WMD: ‘Wasn’t My Decision’

As the coalition finds no 'shiny, pointy things' in Iraq, everyone is dodging responsibility for the decision to invade.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

So who’s responsible for the claim that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had weapons so deadly that only all-out war could neuter their threat to mankind?

Don’t blame Blair, who says ‘the issue vis-à-vis my integrity is: did we receive the intelligence and was it properly relayed to people? And I believe that we did’. Don’t blame Bush – according to one report, it is the ‘intelligence community [that] owes the president an explanation, rather than the president owing the American people’. Don’t blame Colin Powell, who says all of his comments about Iraq’s WMD were based on ‘what our intelligence community believed was credible’. And don’t blame the weapons inspectors – according to one of them, the WMD debacle is the fault of those pesky looting Iraqis, who ‘destroyed evidence that would have shed light on whether Iraq possessed such weapons….’ (1)

Bart Simpson’s all-purpose get-out clause – ‘I didn’t do it, no one saw me do it, you can’t prove anything!’ – seems to have become the rallying cry of the British and American elites over Iraq. According to the Iraq Survey Group, charged with finding the elusive WMD, coalition forces have found ‘no weapons yet’ (2). Now, as the head of the Survey Group resigns claiming that the deadly WMD probably do not exist, and Lord Hutton prepares to deliver his verdict on the Blair government’s prewar intelligence and treatment of David Kelly, the British scientist and former weapons inspector who committed suicide, coalition officials are doing some serious blameshifting over who made the decision to go to war and why. You don’t need a 1,400-strong, £300million Survey Group to spot the moral cowardice over Iraq.

The intelligence over Iraq was clearly stuff and nonsense – suggesting that the British and American elites and their intelligence services are increasingly isolated from the world around them. For all the prewar talk of Saddam’s ‘weapons of mass murder’ (Bush) and the missing ‘6,500 chemical bombs containing 1,000 tons of chemical agents’ (Hans Blix), which posed a ‘real and present threat’ to the world (Blair), coalition forces have found nothing – not a single ‘shiny, pointy thing that [we] would call a weapon’, in the words of the Iraq Survey Group (3).

This massive disparity between the prewar claims and the postwar reality is itself a reflection of Western foreign policy today – where engagement on the ground has given way to surveillance and attack from overhead, and where listening to ‘chatter’ between enemy forces takes precedence over human intelligence and infiltrating states and groups to find out what they’re up to.

So everyone got it wrong about Iraq – from David Kay, the pro-war head of the Iraq Survey Group, to David Kelly, the late British scientist who has been hailed by some in the anti-war camp for apparently criticising Britain’s claim that Saddam could launch his weapons within 45 minutes. Even Kay – a dyed-in-the-wool Republican who has been involved in CIA provocations against Iraq and who was a vocal supporter of President Bush’s policy of regime change, who no doubt went weapons-hunting in Iraq convinced that he would uncover Saddam’s wicked arsenal – has now resigned, returning home to admit that Saddam probably stopped making deadly weapons in the early 1990s (4). Kelly’s beliefs about Iraq were no better; last week BBC Panorama showed an interview in which Kelly claimed that Saddam could launch his weapons within ‘days or weeks’ (5). What weapons? Kelly’s claims were as nonsensical as the Blairites’ 45 minutes thing.

A foreign policy that speculates and spies on enemies from afar has given rise to unintelligent intelligence, a profound ignorance about what is going on in the world. Why did Bush and Blair bet everything on such intelligence, continually talking up Saddam’s alleged weapons programmes as a justification for going to war? For many anti-war commentators, the American and British governments cynically concocted lies about Saddam’s weapons, or at least skewed the intelligence to make Saddam’s state appear more menacing than it was, in order to justify their self-serving war (for oil). In reality, it was an unholy marriage of moral myopia and defensiveness about the war that led Bush and Blair to obsess over the WMD.

Rather than inventing intelligence or telling outright lies, Bush and Blair saw what they wanted to see in reports about Iraq – where Saddam’s state was wicked and it was up to good America and Britain to deal with his threat. In the era of humanitarianism, where war has to care as well as kill, Britain and America have a moral orientation towards crusades against despots in the third world. Humanitarian intervention is dependent on drawing simple lines between Good and Evil on the international stage, when questions of morality and purpose are far more blurred on the domestic front. For Bush and Blair, the reports produced by British and American intelligence agencies and UN weapons inspectors, about Saddam training his weaponry on the West and his own people, offered an irresistible confirmation of this black-and-white worldview.

