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The WMD Dodge

[ 119 ] March 21, 2013 |

As I noted yesterday, several liberal hawks have argued that while they were wrong about the central justification offered for the Iraq War — the alleged threat posed by Saddam’s WMDs — they were wrong only in retrospect. For example, Leon Wieseltier:

Those of us who supported the Iraq war ten years ago because we believed that Saddam Hussein—who had already used chemical weapons—possessed weapons of mass destruction must forever ponder the fact that he did not possess them. That we joined, or helped to establish, a near-universal consensus does not exonerate us from the unpleasant truth that President Bush took the United States into a major war on fraudulent grounds. Consensus, like dissent, requires evidence; there is no truth in numbers.

Jon Chait:

We now know that Iraq no longer had any unconventional weapons program. Over the years, this has come to be seen as retrospectively obvious. It was not. While the Bush administration deliberately twisted and overhyped evidence of weapons of mass destruction, the legitimate evidence did show, albeit less dramatically than the administration said, that Iraq had active unconventional weapons programs. This was the judgment of fellow Western intelligence agencies. It was also a logical inference from Saddam Hussein’s refusal to fully comply with U.N. demands even after threatened with invasion. (That Iraq refused full compliance was documented at the time by Hans Blix, Butler’s successor, but this has largely been brushed aside in the retrospective critique.)

The absence of weapons of mass destruction is the most crucial element of my argument that I got wrong, though the part I have the least regret for getting wrong, as it was very hard to know at the time.

There is a grain of truth here, in the sense that it was reasonable at the time to believe that Hussein’s possession of WMDs was being exaggerated rather than entirely invented. I certainly can’t claim to have had the prescience of Davies, although after the manifest feebleness of Powell’s UN presentation I was in the “some derisory but not immaterial capacity” category. Believing that the Iraqi possessed some “unconventional weapons” was not something that only Bush administration officials believed.

The problem, though, is that this point is manifestly insufficient as a justification for war, even if we leave aside Davies’s point that trusting known liars to carry out the project was foolish and even if we overlook the fact that Bush wouldn’t let the weapons inspectors finish the job and refuse to draw the obvious inference. Let’s say that Hussein turned out to have something that could be called “unconventional weapons.” So what? 1)Such “unconventional weapons” posed no threat whatsoever to American civilians (even the least apologetic liberal hawks aren’t claiming that Hussein had any ties to anti-American terrorist groups or any independent capacity for deploying weapons abroad). And, even more importantly, 2)the whole “WMD” argument was in itself a massive con. WMD is an umbrella term that conflates the genuinely unique threat of nuclear weapons with many more chemical and biological weapons that don’t have any more destructive capacity than weapons that can be assembled with materials you can purchase at any Home Depot. (Chemical weapons have a particular resonance of horror because of the Holocaust, but it’s worth remembering that most of Hitler’s — and pretty much all of Stalin’s — genocidal killing was accomplished by shooting and starvation, not by gas chambers.) Iraqi possession of most “unconventional weapons,” even if it had turned out to be real, was not a remotely adequate justification for war even before we start considering the human and financial costs. Evidence that Iraq was close to possessing nuclear weapons might be a different story, but that argument was transparently farcical at the time. Hence the need to use the “WMD” term to imply that mustard gas and hydrogen bombs are weapons of comparable destructive capacity.

You can argue that at was at least plausible at the time of the Iraq War that Hussein had some possession of “WMDs.”  But you can’t plausibly argue, even based on what was known at the time, that the possession of such weapons justified an invasion even if you were unjustifiably optimistic about the people carrying it out.

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  1. Malaclypse says:

    Do you think the horror of chemical weapons is the Holocaust, and not World War One? The phrase “poison gas” makes me think of Dulce et decorum est quicker than I think of Auschwitz.

    • Linnaeus says:

      That’s how I tend to look at it; furthermore, the Geneva Protocol banning their use (well, first use, at least) was signed in 1925.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      Fair enough, yes; my assumption is that the Holocaust was a fresher horror but that might be wrong.

      • wjts says:

        I also seem to remember that the Aum Shinrikyo sarin attack and the Anthrax Panic loomed pretty large in discussions of Iraq’s WMD/chemical weapons.

        • wengler says:

          Both of which killed less people than the first hour of the Iraq war.

          • AuRevoirGopher says:

            The first minute probably.

          • sibusisodan says:

            Oh my. I hadn’t thought of it like that.

            Here in the UK the controversy was over the ‘sexed-up’ dossier, claiming that Iraq had the capability to deliver WMDs anywhere within the Persian Gulf within 45 minutes. I think it’s the delivery-systems capability which got people (who should have known better) nervous, rather than his possession of any WMDs. That’s what gave the argument over ‘imminence’ its bite.

            Turns out (from memory, so possibly fallible) that the particular nugget of info which gave rise to the 45 minute claim was based on someone’s old PhD thesis, and had since been discredited.

            But then, they were looking for evidence to back up a decision already taken on other grounds, and this fit the bill nicely.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

      I was about to write this, too.

    • calling all toasters says:

      I’m pretty sure Saddam had stockpiles of dreadnoughts and caissons that could be used against us.

