First things first: Payne and Farley are right to note that not finding WMD had a tangible upside. Not only did it relieve anxiety over Saddam’s destructive arsenal – and its potential use on our soldiers, or elsewhere – but it also, as Payne argued, offered evidence that policies of containment through inspections/sanctions could be “wildly successful.” That’s good to know. Further, and perhaps relatedly, the discovery of this colossal blunder undercut the likelihood of launching subsequent disastrous wars of transformation in the Muslim world. This is an unequivocal positive, despite the crestfallen Lawrence Kaplan.
But there was a down side – and not exclusively for the Republican Party. The failure to find WMD in Iraq has greatly tarnished our credibility on all matters of intelligence. This has hurt our ability to muster robust support for certain other non-proliferation strategies – as well as a host of other efforts in the GWOT. Credibility in intelligence matters is a valuable asset squandered at one’s peril (leaving aside questions of culpability in squandering such assets).
Further, and perhaps more importantly, the failure to find WMD led to an avalanche of cynicism, suspicion and mistrust about our actual motives for invading Iraq in the first place. This ‘revelation,’ as it were, has fueled the fires of anti-Americanism which has strengthened the hand of al-Qaeda and others that would commit violence in the name of Islam, while at the same time weakening our position in Iraq itself, and the Muslim world more generally speaking. The mission to win-over moderate Muslims, and lessen the intensity of anger within the hostile factions, suffered a significant setback as this story unfolded to our detriment.
The cause of the loss of faith in US intelligence (and the loss of faith in the idea of the United States as a progressive force in world politics) is not the fact that weapons of mass destruction were absent in Iraq, but rather that US intelligence failed disastrously and that US motives in invading Iraq were, in fact, questionable. US intelligence services lost credibility because it made claims that could not be supported by the evidence at hand. In other words, people stopped believing US intelligence claims because the methods through which those claims were made were deeply flawed. In short, US credibility has come into question because, in fact, US claims were incredible. This is not a situation in which all the signs pointed to “YES!” and the WMD just happened not to turn up; we know now that the intelligence was politicized, the evidence was tenuous, and that the information we had could not justify the arguments the Bush administration made.
Similarly, the fact that US motives are in question is not because of the accidental failure to find WMD but, rather, because US motives in Iraq are incoherent and questionable at best. Even the supporters of the conflict cannot articulate a unified compelling narrative for why the war was fought. This was true even prior to the failure to discover WMD. People suspect our motives because our motives are suspicious. The failure to find WMD had only a minimal impact on the size of the coalition, a much smaller effect indeed than the development of the insurgency and the inability of the US to prevent chaos in Iraq.
Finally, I’m singularly uncompelled by the argument that “the failure to find WMD has made our mission in Iraq, and beyond, more problematic. We have incurred real costs as a result, both on the ground in Iraq and throughout the rest of the world, in the form of increased resistance, a greater reluctance to cooperate with our lead and greater doubt about our intentions as the world’s lone hegemon.” I don’t believe that a single insurgent has picked up a weapon because of the absence of WMD, or that their absence has motivated the withdrawal of a single coalition partner. In part, this is because I view the WMD claims (even if they had been true) as an exceptionally tendentious justification for the war to anyone other than the domestic US audience. How many partners joined the Coalition because of Colin Powell’s speech, as opposed to the number of liberal hawks that joined the cause? The only “real world cost” that I can perceive from the failure to find WMD in Iraq is that it might be more difficult to convince the rest of the world that Iran and North Korea have active nuclear programs. However, given the fact that the major players all seem to concur that Iran is pursuing a nuclear program, and that North Korea’s actions have rendered that question moot, I’d say that those are minimal costs, indeed.