the impression that he retained WMD capabilities and stockpiles in order to deter internal and external attacks.

334. On 12 October 2004, announcing the withdrawal of two lines of intelligence reporting which had contributed to the pre‐conflict judgements on mobile biological production facilities and the regime’s intentions, Mr [Jack] Straw stated that he did:

“… not accept, even with hindsight, that we were wrong to act as we did in the circumstances that we faced at the time. Even after reading all the evidence detailed by the Iraq Survey Group, it is still hard to believe that any regime could behave in so self‐destructive a manner as to pretend that it had forbidden weaponry, when in fact it had not.”

For a long time I was reluctant to credit the idea that the intelligence community was this blinkered, but it appears to be true. Yes, the policymakers pressured them and set up their own channels for intelligence gathering and stovepiped only the stuff that justified their views. But the assumption was nearly complete that Hussein would not behave the way behaved if he wasn’t hiding something. And this is what gave Bush and Blair the confidence to go to such lengths to justify the war on the basis of WMD. If they had actually cared about the WMD the way they said they did, they would have been a lot more interested in learning if it actually existed. But they didn’t care. It was all a misdirection and a lie.

I’d say that they got what they deserved, but they really haven’t. A lot of people have suffered the repercussions of their actions, but I can’t see how Bush and Blair have. Not really.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.