    • J. Otto Pohl says:

      Yes, most of the executions by gas by the Nazis were CO poisoning generated by diesel engines in enclosed spaces at Treblinka, Sobibor, and Belzec. Diesel engines were not covered in the 1925 Geneva Protocol. I don’t think Zyklon B used at Auschwitz for executions was banned then either since it was a pesticide not weapon used for killing people before WWII.

  2. lawguy says:

    And yet living in East Jesus Southeastern Ohio I knew there were no WMDs. I guess that makes me a premature anti-war advocate.

    Of course, the thing I’m most irritated about is that the judge in town who bet me that a bottle of the best Scotch that there were WMDs has never paid up.

    Things need to be put in the proper perspective.

  3. rea says:

    Saddam had used chemical weapons against both the Iranians and domestic enemies in the 80s, but he hadn’t used them in ’91, there wasn’t any real evidence that he made or acquired new ones, and it is far from clear that by 2002, any he still had left over from the 80s could still be counted on to work. So, there was a strong element of bullshit even in the claims about him having chemical weapons

    • DrDick says:

      As I recall, there were already substantial suggestions that any chemical weapons he had were likely highly degraded.

    • Brutusettu says:

      It is logical to assume to that Mr Chait had his warblinders on and couldn’t notice how logical it would be to make archnemesis Iran think that Saddam maybe possibly still did have chemical weapons.

  4. c u n d gulag says:

    The reason so many people in our government and the MSM thought they knew that Saddam Hussein had WMD’s, IS THAT WE GAVE THEM TO HIM!!!

    They didn’t think he could have used-up all of his stores against the Iranians, and his own people, and not replenished them: either on his own, or with the help of some other country – besides OURS, I mean.

    Imus had the best line back then, when he said, “Oh, they’ll find WMD’s all right – if they have to Fed Ex them there themselves.”*

    And the morons in the Bush mis-administration didn’t even think of that!

    *Yes, I used to listen to Imus.
    A lot of times I turned him off, when he got too bad. But a lot of times, he was funny, and got politicians to say some really crazy and stupid stuff.
    But I turned him off immediately and completely that morning when I heard that “Nappy-headed ‘Ho’s” line.
    He’s back on FOX’s financial channel now, I hear.

    • Uncle Ebeneezer says:

      A similar point from the first Iraq war.

    • brandon says:

      To this day I am stunned that the Bush administration did not plant chemical weapons in Iraq once things started to look like they were coming up empty. It’s just boggling. If you’re going to be the world’s dirty cop, be the world’s dirty cop!

      I’m not even sure it would have been a disadvantageous move, in a Machiavellian sense:

      - everyone believes you; those who don’t become truthers, basically
      - you legitimize the enterprise
      - with the added legitimacy, you expedite the reconstruction of the country you’ve invaded

      But then, the whole Iraq war was about our foreign policy establishment’s “Oh we wanna be BAAAD”/”Oh but we’re so GOOD” psychodrama, so, here we are I guess.

      • Snarki, child of Loki says:

        I think you’re assuming a level of competence that is not in evidence.

        If BushCo had attempted to plant chemical weapons in Iraq, they probably would have goofed and left on the FEDEX label, not ground off the “Made in USA” stamps, used plumbing connections with non-metric threads, and left on the “Happy Birthday, Dick Cheney” tag and ribbon.

        Not that our wonderful media cheerleaders would have noticed, but someone like Hans Blix might have.

        And really, how much blowback did BushCo get from not finding WMDs?

  5. Peter Hovde says:

    Additionally, the argument that Saddam was a madman who could not be deterred had no foundation-Yes, he used chemical weapons on his own people, who were in no position to effectively retaliate. That meant he was evil, not insane or suicidal. Nor was there the slightest reason to think he would hand over nerve gas or anthrax to a non-state organization.

    • Anonymous says:

      Further, Americans’ quaintness as to “his own people” betrays a few assumptions that rarely match up with reality. Saddam’s “own people” were Sunnis, in fact a particular group thereof, a minority ruling over Shiites and Kurds. Violence against that majority was precisely how he maintained his rule, which as you say was evil, but scarcely crazy, unless every emperor is crazy by definition.

      • wengler says:

        This point is always overblown. The ruling structure of the ruling party of Iraq was very pan-Arab, full of Muslims, secularists and even Christians.

        The Kurds were always the out-group, but they are very much the same in Turkey, and I never saw any American governmental official give a shit about Turkey fighting a dirty war against their Kurds or jail people for speaking the Kurdish language.

        • J. Otto Pohl says:

          True, the Baathists were secular nationalists. Azziz was a Christian. The Kurds have also been repressed in Iran, Syria, and the USSR. There are a number of Kurdish communities in Kyrgyzstan that are descended from people deported there by Stalin.

        • Dilan Esper says:

          Right. This was one of my points in the other thread.

          It is really easy to justify imperialist war if all you need a to do is pick a group of people being oppressed and claim we are fighting for them. And liberal hawks who love humanitarian intervention fall for this all the time.

          Any time you overthrow a government or drive a military out of territory, there’s probably going to be some group thay suffers less oppression as a result. That doesn’t make offensive, imperialistic aggression justified.

      • J. Otto Pohl says:

        His own people were Sunni Arabs of the Tikrit clan. The Kurds are also Sunni even though their language is an Indo-European one related to Persian. The majority of Persians are 12ver Shia.

