Rhetorical Weapons

Misleading the public to war


The Bush administration is no longer pretending Iraqi weapons of mass destruction will turn up any day now (perhaps in the back of an overlooked closet in one of Saddam Hussein's lesser-known palaces). Instead, it's pretending the failure to find WMDs doesn't really matter.

That claim will come as a surprise to the many Americans who supported the invasion of Iraq because their president told them Saddam had chemical and biological weapons and was on the verge of developing nuclear weapons—any of which he would not hesitate to share with terrorists bent on killing us. This premise was a crucial part of the argument for viewing the war as an act of self-defense.

Now we know better. David Kay, who until recently ran the U.S. effort to find Iraqi WMDs, says he's convinced Saddam's regime did not have large stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons prior to the U.S. invasion—that it had gotten rid of old weapons by the mid-1990s and had not made more. Kay says Iraq's nuclear weapons program, which "was never as advanced" as those in Iran and Libya, likewise was not making much progress.

Kenneth Pollack, the former National Security Council official who wrote The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq, concedes in the January/February issue of The Atlantic Monthly that "in all probability Iraq was considerably further from having a nuclear weapon than the five to seven years" estimated by intelligence analysts. He accuses the Bush administration of distorting the already exaggerated estimates of the nuclear threat, "the real linchpin" of its case for invading Iraq.

As the president's defenders are quick to point out, both Kay and Pollack still think the war was justified (although Pollack argues that it came too soon, saying "the Administration's rush to war…appears even more reckless in light of what we know today"). But both also believe the Iraqi threat was less substantial and immediate than the administration portrayed it.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan insists President Bush never said Iraq posed an "imminent" threat—just a "grave and growing" one. I suspect that distinction was lost on most people, especially since the administration repeatedly asked us to imagine Iraqi WMDs in the hands of terrorists who could strike at any moment.

In August 2002, arguing for pre-emptive action against Iraq, Vice President Dick Cheney inveighed against "dictators [who] obtain weapons of mass destruction and are prepared to share them with terrorists." Two months later, President Bush asked, "If we know Saddam Hussein has dangerous weapons today—and we do—does it make any sense for the world to wait to confront him as he grows even stronger and develops even more dangerous weapons?"

Last February, Secretary of State Colin Powell told the U.N. Security Council that Iraqi WMDs posed "real and present dangers." Sounds pretty imminent to me.

To blame the false portrayal of the Iraqi threat on bad intelligence raises the question of why administration officials were so ready to believe analyses based on out-of-date, secondhand, and increasingly unreliable evidence. It seems they were not inclined to question anything that helped build support for the war because they were already convinced invading Iraq was the right course, for reasons they chose not to emphasize in public.

Last June New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman counted four reasons for the war: the stated reason (Saddam had WMDs and might give them to terrorists for an attack on the U.S.); the moral reason (saving Iraqis and their neighbors from a brutal, murderous tyranny); the real reason (after 9/11, the U.S. had to smack a Muslim country around to show it meant business); and the right reason (defusing the anger that leads to terrorism by transforming Iraq into a model of liberal democracy).

It seems to me the stated reason for war should be the same as the real reason, so the American people can judge for themselves whether it's right and moral. Distracted by images of nuke-wielding Islamic fanatics, they never really had that opportunity.

The commentator Andrew Sullivan, another supporter of the war who still believes it was justified, nevertheless admits that, given how the U.S. exaggerated the WMD threat, "I can't see how a single ally will support us in future similar circumstances…And I think a large swathe of American public opinion will be more skeptical than ever." I hope he's right.