Blogs > Liberty and Power > WMD Found.... Not to Be WMD

May 17, 2004 4:13 pm

WMD Found.... Not to Be WMD

WMD found: Sarin gas causes mass destruction in Baghdad! Well, no, actually. A roadside bomb rigged with a sarin gas shell went off, and two U.S. soldiers were treated for"minor exposure." No casualties.

Warhawk triumphalism aside, this development hurts, rather than helps, the case for war. It underscores the point that, in the main,"WMD" is a misnomer as applied to chem/bio. Moreover, it shows that, if you are worried about so-called WMD, it would have been much smarter to leave them in the hands of the dictator who had repeatedly, exhaustively, despite every opportunity, demonstrated that he had no intention of using them on Americans. Like I've been saying.

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Carrie-Ann Biondi - 9/25/2006


I just thought this was an opportune time to remind you of your rather misplaced sarcasm on this issue a few years back:

It wasn't Laurie Mylroie who "told me differently," alas, but The Washington Post.

Incidentally, I'm strictly speaking no longer allowed to post on HNN, having been removed by HNN's Wise Powers that Be. But never mind: where there's a will (and someone else's account), there's a way, so here I am.

Irfan Khawaja (not Carrie-Ann Biondi)

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

He declined to use WMD in both cases you cite on the *battlefield*. That's because WMD are not particularly useful on the battlefield against a dynamic military force like US troops--especially if the troops have protective gear. Saddam knew that from the Iran war; that's why he used CW primarily against civilians. Perhaps I should have made explicit that I wasn't referring to battlefield use; I was referring to terrorism. The disarmament rationale for war was not that he might use WMD on the battlefield; it was that he might give his WMD to terrorists.

There is no evidence of his "declining" to use them on that score, because there is no evidence of what he was thinking--except that he *did* have an interest in terrorism, some of it aimed at US targets. And as I've insisted, we need to *exclude* Iraqi collaboration in the anthrax attacks to speak intelligently about any of this.

As for Saddam as rational actor, the counterexamples are obvious and numerous:

1) The invasion of Iran was a gigantic strategic mistake which could easily have led to his overthrow.
2) The invasion of Kuwait was also a strategic mistake, and for all Saddam knew, it could have led to his overthrow if the Allies had pressed on after the "turkey shoot".
3) The destruction of the Kuwaiti oilfields after the 1991 war was a colossally risky venture, no different from the use of WMD; he was threatened with massive retaliation if he attacked the oilfields (the threatened retaliatory response for either attacking the oilfields or using WMD were the same), but he did it anyway.
4) In 1994, he launched the so-called "October Surprise", a feigned second invasion of Kuwait. It was an act of insanity, and to this day, nobody outside of his regime knows why he did it (maybe his current interrogators know, but my point is, it wasn't known before then).
5) If he didn't have WMD, he could have complied on Dec. 7, 2002 with UN Resolution 1441, but didn't. That failure led to his overthrow, the decimation of his regime, and the killing of his sons, who were his heirs. (Of course, one possible reason he didn't comply was that he was afraid that some of his WMD programs or stocks would be found.) Not exactly a paradigm of rational behavior.

As for how "hard" he tried to get out of the wars, if he'd wanted to get out of the 1990-91 war, he would have left Kuwait after the initiation of sanctions. He didn't.

As for the 2003-4 war, if he'd tried so hard to get out of this war, why did it take until late January for UNMOVIC to make any discoveries about his illegal weapons? He could have declared them in December, but didn't. And why didn't he declare his leftover chemical weapons? He never declared them at all--we just found them the hard way. Why didn't he declare his missile capacities right off the bat? He didn't. Why did he eject UNSCOM in 1998--the only means of proving compliance and lifting suspicion? More obviously, why didn't he cooperate to ensure compliance with UN Resolution 687 at *any* time between 1991 and 2002? He spent more than a decade evading compliance measures that he could have complied with in less than one year. Just a handful of obvious counterexamples to the "Saddam as rational actor" claim.

Incidentally, if there was "business" to finish, you might as well say that it was the Iraq Liberation Act (passed under Clinton) or the Carter Doctrine, which prohibits any one aggressive power from dominating the Arabian peninsula. I don't think any of those would be good reasons for war, but evidentially, they are no better or worse for explaining why we did than the "finishing Dad's business" hypothesis you've floated.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Sorry, the preceding note (11:59 am) was a response to Keith Halderman.

To Gene Healy:

Yes, you've given precisely the reasons why deterrence made no strategic sense vis-a-vis Saddam. Nothing in what you say (either the blog or the linked article) gives any information about *intentions*. But without knowledge of intentions, you cannot deter. If knowledge of intentions is impossible, deterrence is impossible. Since you admit that knowledge of intentions was impossible, you're forced to admit that deterrence was impossible.