    • rea says:

      Also, if he could not be deterrred, and had chemical weapons, why didn’t he use them in Gulf War I?

    • News Nag says:

      Let’s remember that Rumsfeld visited Hussein as the Ambassador from the Republic of Banned Chemical Weapons. The U.S. at the time wanted Hussein to use chemical weapons against the Iranians. “His own people” is a bogus distracting strawman”.

  6. Bruce Baugh says:

    I’m going to split a hair, but I think it’s an important one.

    You can argue that at was at least plausible at the time of the Iraq War that Hussein had some possession of “WMDs.”

    I don’t think this is so. It wasn’t unreasonable to believe that Hussein might well have significant chemical weapon stockpiles at the beginning of 2002. But things kept happening. Hussein let inspectors in, and cooperated them. By (depending how persuasive any particular datum seemed) the end of 2002 or early in 2003, it was clear that US assertions were all false. Every claim made in enough detail that inspectors could test it was bogus.

    So there was that ongoing fact, and also the way the US government responded to it – by simply disregarding it and proceeding as if they’d gotten confirmation. Somewhere in there, plausibility went out for a smoke brea and never returned.

    • Scott P. says:

      Well, as someone who was fairly intelligent and who attempted to stay informed by the conventional means (newspapers, the occasional news magazine), it wasn’t ever made particularly clear by the media what the inspectors had done, what they had or hadn’t found, and what conclusions we ought to draw from that.

      The general impression was that the inspectors had been allowed to see some facilities, but not all, that the facilities they were inspecting had been hand-picked by the Iraqis, so therefore without any weapons, and that there was strong resistance to unannounced inspections of any facility in the country.

      So based on that I figured they probably had something, but as Scott says, nothing that would justify war.

      • dougR says:

        Not arguing with you about the uselessness of our “media” at the time, which stenographed the story just as you say, but will point out that our courageous press spent a lot of horsepower marginalizing El-Baradei and the IAEI, who found nothing, and making fun of Hans Blix’s accent (in which he reported no WMD could be found) and staying mum about David Albright, the pro-war, pro-Bush functionary who was sent to find the WMD and came up short, to his chagrin, and HE had carte blanche, if I remember correctly, to cover the entire country, and follow every CIA “lead,” — and let’s not forget the media’s gleefully committing pile-on character assassination against Scott Ritter in order to marginalize HIM too.

        None of which was reported on the evening newscasts, or if it was, was always “balanced” by some administration scare-monger. But all that contrarian info was out there, and the rest of the world, unencumbered by our media wizards, knew it. Messrs. Chait, Wieseltier and the rest didn’t care to look at it too closely, but it was there.

      • News Nag says:

        I remember much more detailed information and reports than you’re describing, and some of your memory is wrong, such as having the sites to be inspected cherrypicked by Iraqis.

      • wengler says:

        That was true in 1998 but not 2002-3. The inspections regime was given quite a bit of access. IIRC they found some missiles that weren’t in compliance with treaty regulations in that they might be able to go further than their restricted limit. That was it.

        • That was true in 1998 but not 2002-3. The inspections regime was given quite a bit of access.

          That’s the great irony; Bush managed to get the UN back in, and they were just about to blow the lid off Saddam’s deterrent bluff-throgh-ambiguity. If Bush and Cheney hadn’t been determined to invade, this would have been remembered as a great foreign policy accomplishment, and the tuff gais at National Review would still be explaining to us that Clinton was so weak, and look at what a Real Man can accomplish.

      • Barry says:

        “Well, as someone who was fairly intelligent and who attempted to stay informed by the conventional means (newspapers, the occasional news magazine), it wasn’t ever made particularly clear by the media what the inspectors had done, what they had or hadn’t found, and what conclusions we ought to draw from that. ”

        OTOH, the administration had every incentive and means to hype whatever was found.

      • Col Bat Guano says:

        If the inspectors had found anything that validated the administrations case, anything at all, we would have heard about it on the front page of the New York Times courtesy of Judith Miller. That there was nothing told me we were being lied to.

    • McKingford says:

      Yes, this. I keep coming back to the fact that hundreds of weapons inspectors were busy going about their jobs and had to stop and evacuate so the invasion could proceed.

      If you had initially bought the “WMD” case for war, the presence of the weapons inspectors weakened the case with each passing day: both the argument that there *were* unconventional weapons, and that there was an imminent threat became less apparent with each day the inspectors went about their job and found nothing. The fact that the US was so hellbent on invading despite the presence of inspectors told you all you needed to know that the administrations WMD pretense was simply that – a pretense, and that war was inevitable, regardless of the outcome of the inspections. Indeed, the evacuation of the inspectors told me that the administration was concerned that their pretense would disappear, as a thorough inspection was putting the lie to it.

      To put it another way, I might have some sympathy for the apologists of the WMD argument as a *threat* to wage war in the absence of inspections. But there is simply no rational or morally acceptable argument that could have justified proceeding with an invasion as of March 19, 2003.

    • elm says:

      Exactly. At the beginning of the run-up to the war, I thought Saddam had WMD and that sooner or later we would have to deal with him and them. I also believed he wasn’t an imminent threat and I didn’t trust Bush’s motives or competence, so I opposed the war but not as vehemently as many of my friends did.