As a result of this moral myopia, Britain and America were not going to let anything like facts (or the absence of facts) get in the way of a good crusade; indeed, Blair continues to proclaim his belief that Saddam had WMD and that they might yet be found – highlighting his near-religious belief that Saddam was an evil to be crushed, and that the hunt for WMD was akin to an old-style quest for a holy grail.

At the same time, a sense of defensiveness on the part of the coalition forced it to focus narrowly on Saddam’s WMD, rather than talking up his state’s human rights abuses. Desperate not to appear as gung-ho, go-it-alone regime-changers, Bush and Blair constantly namechecked the authority of the United Nations to justify their war on Iraq – specifically the United Nations’ resolutions on Iraq’s WMD and the earlier reports of UN weapons inspectors. As Blair said in February 2003, a month before the war started: ‘We act…according to the UN mandate on weapons of mass destruction.’ (6) In his speech to the UN in September 2002, Bush said Saddam’s alleged weapons-building was a ‘threat to the authority of the United Nations’ (7). The isolated leaders of the coalition against Iraq borrowed heavily from the moral authority of UN judgements – all of which focus on Iraq’s ‘illegal’ stockpile of weapons (which don’t exist).

Far from ‘just, you know, believing the intelligence’, it was the moral blinkeredness of Blair, Bush and the rest that made them talk up WMD, clutching on to the weapons thing as the one seemingly uncontroversial case for war. Yet now they blame intelligence officials for leading them astray – while intelligence officials blame Saddam for ‘exaggerating’ his own capabilities in order to warn off opponents in the Middle East, or the Iraqi masses for destroying what evidence might have existed about WMD during their postwar looting sessions (though surely Iraqis could not have destroyed all of those nuclear weapons and chemical agents too).

Or coalition officials merely shift the goalposts. In his State of the Union address earlier this month, Bush said the war had exposed some of Saddam’s ‘weapons of mass destruction-related programme activities’ (8). Colin Powell says the war was not only about finding WMD, but about answering questions about WMD: ‘We were not only saying we thought they had weapons of mass destruction, but we had questions that needed to be answered. Was it 100 tons, 500 tons or zeros tons? Was it so many litres of anthrax, 10 times that amount, or nothing?’ (9) A war that was justified in the name of disarming a ruthless regime of its deadly weapons is now presented as a war for answers about whether Saddam’s weapons-related programme activities were creating or thinking about creating hundreds of tons of anthrax or none. You’ve heard of war being politics by other means – now it seems war can be auditing by other means.

If coalition officials are being disingenuous in their claims about WMD, then their critics are not much better. Following the resignation of David Kay, former UN weapons inspectors have rushed in to say ‘we told you so’, claiming that they knew all along that Iraq did not have deadly WMD. Yet weapons inspectors have done much to sustain suspicion about Iraq over the past 10 years, lending authority to Bush and Blair’s war against WMD last year. Indeed, Hans Blix, who now claims that Iraq probably destroyed its weapons 10 years ago, raised further suspicions about Saddam’s WMD at the end of January 2003, six weeks before the war started. In the words of one report, he ‘stated unequivocally that Saddam Hussein had failed to disarm, greatly strengthening the American and British case for war’ (10).

What a spectacle. Bush and Blair, the intelligence services and former UN weapons inspectors all said that Iraq had WMD, when it did not. The end result of their current shameless blameshifting is that no one – from the top of the coalition to the coalition’s critics – is willing to take responsibility for what has been done to Iraq.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

Inspecting the truth, by Brendan O’Neill

(1) ‘Ex-Iraq arms hunter blames data for failure’, Richard Simon, Los Angeles Times, 26 January 2004

(2) Revelation casts doubt on Iraq find, Julian Borger, Guardian, 7 October 2003

(3) Revelation casts doubt on Iraq find, Julian Borger, Guardian, 7 October 2003

(4) ‘Ex-Iraq arms hunter blames data for failure’, Richard Simon, Los Angeles Times, 26 January 2004

(5) Kelly believed Iraq weapons posed threat, Reuters, 21 January 2004

(6) See Blair speech – key quotes, BBC News, 15 February 2003

(7) President’s remarks at the United Nations General Assembly, George W Bush, White House, September 2002

(8) State of the Union Address, George W Bush, White House, January 2004

(9) White House retreats on claim of Iraqi weapons, MSNBC, 26 January 2004

(10) See Inspecting the truth, by Brendan O’Neill

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Topics Politics


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