The War in Iraq Was the Right Mistake to Make

Lack of weapons matters not a whit


In an editorial last week, The Wall Street Journal gamely undertook to explain why Iraq's apparent lack of weapons of mass destruction matters not a whit. True, David A. Kay, who recently stepped down as America's chief weapons-hunter, announced his belief that Iraq "did not have any substantial stockpiles of banned weapons at the start of the war," as The New York Times reported. But, The Journal noted, Kay did find an illicit long-range-missile program, and Iraq could have reconstituted its weapons program at any time.

A few days later, the White House dispatched senior officials to make a similar case. Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, told CBS News that, given Saddam's record of using chemical weapons and his failure to account for the stocks he once had, "this was a very dangerous man in a very dangerous part of the world." President Bush, she concluded, "had no choice but to deal with that gathering threat."

"Gathering" threat? The one thing the Iraqi threat does not seem to have been doing in the last several years was gathering. If Kay was correct, "dormant" seems closer to the truth.

Yes, Saddam's missile program was a violation—one of many—of his commitments to the United Nations. Yes, he retained scientists who knew how to kill thousands. Yes, he is a very bad man whom everyone is well rid of. But it is useless to maintain that the apparent absence of any major stocks of biological or chemical weapons, and of a viable nuclear bomb program, is anything less than a severe embarrassment for advocates of the war. Me included.

Like many Americans, I was a gradual, and never altogether enthusiastic, convert to the war. I wondered if it would divert attention and resources from other fronts. I worried about the bloodshed and the occupation. Above all, I thought containment seemed to have worked.

In the end, I was swayed by two factors. One was France. When the issue became one of American credibility in the face of a concerted foreign campaign to take the United States down a peg or two, it became important to show that America means business where its security is concerned.

Even that, however, would not have tipped me but for the other factor. People whom I trusted—the president, the secretary of State, the British prime minister, many others—said that containment had already failed as far as chemical and biological weapons were concerned. Nukes, they said, might not be far down the road. Better to react too soon than too late.

Kay's finding, if it holds up, does not make Saddam a nicer man or his regime's record any better, but it does make objectively undeniable the fact that, at the time when America chose war, containment was working. The premise on which I supported the war was wrong.

One reply—The Journal's and Rice's—is that containment was bound to fail sooner or later. This may well be true, but it was not the basis on which the administration rested its case for war. Bush did not tell the United Nations, "As of right now, the policy of containing Saddam is succeeding, but eventually it will fail." The mantra was that Saddam had to be disarmed—meaning, of course, that he was armed.

If Americans had thought containment was working, would they have supported the war? Would Congress have authorized it? We can't know for sure, but a good guess would be no, because that was the answer in early 1998, when just this question was put squarely before Washington.

Six years ago, United Nations weapons inspectors had dismantled Iraq's nuclear program and were in hot pursuit of what they believed was a hidden chemical and biological weapons infrastructure. Saddam retaliated with an escalating campaign of harassment and obstruction. Confrontations boiled into crisis, and on January 26, 1998, 18 prominent American conservatives sent President Clinton an open letter demanding Saddam's forcible ouster. Several of the signatories later became top Bush administration officials (Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, among others).

Containment was eroding, they said, and with inspections stymied, "in the not-too-distant future we will be unable to determine with any reasonable level of confidence" whether Iraq possessed forbidden weapons. Uncertainty alone, to say nothing of actual weapons should Saddam obtain them, would destabilize the Middle East; so the United States should take all necessary steps, "including military steps," to remove Saddam from power.

The hawks were saying then, as Rice is saying now, that Saddam was too dangerous to leave in power, whether or not he happened to have weapons of mass destruction at any given time. And, indeed, everyone wanted to get rid of Saddam. But the Clinton White House—where the hawks made their pitch to National Security Adviser Samuel Berger—believed there was nowhere near enough support either at home or abroad for an invasion and occupation of Iraq. "The administration has no intention of using ground troops in Iraq," reported The Washington Post in February 1998.

Instead, the White House planned for a bombing campaign designed to weaken Saddam militarily, destroy possible weapons sites, and perhaps, with luck, stimulate domestic opposition that might topple him. (Such a campaign, Operation Desert Fox, was conducted in December of 1998.) Of equal significance, many of the hawks themselves stopped short of supporting an invasion. Instead, they had in mind such military measures as air and materiel support for an Iraqi insurgency. For all but a small handful of the fiercest, an invasion and occupation seemed unrealistic.

Now, all of that was before September 11 heightened America's sense of vulnerability. Still, the events of 1998 suggest the country's reluctance to support a full-scale war to pre-empt an eventual, but still hypothetical, failure of containment. If, a year ago, American inspectors had turned Iraq upside down, as Kay did, and found only what Kay found, would the invasion ever have happened? Unlikely.

So it is time to admit that the war was premised on a mistake. Had I known then what I know now, I would have opposed it. Next question: Does that mean the war itself was a mistake? Yes. But it was a special kind of mistake: a justified mistake.

A policeman shoots a robber who has killed in the past and who brandishes what seems to be a gun. The gun turns out to be a cellphone. The policeman expects a thorough investigation (and ought to cooperate). In the end, if he is exonerated, it is not because he made no mistake but because his mistake was justified. Reasonable people, facing uncertainty, would have thought they saw a gun.

George W. Bush and the CIA thought they saw a gun. So did French President Jacques Chirac, who last February warned of Iraq's "probable possession of weapons of mass destruction." So did Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, a former Vermont governor, who last February said, "My personal belief is that Saddam may well possess anthrax and chemical weapons. That being the case, he must be disarmed."

If reasonable people thought Saddam possessed forbidden weapons, that was because Saddam sought to give the impression that he possessed them. He may have believed he possessed them. (His fearful and corrupt scientists, Kay hypothesized, may have been running a sham weapons program.) For four years after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Iraq successfully hid its chemical weapons program. When a defector blew the whistle, weapons inspectors were stunned at the extent of Saddam's deception. The Iraqis responded not by coming clean but by redoubling their efforts to obstruct and intimidate—for example, interfering with inspectors' helicopter flights and, at one point, firing a grenade into their headquarters. No one could have failed to conclude that Saddam was hiding the truth.

The truth he hid, however, was not his weapons but his weakness. Or perhaps his minions were hiding his weakness from him. In either case, his power and prestige depended upon his fearsome reputation at home and his defiant posture abroad. He was contained but could not afford to let anyone know it, for fear of being invaded or overthrown. So he waved what looked like a gun and got shot.

Many people now demand to know why American intelligence was so badly fooled. The subject certainly merits investigating. Questions should be asked. Chins should be stroked. But even without an investigation, we know the most important reason we were fooled: Saddam Hussein did everything in his power to fool us, and by the time he stopped trying to fool us—_if_ he stopped trying—it was too late for anyone ever to believe him.

The war was based on lies. Not Bush's or the CIA's; Saddam Hussein's.