      By the time the war started, I knew he didn’t have any significant WMD capability given Powell’s presentation, the inspectors’ reports, etc. etc.

      I think we often mistake the “Iraq War” or at least “the run-up to the Iraq War” as a single moment in time, rather than an unfolding process.

    • greg byshenk says:

      This.

      By the time of Powell’s presentation to the UN, it was -not- plausible to believe that Iraq had any ongoing WMD programs, nor any existing WMDs of any significance (apart from the likes of the handful of ancient and degraded chemical shells that ended up being discovered).

      Living in the Netherlands, I had easy access to better news coverage than the average American, but it was already plain, before the invasion, that -all- of the supposed “evidence” and information the US government claimed to have was bogus. The inspectors had checked all of the information provided by the “informants”, and just -none- of it checked out. There was nothing.

      Certainly it remained -possible- that there was some program so secret and so well-hidden that it could not be discovered. But based the access the inspectors were given, it was no longer ‘plausible’.

  7. McKingford says:

    This tracks very closely with my sentiments at the time. My concern was the conflation of nuclear and chemical weapons under the rubric of WMD. It was clear the administration was hyping a potential nuclear threat; I didn’t think it would be unsurprising that they might find caches of chemical weapons (but as Scott says, “who cares?”), but that the administration would then turn this into a post hoc justification for the invasion.

    But the much bigger problem with guys like Chait and Wieseltier who think it was only the failure (realizable only in retrospect) to find “WMDs”, however defined, is that it *still* didn’t justify the attack AT THE TIME. How on earth could you justify going to *war*, on the pretense of an imminent threat, when hundreds of weapons inspectors were running around the country – and, I should add, FINDING NOTHING? I mean, to me the most perverse thing about this argument was that they had to allow time for these people to evacuate the country so they could get on with the invasion.

    To put it another way, these contemporary apologists have explain why Iraq’s supposed threat was so imminent that it could not await the complete inspection of the country by hundreds of qualified weapons experts. And that’s when their argument fell into absurdity, we didn’t even need the war’s outcome to tell us it was folly.

    • Captain Bringdown says:

      [T]hese contemporary apologists have explain why Iraq’s supposed threat was so imminent that it could not await the complete inspection of the country by hundreds of qualified weapons experts. And that’s when their argument fell into absurdity, we didn’t even need the war’s outcome to tell us it was folly.

      Precisely.

    • Jon H says:

      “could not await the complete inspection of the country by hundreds of qualified weapons experts”

      Also there’s the fact that Blix’s remaining complaints were about insufficiently documented missing WMD-related materials. In other words, it was gone, but Iraq didn’t have records of what happened to it.

      If one assumes that most such materials are missing because of poor record-keeping (as one might well find related to a long-since-ended and perhaps bombed weapons program), or because they were, without authorization, sold off for scrap by someone seeking to pad their meager sanctions-era pay, how exactly could Iraq prove to the satisfaction of Blair and Bush that they did not in fact have any meaningful weapons programs?

      It seems pretty clear that there really was no standard of evidence that would have been sufficient to avert the war.

      Maybe that ought to have been established up front by the UN and IAEA.

  8. owlbear1 says:

    The complete lack of surprise and the absence of any re-evaluation of their decisions gives away the fact the Bush Administration knew Saddam didn’t have any WMDs before they launched the invasion.

    The shifting rationales and constantly changing goals condemns them.

  9. Boots Day says:

    My sentiment at the time was that I had no way of knowing whether Iraq had WMDs, although it was clear that there was no proof they did, or even any solid evidence. But what was screamingly obvious was that the Bush administration’s attempts to gin up connections between Saddam and al-Qaeda – it’s not much talked about these days, but that was offered up as a reason on par with the WMDs back then – were wholly false.

    No matter how you felt about the WMD evidence, it should have been clear to everyone that the Bushies were perfectly willing to lie about their reasons for going to war. Even those who retrospectively claim they had reason to believe in the WMDs need to square that with the fact that the Bush administration was very obviously not to be trusted.

    • Exactly. They kept getting caught in lies. Not errors, not weak intelligence, but intentional efforts to deceive and to cover their tracks.

      You don’t do that if you have a good-faith case.

    • VCarlson says:

      That was what caught my attention at the time. My info was coming from what I could read in my local paper, and what I was seeing was changing justifications brought out to get buy-in. This meant they were what are technically known as “excuses,” and they were selling a war of choice. They should have been facing charges at the ICC.

  10. News Nag says:

    Chait and the dissembling blowhards will never be able to admit to themselves that they willingly gave up their integrity to get intentionally get caught up in the disgusting waves of revenge bloodlust that were still sweeping the country after 9/11 and that were still a strong swift current underlying civic dynamics. They also may be too narcissistic and just plain cowardly to ever admit it to themselves. In that sense, they too fall well within the hazy parameters of all internet traditions.

    • Timb says:

      Actually, Chait addresses this point. I found his apology well-considered and written. His later attack on Charlie Pierce annoyed me to no end, but I think Chait has learned an important lesson. His reasoning about Lybia is dead on

    • Drawing a stick figure and throwing darts at it may feel good, but it doesn’t do a whole lot to advance our understanding of what went wrong.