I didn't arbitrarily set up the standard of what deterrence requires. To deter someone is to set up a counter-force to what you have reason to think your adversary *will* do--not only to what they *have* done in the past, but to their *future strategic/tactical aims*. A list of the actions they have so far done and not done is a far cry from an account of their future aims, especially for someone as unpredictable and irrational as Saddam.

Re anthrax: One possible hypothesis for the anthrax attacks of 2001 is that it was Iraqi in provenance. It's not clear how that hypothesis will be borne out, but it can't be dismissed. Since your claim is that Iraqi WMD are NO threat to us, you bear the burden of showing us that the anthrax *weren't* Iraqi. You are the one making the categorical claim here (no threat to us from Iraqi WMD). That categorical claim involves a heavier burden of proof than you're discharging.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

To Gene:

Re Stalin and Mao: true, if we're talking about nuclear deterrence. But Saddam wasn't Stalin or Mao, and in his case, we're not talking about nuclear deterrence. Saddam is a different person, with a different personality, different motivations, different circumstances. I never said that deterrence didn't work. I said it didn't work vis-a-vis Iraq.

And you've more or less obliged me with the answer that it isn't "provable"--an understatement if ever there was one. It's not merely that deterrence was unprovable in this case. It's that we had no clue what was going on and no way of finding out. Iraq was an intelligence black hole. Not true of either the USSR or China.

Re anthrax: Yes, I know it's the Ames strain. The trouble is, that doesn't rule out an Iraqi provenance. Edward Jay Epstein (not to be confused with Laurie Mylroie) has offered a series of cogent rebuttals to the FBI's theory, and knowing that the anthrax was Ames strain does absolutely nothing to upset his conclusions.'re spread throughout his archive.

The point is not that Epstein is self-evidently right--the point is that it's not clear who's right. Just to repeat: if your claim is that we have *nothing* to fear from Iraqi WMD, then a link from the Wa Po about Ames strain isn't going to do the trick as a rebuttal. It's more complicated than that. The jury is out on how the anthrax attacks took place, and so long as it is, and a terrorist connection is a live possibility, your claim is unjustified.

Incidentally, I should add that I saw the FBI's anthrax investigation up close here in Trenton (and western NJ--by up close I mean on my block and in my office corridor--and I was not all that impressed with how it was handled. (I hate to brag, but I was temporarily an anthrax suspect myself.) I wish the FBI all the luck in the world, but I'm not about to accept their theory as the last word on this.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

To Keith:

On Iran: So, to avert a threat from the Shia, Saddam initiated a war he almost lost, bankrupting his country--which required him to invade Kuwait to recoup his losses. I wouldn't call that a resounding success. If hooking up with the US was his brilliant calculation, well considering where that got him, I wouldn't call that much of a success either.

What you've described is a chain of events whereby a supposedly rational actor careened from crisis to crisis, each bigger than the last--and the last of which eventually put him in a rat hole and then in prison. Even the juvenile delinquents from my hometown were more rational than that.

As for the Glaspie transcript, if you read it carefully, you'll note that amidst everything else he says, Saddam also issues a veiled threat to use terrorism against Americans. As for the rest, I grant it, but don't see the relevance. Saddam's inability to know what Bush would do is precisely the sort of miscalculation I was referring to. You'd have to be an idiot to think that Glaspie was saying, "Yeah, go ahead, take all of Kuwait, including the treasury!" A rational actor would have discerned her actual message: "The Kuwaitis are slant drilling, and you're our boy. Take what's yours but leave the rest, and we won't make a big deal of it."

But the fact is, the slant drilling wasn't why Saddam was invading Kuwait. He was invading because his idiot decision to invade Iran bankrupted him, and he needed a way out. Rational being that he was, he hit upon the idea of invading Kuwait as his economic salvation. Within weeks, he was under economic sanctions. Great strategy!

I don't see any material difference between a strategic mistake and mistake in judging character. If a character judgment is important to your strategy, then a mistake in character judgment is a strategic mistake.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Would you endorse taking Saddam at face value as a general principle, or one applicable only to WMD?

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

You made reference to Saddam's "intentions." How do you make inferences about his intentions without getting access to his mental state? And how would you do that without relying on things he said? But then--why would you rely on anything he said? He was a liar.

So the dilemma is this: either you claim to know something about his intentions, in which case you have to rely on the testimony of a liar; or you don't rely on things he said, in which case you can't have access to his mental states or his intentions. I was assuming that you were taking the first option. The second option doesn't really make sense and wasn't what you said.

As for "repeatedly declining to use..." you're begging the question. You haven't established that he "repeatedly declined." You're just converting "I don't think he did use them against us" into "I know he repeatedly declined." They're hardly equivalent claims, and I don't see that you've produced any evidence about his "declining" to do anything. To decline is to have the options in front of you, consider them, and choose against one. But since it's not clear what options he had, it's hardly clear he "declined" this or that option.

