How they won the war, but lost the plot

The coalition brought the WMD debacle upon itself.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

When you think about it, there is something peculiar about the fact that Bush and Blair continue to be dogged by controversy over Iraq.

They won the war in Iraq, decisively; there may be sporadic terror attacks like the car bombing south of Baghdad today, but coalition forces swiftly crushed Saddam’s regime and face no serious threat from any serious guerrilla movement. And they won the argument about the war in Iraq, largely. Yet still the WMD thing dominates American and British politics – both the Bush and Blair governments have launched inquiries to find out why their pre-war intelligence was so wide off the mark; Bush gave a rare TV interview over the weekend to defend the war; and Blair officials admit they have hit ‘very serious choppy waters’ (1).

Of course there were glaring disparities between what coalition leaders said about Iraq before the war (‘the dictator of Iraq has got weapons of mass destruction…he’s a dangerous, dangerous man with dangerous, dangerous weapons’) and what has been found there since (not much). Yet there is no public outcry and no big demonstrations calling on Bush and Blair to account for this disparity. Rather, the WMD crisis is entirely internally generated, in spats between political leaders, military officials and intelligence services. The weapons fallout expresses the American and British elite’s own uncertainty about Gulf War II, and their inability to turn it to any political advantage at home.

The public on both sides of the Atlantic appear largely indifferent to the missing WMD. According to an ICM poll conducted for the News of the World over the weekend, 72 per cent of the British public are ‘sick of the subject’ (2). Earlier in February, a Populus poll for the London Times found that ‘two thirds of voters now believed that the war with Iraq was justified because of the removal of Saddam’. In the same week, a poll for the Washington Post found that six in 10 Americans believed the USA ‘made the right decision in going to war’, and 63 per cent thought the war ‘would be justified even if there are no WMD’ (3).

Nor was it the anti-war movement that forced Bush and Blair into choppy waters over WMD. The ‘whitewash protest’ after Lord Hutton delivered his findings on Britain’s pre-war intelligence on 28 January 2004, where protesters chucked white paint over the steel gates at Downing Street, captured what the anti-war movement has become. Having thrown their lot in with the Hutton Inquiry – in the hope that Hutton would give Blair a bloody nose over Iraq and provide the anti-war movement with, in the words of Lindsey German of the Stop the War Coalition, the ‘scent of victory’ (4) – British anti-war protesters were reduced to having a tantrum when his lordship failed to deliver. Anti-war activists fed off the WMD crisis, rather than instigating it.

In America and Britain, WMD have become the big issue as a result of internal ruptures rather than external pressure. In Britain opposition politicians and anti-war commentators obsess over the weapons, but it was intelligence officials who first exposed the government’s shortcomings. During the war, the Independent reported that there had been a ‘stream of leaks from anonymous security sources suggesting that Blair’s aides doctored intelligence reports to exaggerate the threat posed by Saddam’s weapons’ (5). Britain’s big fallout over Iraq has involved a law lord (Hutton) investigating the suicide of a Ministry of Defence scientist (David Kelly) who gave interviews to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) that cast doubt on the government’s claims over Iraq. This looks more like Decline and Fall through leaking and namecalling, rather than a public debate about war.

In America, the missing WMD has only more recently become a sore point – following the resignation of David Kay as head of the Iraq Survey Group. Kay, a hardcore Republican who supported President Bush’s policy of regime change in Iraq, now says Saddam’s regime probably destroyed its deadly weapons in the early 1990s, and ‘We were all wrong’. The controversy has been stoked by Paul O’Neill, Bush’s former treasury secretary who was sacked in December 2003. Throughout January 2004, O’Neill told reporters that Bush had been plotting the Iraq war from the ‘start of his administration in 2000’, and the WMD claims were only attached later. One Republican representative captured the internal, decadent nature of the WMD crisis when he said: ‘Not since Julius Caesar have I seen such a blatant stab in the back – et tu, Mr O’Neill?’ (6)

The WMD debacle is a crisis of the coalition’s own making. The failure of the Iraq Survey Group to find any deadly weapons – despite its 1,272 members of staff spending a budget of $300million searching over 2,000 potential weapons holds – may have been the catalyst for the crisis, but it has exposed deeper divisions and a more profound uncertainty among American and British officials about their role and mission in the world. When secretary of state Colin Powell was asked by the Washington Post on 1 February 2004 whether he would have backed the war on Iraq if he had known there were no stockpiles of deadly weapons, he replied: ‘I don’t know. I don’t know. Because it was the stockpile that presented the final little piece that made [Iraq] more of a real and present danger.’ (7)

With little sense of what they stand for and why, of what principles they are apparently defending on the international stage, coalition leaders are easily jolted by missing ‘little pieces’ to their story about Iraq. Indeed, it was this broader absence of mission that led Bush and Blair to draw lines in the sand over Saddam’s alleged WMD in the first place. For uncertain coalition leaders, the WMD became a metaphor for evil, against which they could define their inherent goodness; according to Bush, the coalition’s stand against Saddam and his WMD showed up the ‘clearest of divides – between those who seek order and those who spread chaos’ (8).

It doesn’t say much for the coalition when it can only define its international mission in negative terms, against wicked weapons (which don’t exist) ‘over there’. And having defined everything they are for and against in reference to the WMD, it is not surprising that things fell apart for coalition officials when said WMD failed to turn up. It is this same lack of coherence on the part of the coalition that allows terror attacks in postwar Iraq to have repercussions beyond their initial impact, to have a disorienting effect on coalition leaders and their representatives and troops on the ground in Iraq.

The threat posed by Saddam’s weapons to the civilised world was greatly overstated. The full impact of the weapons-as-metaphor on an isolated and divided coalition is now becoming apparent.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) PM in peril after Hutton says key ally, Observer, 8 February 2004

(2) Where are you on the WMD: shameless or pointless?, Tim Hames, The Times (London), 8 February 2004

(3) Almost everything wrong, The Hill, 4 February 2004

(4) ‘The scent of victory’, Lindsey German, Morning Star, 27 January 2004

(5) See Weapons of self-destruction, by Brendan O’Neill

(6) Bush ‘plotted Iraq war from start’, BBC News, 12 January 2004

(7) PowelI rows back on doubts over invasion, Guardian, 4 February 2004

(8) See Poseurs and parasites at the UN, by Brendan O’Neill

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Topics Politics


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