      There were a lot of people who did support the war out of tribalist blood-lust after 9/11; Chait was not among them. He found that drive repugnant, but supported the war in spite of it.

      The reasons the “liberal hawks” supported the war were distinct from the reasons the neocons and plain old meatheads did so. Those reasons are worth understanding.

    • Barry says:

      I keep using the analogy of the war as a lynching – ‘they’ had killed some of us, so ‘they’ had to be taught a lesson.

      And once you’ve gone to the other side of the railroad tracks with shotguns, ropes and torches, well – names don’t matter, just kill a bunch of ‘them’.

  11. howard says:

    i wish i could put my finger on exactly what it is that i find so offensive about wieseltier’s prose style: i think it’s the sense that comes through with every word that he wants you to believe he is a man of deep gravitas, and yet so many of his political thoughts are asinine, and the tension drives me up a wall. (there’s a similar quality in robert bork’s prose.)

  12. Patrick says:

    I’ve actually wondered about the terminology change to “WMD”. When I was a teenage wargaming geek in the ’90s I seem to remember it being phrased as “NBC” (Nuclear, Biological and Chemical) capabilities, or protections systems (filters etc) for tanks. I feel like it was only around 2000 or so that WMD really started popping up everywhere, which coincidentally conflates chemical weapons with nuclear or super-smallpox.

    Can anyone a bit older who paid attention to defense affairs tell me if this something real or just half-remembered pieces I’m confusing with the larger Iraq II sales pitch?

    • wengler says:

      NBC is an acronym applied to prevention efforts and specialized training to contain those weapons.

      WMD is a PR term designed to invoke the utmost amount of terror in order to get people to empty out their wallets and kill indiscriminately.

      If two out of the three weapons in ‘weapons of mass destruction’ don’t actually destroy anything, the clue is there that someone is lying to you.

  13. lige says:

    I remember thinking all along the WMD thing was just a transparently false justification for war – I can’t believe anyone could have believed otherwise. It was the Bush administration they would lie about anything. What I could never understand was why they wanted to invade Iraq in the first place.

  14. Janus says:

    What few have mentioned during anniversary reflection was the more significant contemporary pressures of policy at the time. Bush 41 established the no-fly zones to contain the backlash at the failed Shia and Kurdish revolts. They and the sanctions were so effective that the WMD assertion was actually a pretty hard sell particularly to “old-Europe” NATO allies. The northern no-fly worked because Turkey was on board and the southern because of Kuwait. The pressure on the policy was the increasingly dire appeal of the left over the humanitarian toll particularly shartages pharmaceuticals and food. Then there was Boutros Boutros-Ghali and his family and the food-for-oil scandal. It must have seemed that the only alternative to unending embargo was invasion. There are two perspectives about the WMD revelation. Defiance to the West is good politics most places and WMD mumbley-peg with Iran is just a variation of MAD policy in the cold war. The other take is that the only person more surprised than Bush that there was no WMD was Sadam.

    • lige says:

      Humanitarianism is the one motivation you can’t ascribe to the Bush administration. So once you rule that out what’s left?

    • Cody says:

      Least the Kurds seem to be doing alright…

      Except the whole almost-starting-a-war-with-Turkey every week thing. It’s interesting how autonomous they always tried to be, and now mostly are. If only they could completely break from Iraq like they should have long ago.

    • It must have seemed that the only alternative to unending embargo was invasion.

      When Bush first came into office, Powell tried to reform the sanctions. Remember “smart sanctions?” This initiative might have borne fruit, if the Cheney-Rumsefeld crowd hadn’t cut his legs out from under him at the first opportunity (a pattern repeated with North Korea).

      There were options other than war to address this problem. The Bushies wanted war.

  15. Peter Hovde says:

    And assuming there were stashes of poison gas and anthrax squirreled away in various locations in Iraq-on what theory was an invasion of the country, with the accompanying breakdown of the regime, supposed to reduce the probability that such materials would fall into the hands of non-deterable non-state actors? Highly implausible that invading forces could secure them in time.

    • Even more highly implausible when the invasion plan doesn’t include any meaningful preparations for finding and securing them, which is yet another tell that the administration was bullshitting on the topic.

      • Barry says:

        I asked a friend (who supported and still supports the war, and who still uses BS arguments) what he’d have felt like if he were standing in a now-empty bunker where a couple of hundred nerve gas shells were stored, and saw nothing but graffiti spray-painted on the wall ‘Osama thanks George Bush for this gift’.

        That made an impression on him.

        And imagine what hundreds (thousands) of IED’s with a mixture of HE and nerve gas would have been like, both for our troops and for the Iraqi people.

  16. witless chum says:

    I admit I didn’t really consider the idea that there was nothing there. I wasn’t stupid enough to think it was worth going to war with someone who was probably on our side or at least neutral with regard to Al Qaeda over. But, tt was a big country, I figured and Saddam was a dictator of most of it so he could hide plenty of chemical and bioweapons.

