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The WMD Dodge


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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