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Rethinking Iraq, Pt. IV

“We see now that there were no WMD; therefore the war, predicated on their existence, was/is fraudulent.”

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. As usual, to recast the point at issue into more precise language puts the matter in a rather different light: to date no stockpiles of WMD have been found. Such a state of affairs is compatible with any number of scenarios:

1.There never were – say, since '97/'98 – any stockpiled WMD.
2.Such stocks recently existed, but
a. were moved out of country before the war
b. were destroyed before/during the war
c. have been well hidden in country.

I will countenance the matter of “fraudulence” below.

But surely it's reasonable to lean towards the supposition that there never were any – especially because if Saddam had them, he had nothing to lose in using them during the war.”

However puzzling, their non-use during the war is logically compatible both with their non-existence and points 2a-2c above.

What would motivate moving, hiding, or destroying the weapons, instead of putting them to murderous effect on the battlefield? Perhaps to foil the inspections yet again, thereby averting war altogether and finally winning the relief of sanctions. Or as a matter of strategy it may have been expected that, if war should come, a negotiated settlement (as Tariq Aziz recently claimed that Saddam had envisioned) would be the more likely – and more advantageous to the Ba'athists - without the blatantly provocative act of using WMD (or at least such weapons being located en masse). Finally, there was likely a burning desire to humiliate the United States, and “vindicate” the claims of the Iraqi regime, even in defeat.

To judge the war's legitimacy with respect to the question of WMD, it's necessary to consider the notion of a WMD “program.” Whereas WMD stockpiles are comprised of actual weaponized, ready-to-use agents, a “program” connotes the infrastructure to develop, preserve, or extend a WMD capability – espec. the “knowledge base.” The terminus of a program is obviously a stock of weapons, but a program can exist and pose a “threat” without currently being in an active mode of production. The danger pertains both to the ability to “ramp up” production of weapons quickly, as well as the oft-ignored capacity not simply to pass along weapons, but to share expertise and knowledge of procurement networks.

Now, David Kay's report – despite the hype about what hasn't been found – did mention a number of ommissions and actions which show that Iraq clearly (12 years on) was in violation of UN resolution 687 (cp. paragraph 8); in context, to “disarm” can only mean to cease and desist from any WMD-related activity. In other words, Iraq had no intention to relieve itself of, at the least, its WMD program (system of activities) – which means, ultimately, of the weapons themselves, whether potential or extant. Hence the administration was correct in its broad claims that Iraq had indeed not “disarmed,” that it had no intention of doing so, and that anemic UN “inspections” would never do the trick.

Still, the administration could have done a better job of clearly distinguishing between the weapons themselves, and the infrastructure which supported their development, stressing how both, in complementary ways, posed a "grave and gathering" danger. Yet perhaps they can be forgiven for not splitting such fine hairs too often, in light of the difficulty many seemed to have following far coarser distinctions.

Let's assume that we can somehow now know for a certainty that there were not any stockpiles of WMD at any recent time. The crucial question is: “on the available pre-war evidence, was it reasonable to conclude that the stocks existed?”; alternatively: “was it reasonable to err on the assumption that they probably existed?”

If it was, then - despite their non-existence - we would be in the domain of forgivable error; no person, no organization, is infallible. Parallels readily spring to mind: a conscientious jury might reasonably find an actually innocent defendant to be guilty, based on the evidence that was available; In the field of medicine, a testicular lump will be taken as a potential sign of great danger, warranting the removal of the entire testicle for biopsy; the growth might turn out to be benign, but the cost/benefit casuistry would have been rational.

Many critics of the war, keen to convict the Bush administration of special pleading, seem to have forgotten that other persons and organizations had reached essentially the same conclusion as to the status of WMD in Iraq (though of course there would be differences over the details - viz., the extent of Iraq's malfeasance). Notably,

* UN resolutions post-687 through 1441 were predicated on the judgment that Iraq had not met its “disarmament obligations”
* President Bill Clinton strongly warned of the danger Iraq's WMD posed
* Former heads of UNSCOM Richard Butler and Rolf Ekeus had no doubt about Iraq's intentions and capacities.
* In December 1998, Anti-war favorite Scott Ritter penned an incredibly damning article – both for Iraq, and his subsequent, “deconstructed” self – as to the state of Iraq's disarmament at that time. This riposte to the “new” Ritter, by journalist David Rose, effectively critiques the view that Iraq could have had WMD in '98, yet suddenly elected to give then up after UNSCOM inspections ceased.

Add to this a point that no one can deny: If, from 1991 to 2003, the Iraqis had nothing to hide, they sure went to a lot of trouble to hide it.

In light of the preponderance of informed opinion which before the war held that Iraq had not disarmed (entailing both infrastructure and extant weapons), and in light of the fact that infrastructural elements are now coming to light, it seems to me that it is still eminently reasonable to assume that Iraq did indeed have stockpiles of WMD which have so far eluded us – either through being hidden/moved, or destroyed. In any event, nothing yet has emerged – by a longshot – to establish that the war was/is fraudulent on its own terms.

November 12, 2003 | Permalink


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Posted by: Colin MacLeod at Nov 15, 2003 12:56:38 PM