    The thing I didn’t get at the time was that invading Iraq would be the single best way to be sure that Saddam did whatever the worst he could do was. I didn’t think that was anything apocalyptic, just a few chemical tipped ballistic missiles falling on Tel Aviv and Kuwait city, as well as gassing the units massing at the border, with artillery shells and rockets. Tom Clancy didn’t like to write about poison gas, though, so I didn’t have a very good sense of it, or bioweapons’ capabilities.

    In hindsight, it suggests that Bush and co. at least understood that Iraq didn’t have anything they could meaningfully use against the invading military units, or they might have thought twice about the whole foolishness. The idea was probably really more like Iraq’s an easy target for our grand neocon strategery to begin in.

  17. Tracy Lightcap says:

    One minor quibble and it is only that. Bad as it was, I don’t think you can call the Stalinist Terror genocidal. True, some ethnic minorities in the SU (Poles and Germans especially) were targeted. But the reason for that was not to wipe them out as a people. It was instead to put the fear of the state (God wasn’t in the equation) in them and scare them off from cooperation – and some were cooperating – with foreign agents in the SU. That, of course, meant many innocent lives were taken, but by no means all. Further, the Terror was aimed at a lot of other targets as well: the informal sector in the cities, former and present opponents of Stalin and his posse, “wreckers”, the remaining old “intelligensia” were all given their fair share of abuse.

    The Holocaust, however, was genocidal: it was aimed directly and systematically at eliminating European Jewry and came damn close to doing it. It also targeted gypsies and homosexuals, of course, but with similar aims: to solve problems of “racial health” by wiping these folks off the face of the Earth. This is a different animal altogether.

    Now, lest somebody go all “apologist for Stalin!” on me, rest assured that I think the SU, especially in the ’30s was one of the worst tyrannies in human history. But, however evil, it wasn’t genocidal.

    • Malaclypse says:

      Now, lest somebody go all “apologist for Stalin!” on me, rest assured that I think the SU, especially in the ’30s was one of the worst tyrannies in human history. But, however evil, it wasn’t genocidal.

      What is local time in Ghana right now?

    • sibusisodan says:

      One minor quibble and it is only that.

      Note to self: if making a minor quibble involves typing the following sentence, don’t make the quibble.

      That, of course, meant many innocent lives were taken, but by no means all.

      Dear goodness.

      Rejoice, Kamenev! Be of good cheer, Zinoviev! Don’t worry, millions of falsely-accused-not-really-kulaks-at-all! Turns out some of you actually were right-deviationists and class traitors. Phew! Haven’t you all heard the line about eggs and omelettes?

      • Tracy Lightcap says:

        You are simply refusing to understand me.

        There’s a difference between going out to systematically eliminate an entire ethnic group and coming damn close to succeeding and what the Soviets called “prophylactic justice”. The main difference was that there was no interest in eliminating the targeted groups, just in scaring the bejesus out of them and, perhaps, sweeping up a few real enemies in the process. This is completely different from systematically hunting down and killing all members of an ethnic group in the cause of “racial health”. The casualty lists alone will tell you the difference. For that goto sovietinfo.tripod.com, where all the relevant studies on the toll of the ’30s in the SU are helpfully collected.

        • J. Otto Pohl says:

          There is a difference between the two events, but you are wrong about the reasons behind the national operations. See my post below and go read the article by James Morrison I cite. You might also check out the works of Nicolas Werth, Roginsky and Okhotin (who write specifically about the German operation), and Petrov and Guriov (who write on the Polish Operation).

        • sibusisodan says:

          You are simply refusing to understand me.

          No, I understand you. It’s just that you made your point so clumsily it completely overshadowed your quibble.

    • rea says:

      We can parse the maning of “genocide,” but once the death toll gets up in the millions, the distinction loses much importance.

      • Tracy Lightcap says:

        Well … yes, if you don’t really care about useful distinctions, you’re right.

        But thinking about it in these terms does, in fact, lose a useful distinction. By your gloss, we would have to consider Tamerlane’s destruction of Baghdad, the Roman conquest of Dacia, the Terror, and the Holocaust as all being the same because they killed a lot of people. But, of course, they aren’t. The motives and context of each was quite different, despite the loss of life. If you want to get the history of tyranny straight, you have to make these kinds of distinctions. Doing so doesn’t mean you don’t identify these episodes as evils caused by tyrants or that you absolve the tyrants. It means you understand them and you can, if you are lucky, find ways to stop them in the future.

    • J. Otto Pohl says:

      Legally the definition of genocide does not require wiping out an entire group. Go look at the 1948 UN Treaty on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. Killing members of a group with the intent to destroy a group in part meets the definition.

      The National Operations of 37-38 had very little to do with frightening diaspora nationalities into cooperating. They were already almost all loyal Soviet citizens. It had even less to do with getting at actual real spies. They unearthed almost no actual spies. See James Morrison, “The Polish Terror: Spy Mania and Ethnic Cleansing in the Great Terror,” Europe-Asia Studies , vol. 56, no. 5 (July 2004), pp. 751-766. They had to do with the racist paranoia of Stalin and Yezhov that certain ethnic groups were by virtue of their ancestry inherently disloyal to the regime. Thus these nationalities were disproportionately and arbitrarily targeted for arrest, kangaroo trial, and execution. But, almost all of them were completely innocent of the charges. As Morrison notes real spies found the Soviet sweep through the diaspora communities relatively easy to avoid. To date there have not surfaced any German archival documents that would prove that the Stalinist allegation that large numbers of ethnic Germans in the USSR were acting as spies and saboteurs for the Nazis. In 1964, the Soviet government itself publicly admitted that the charges were false and completely without basis.