The claim is wrong another way, too: suppose he wouldn't have used WMD "against an adversary capable of retaliating." The problem is, the adversary would have to know the provenance of the attack to be able to retaliate. If he could hide the provenance, then even if you were right about his intentions, you'd be wrong about what to expect from them.

The claim is wrong yet a third way: you're assuming that Saddam is (was) a rational actor. But he was a serial miscalculator, as they say. (If he was a rational actor, he'd be in power today and his sons would be alive--a rational actor would have cut a deal a long time ago.) So it's not clear what Saddam "would" do--there is no stable basis for prediction. The evidence suggests that he was insanely unpredictable, and that anyone who claimed to know what Saddam "would" do was likely to be proven wrong within short order.

To make the claim you're making, you'd need two things you don't have: (1) evidence that conclusively excludes the possibility that the anthrax attacks of 2001 were not Iraqi in origin, and (2) evidence that demonstrates the fact that Saddam had the means and opportunity to use WMD against us, but "declined." You haven't provided evidence of either thing because neither sort of evidence exists, at least not in open source material. So the disarmament rationale for the war remains untouched.

Keith Halderman - 5/19/2004

If invading Iran united the country around him in the face of a challenge by the Shia Mullahs, which I argue it did because Hussein could not have fought that much larger country to a stand still with just the Sunnis behind him, then it was a coherent move.

I still read the Glaspie transcript as telling Hussein that what took place between him and Kuwait was none of our business. You may be right about there being no real difference between a stategic and a character judgement. But making a mistake does not make somone an irrational dangerous lunatic bent on suicide, which Hussein would have to have been in order to attack the U.S. post 9-11.

Keith Halderman - 5/18/2004

After the fall of the Shah, Iran became a relgious theocracy and therefore a grave threat to a secular Baathist state with a majority Shia population. If you take into account Hussein overriding goal of personal and political survival the invasion of Iran was a resounding success. He certainly won the approval and material support of the United States.

In 1991 the Kuwaitis were slant drilling, in effect, stealing Iraqi oil. A member of the royal family became involved in a plot to assassinate Hussein. Also, the case that Kuwait is in reality merely a province of Iraq is not entirely without merit. He then asked one of his best buddies the U.S. if they had any objections to his taking care of the problem. I have personaly seen the tape where our ambassador April Glaspie tells him no. The following is taken from the transcript of that tape: U.S. Ambassador Glaspie - We have no opinion on your Arab - Arab conflicts, such as your dispute with Kuwait. Secretary (of State James) Baker has directed me to emphasize the instruction, first given to Iraq in the 1960's, that the Kuwait issue is not associated with America. (Saddam smiles) Hussein's mistake was in not realizing that George Bush was just as big a backstabbing jerk as he was. His was not a strategic mistake or irrational action in 1991 it was a mistake in character judgement.

As for the doctrine that says no one aggressive power should be able to dominate the Arabian Peninsula it does not apply to Iraq after 1991 because it no longer the capability to do so.

Gene Healy - 5/18/2004

Given that Mao and Stalin won the gold and silver, respectively, in the 20th century's genocidal olympics--and yet apparently did not decide to launch a direct attack on the United States, there might be something to be said for deterrence after all. Especially when the alternative, preventive war, is far from costless, as we're reminded every day in Iraq.

Perhaps you mean deterrence isn't provable, and it certainly isn't by the standard you set up. But lacking psychic powers, we mortals are forced to fall back on rational assumptions. That nuclear annihilation is viewed by most human beings (including totalitarian dictators) as something to be avoided seems a rational assumption.

Incidentally, the strain of anthrax used in the 2001 attacks was identified pretty early on as the Ames strain, used in US laboratories, but not known to be found in Iraq. ( But maybe Laurie Myrolie will tell you different.

Gene Healy - 5/18/2004

Irfan, I discuss his repeated history of declining to use WMD (against Israel after Osirak, against Israel in '91; against US troops in '91) in the article I linked to. The standard you set up, in which I actually have to have--what?--direct access to the mental process of the dictator I'm claiming was deterred?--would make the argument for deterrence impossible for anyone without psychic powers. And why in the world would the burden of proof for the anthrax attacks of 2001 be on me to prove they weren't Iraqi?

Keith Halderman - 5/18/2004

Hussein had weapons of mass destruction in 1991 and he declined use them against us. In two thousand and three he did not use weapons of mass destruction because either he was not lying and he did not have them or he declined to use them. Also Hussein behaved rationally and tried very hard to get out of both of those wars but the first George Bush had to prove that he was not a wimp and the second George Bush took advantage of 9-11 to finish his father's business.

Gene Healy - 5/17/2004

I don't understand your question. My point is that his behavior--repeatedly declining to use WMD against any adversary (U.S., Israel) capable of massive retaliation--suggests that the WMD rationale for war was, to put it charitably, without merit.