      • Tracy Lightcap says:

        Actually, Morrison – and thanks for the reference, I had all the others – proves my point. The suspicions of Stalin and Yezhov of the ethnic populations were, as near as we can tell, pretty baseless, but there were foreign agents operating in the SU. Given that, it didn’t take much to convince the NKVD and, hence, Stalin. Further, while the death toll was substantial, it was not as if the NKVD was tracking down and arresting every Pole or German in the SU then shipping them to camps where all of them would be systematically murdered. I don’t see any evidence of such motivation behind the ethnic part of the Terror. While Stalin didn’t have much use for Poles (and they weren’t the only ones), this was, as the articles show, largely due to his mistrust of foreign nationals in general, not the kind of psychopathic ravings you got from Hitler and his confederates about the Jews.

        Let me put it this another way. If the national operations had been motivated by the same kind of animus that motivated the Holocaust, there would never have been a quota system for arrests and executions at all, much less the need for troikas to try the accused. Order 00485 would have called for the arrest of every Pole in the SU and for killing every single one of them in as efficient a way as possible. What did happen was a horrible crime, but I think the evidence we have indicates that it wasn’t the same as the Holocaust and it didn’t have the same motivations.

        • J. Otto Pohl says:

          Nobody is claiming that the National Operations were the same as the Holocaust. Only that they targeted specific nationalities for disproportionate arrest and execution during the Great Terror because of ethnic prejudice not the real existence of spies. The most hard hit groups were Poles, Germans, Latvians, Estonians, and Finns. The people arrested and shot from these communities were almost all Soviet citizens. Most whose families had been there many generations. The Germans had been in the Russian Empire/USSR since 1764. Germany did not exist until 1871. The Soviet government mistook ancestry for political loyalty just as the US did regarding Japanese Americans during WWII.

          In 1941, the Soviet government did round up the vast majority of the ethnic German population and ship them to confined internal exile in Kazakhstan and Siberia. Only those saved by the Germans in most western part of the USSR and those already east of the Urals avoided deportation. But, most of the first group were forcibly repatriated to the USSR in 1945-46 and those in Central Asia were placed under special settlement restrictions at the same time. There were almost no exceptions made for Communist Party members or Red Army soldiers, even those with medals and orders. In 1942-43 the vast majority of the able adult population of ethnic Germans were mobilized for forced labor. Over half of them were sent to GULag camps to perform this labor service under conditions almost identical to prisoners. In total about fifth of the population perished as a result.

          See

          eurasiahistory.com/2013-2/

          Under the current understanding of genocide as defined by the UN Treaty both the National Operations and war time Deportations qualify despite their differences with the Holocaust. The Armenian and Rwandan Genocides also differ from the Holocaust. I suppose if you wish to redefine genocide to only include the attempts to immediately and directly kill all members of a racialized group then you could exclude the Soviet cases. But, you would also end up excluding a lot of other cases as well such as the US deportation of the Navajos during to Bosque Redondo during the Civil War.

          • Tracy Lightcap says:

            Yes, I know about the UN definitions and, obviously, I think they are wrong.

            The main problem comes with the differences between ethnic cleansing, genocide, and state terror. These are different, as different as a true genocide where there is a declared intention to wipe out a particular ethnic group – so Rwanda would qualify, as would Armenia – and the national operations. Those killed a lot of people for no good reason, but grouping them with what happened in Rwanda simply confuses the picture.

            I understand why the UN did this; they seem to think they can shame people out of genocidal furies. IMHO, they don’t have a snowball’s chance in Hell of doing so. The cure doesn’t rest with international condemnation. It rests with understanding why such events take place and adapting policy to fit the crime. I don’t think clouding the descriptive categories will help that one whit.

            And that’s my last word. I doubt we can convince one another about this; our readings of the literature and our views on the subject are too different. Besides, I have work to do.

          • sibusisodan says:

            That was very well argued, and most informative. Thankyou.

  18. John says:

    In fairness to Chait (I’m not all that interested in being fair to Wieseltier), he sort of acknowledges this. His discussion of WMDs is in the context of his argument that a war with Iraq was legally justified on the basis of Saddam’s refusal to carry out the 1991 truce terms.

    But, he goes on to say,

    I really focused nearly all my attention to the legitimacy of the war, and almost none to its advisability. Indeed, I essentially mistook one for the other: In my mind, establishing that the United States had a moral right to enforce the truce terms of the Gulf War closed the case.

  19. brad says:

    I honestly never saw cause to accept a single word any executive level Bush official uttered when it came to why we HAD to invade.
    For one, Iraq was an obsession for the Bushies going back to the election. That they were now using the trauma of 9/11 to push an unbalanced public into a hasty invasion, after having dawdled in Afghanistan long enough for all the real targets to have gone underground, was more than just deeply offensive, it set off every alarm bell I had.

    For the MSM to have been so credulous to the Admin’s claims isn’t an indictment of their ability to parse nuanced claims and evidence in the case of WMD, but of their entire reasoning process and how they understood the political world we lived in.

    • brad says:

      gah, I meant for the *liberal hawks in the MSM…

      It comes down to Broderism, I think.

    • wjts says:

      Iraq was an obsession for some of them well before the election. The Project for a New American Century crowd (including those who ended up working in the Bush Administration – Abrams, Wolfowitz, Bolton, etc.) were calling for military action against Iraq in the mid/late 90s. Back in ’98, PNAC super genius Bill Kristol wrote approvingly of a scheme cooked up by fellow PNAC super genius “to establish a ‘liberated zone’ in southern Iraq that would provide a safe haven where opponents of Saddam could rally and organize a credible alternative to the present regime…. The liberated zone would have to be protected by U.S. military might, both from the air and, if necessary, on the ground.”

      And yet in 2003 the opponents of the Iraq War were the ones who got called delusional fantasists.

  20. J.W. Hamner says:

    Yeah, a logical non-nuclear WMD argument would have to hinge on protecting the Kurds or Shiites from mustard gas or whatever. I definitely recall the argument being made at the time that whatever Saddam may have is no threat to Americans… which these guys (and I like Chait) completely ignored. I suppose you could make a very bad case that they could threaten Israel, but it’s not exactly clear how since we still had enforced no-fly zones at the time… so how exactly would Saddam launch a bushel of Scuds with chemical warheads? And why would he sign his own death warrant like that? That seems to often be the flaw with these hypotheticals… they hinge on world leaders being irrational madmen.

  21. wengler says:

    What gets me about all these 10 year semi- or non-apologies is that these people had no fucking clue what the outcome of invading Iraq would be. It’s one thing to say ‘I think we should invade Iraq and kill or capture the Iraqi government’ and quite another to determine what comes next. They had the mindset of assassins.

    In the realm of magical thinking, the actual outcome was very bad, but if you were using realistic measures, Iraq today is a very midrange projected estimate: a corrupt, sectarian-based security state with continuing low-intensity warfare as far as the eye can see. Which is why people that still value evidence as a part of a rational decisionmaking process didn’t support it.

    • rea says:

      Oh, worse than that. After Gulf War I, the Bush I administration, including some of the very same people later in charge of the Bush II adminstration, concluded that removing Saddam from power could be done but was a bad idea, because the consequences were so messy and unpredictable (except that they were likely to require a long, costly commitment by the US and its allies). The second time around, there was a bizarre insistance that we not plan for the aftermath, as if they were expecting the Second Coming at the end of the war, or something.

    • Janus says:

      Your midrange estimate is far better than I and many others expected. Corrupt sectarian security state describes about 70% of of the globe. Slapdash 19th century British cartography and/or Versailles have made the international security bed that defined the last and rest of this century. It seems that every nation has civil war brewing just under the surface. I was sure that Iraq was going for full-fledged civil war just as soon as the referees left the arena. Could happen yet, I suppose.

  22. Dave says:

    Not to mention the logic of, “Hey, they have nukes and they’ll use them on us. We should invade them and thus give them every reason to use their nukes, which we totally think they would.”. If the results from such stupidity weren’t so tragic I’d laugh and endlessly berate those making that argument.

  23. Chait’s UN arguments – that the US had the right to enforce the peace deal that ended the 1991 war – is all well and good, but it still doesn’t get us to a justification for invasion and regime change. We certainly didn’t have to eliminate the Iraqi state and occupy the country in order to compel the return of weapons inspectors, but it was the full-on invasion and regime change war that Chait supported.

  24. herr doktor bimler says:

    That we joined, or helped to establish, a near-universal consensus does not exonerate us from the unpleasant truth

    1. One is exonerated from a crime, not from ‘the unpleasant truth’. Who the feck wrote this?

    2. There is a difference between ‘joining’ a consensus and ‘helping to establish’ it — the latter implies things that dissenting voices were silenced — and confounding the two is a bit cheeky.

    3. Is it really “a near-universal consensus” when the impression of unanimity is only achieved by blocking one’s ears to all disagreement and chanting “Nyah nyah CAN’T HEAR YOU”? By ignoring or ridiculing all the countries with access to the same intelligence as the US, who concluded that the purported Iraqi threat was bollocks?

  25. Bernard says:

    it really is fascinating to watch all the “excuses” for why people so willing bought the obvious lies. ignorance is not a very good excuse, but it is much better than the choice to “whitewash” your bad decision.

    with all the BS and the lies coming from Bush and Co. and their behavior at undermining every legal and moral sense of rationality. the Faith Based movement, the inclusion of Right wing evangelism in the Gov.

    gosh the total destruction of the society from top to bottom, or maybe the right word is “perversion” by Bush and Co., i find it incredulous to believe anything those kind did.

    starting out with the defacto “coup” by the Supremes appointing Bush, the invasion of Iraq for OIL was just another step into the dark side.

    and here we have people still trying to excuse their lack of reasoning. with all the facts and outright lies glaring us straight in the face, how many more Friedman Units do we have to put up. these Faith Based Relativists will hardly ever admit they lied. some things are simple and some thing aren’t.

    gosh, it does get tiring to have to put up with this BS, continually. if you want to stay in Nevernever land, by all means, enjoy. Just don’t try to say you’re not still pretending.

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